Escaping Fight-or-Flight: Three Tricks for Sidestepping Writer’s Block

Note from Jaym:

I met Marcus over Hunan food at an SF In SF dinner for the VanderMeers. We hit it off immediately. He writes children’s books that cause uproars and fill a hole in the industry, and I find that wonderful.

If you’re a writer, and you’re anything like me, then… god help you.

‘God help you,’ because this means that the one activity you value more than all others, the single human endeavor the lack of which you bemoan during all OTHER activities, is simultaneously the thing you’re most afraid of. When you actually have the time to write, it’ll be the thing you most flee – as though from a quaint wooden house… currently engulfed in flames. And – hey! – ENTIRE decades of your life might be trampled underfoot by this push-pull, start-stop, Saturnalia of sadomasochism. And through it all, you’re gonna be so much FUN to be around!

Why this should be, I don’t know. Actually, I could cite all sorts of cool theories, drawing on everything from Buddhism to the 12 Steps, but at the end of the day – even with all the insight in the world – you’re still gonna avoid writing this very article (to use a totally random example) for many, many days.

(That said, I must give at least one shout-out at this point, to Victoria Nelson’s superb book, On Writer’s Block. Clever & humane, it’s chock-full of anecdote and literary history, and lays out the most compelling – and compassionate – take on writer’s block that I’ve ever heard. ANNNNND for all that, please note that while this blog-post is due “Thursday morning,” it’s currently 1:12 AM as I type these words…)

NEVERTHELESS! Here are 3 quick tricks I *have* learned along the way, simple devices (dare I say ‘cheats’?) that have, at least occasionally, dislodged me from total paralysis. I hope you find them useful as well.

Get a diverse handful of multi-sided dice, like the ones used in role-playing games: 4-sided, 8-sided, 12-sided, etc. When you get stuck in your writing, and your brain’s spinning unhelpfully, jot down…oh, let’s say 6 choices:

1. Reread my intro
2. Line edit Chapter 3
3. Brainstorm some backstory on the queen character
4. Write one – and ONLY one – paragraph describing Olivia’s face
5. Write one – and ONLY one – paragraph for when Julia and O. first meet
6. Get up and go take a walk for X minutes

Now, roll your 6-sided dice and see what you get!

(How many minutes is X, btw? You want to walk for at least 10 minutes, let’s say, but no more than 30. Roll your 20-sided dice, and add 10 to the result. That’s X.)

You can put ANYTHING to a die-roll. It cuts through obsessive cerebration, plus adds immediate playfulness to what might have otherwise been a pretty grim mix…

This next technique is a doozy, one I lifted straight from the pages of another fine book, Karen Peterson’s Write: 10 Days to Overcome Writer’s Block. Period. (Ms. Peterson also makes a good case for the therapeutic, un-blocking powers of dark chocolate, so trust me, you’ll love this book. Who doesn’t love science?)

She goes into much greater detail than I will, but here’s the dumbed-down version, which has served me just fine, on innumerable occasions:

With the hand you use for writing, write out a question:
e.g., “What story should I work on next?”
“What should happen to the old baker, from Chapter 8?”

Pause for a moment.
Switch the pen to your non-dominant hand, and let it write out the answer.

This technique might sound too simple-simon to work, but it’s never let me down – IF I remember to use it. The coolest part is this: I CANNOT force my non-dominant hand to write a single word it doesn’t ‘want’ to. Often I approach the page with what I think is the right answer, only to find my answering hand engaging in civil – but thorough – disobedience. And sometimes, the answer will not only be different from what I expected, but different from anything I would have consciously concocted, and much, much more shrewd…

This is another one I stole, from Jennifer Lee’ awesome book, The Right-Brain Business Plan. Unlike the last two methods, this one is for longer term motivation:

Come up with a pithy goal for your writing for, let’s say, this year (mine for 2012: “Submit 5 new kids’ book manuscripts”). Then draw, paint, or collage a visual that represents that goal. Find or create images for each subgoals (“Finish a draft of kids’ book #3 by the end of May”), and keep all the components of this right-brain business plan some place where you’ll see it often. Seeing is believing. You will find that the pretty pictures beckon you forward, that the gestalt image they present you with hasten your goals into manifesting. Now, Jennifer Lee explains this whole process much better than me, of course, so let me just say that my RBBPs for 2010 and 2011 kept me thoroughly on track, and did I mention I procrastinate? (It’s currently 10:36 AM as I type this…)

(Jaym is going to add a note that, as she edits and posts this, it is 1:11 AM of the day the post is due, to let Marcus and the gentle reader know that this is an art-form, thank you very much.)

Marcus Ewert wrote the book 10,000 Dresses, (Seven Stories Presses, 2008) the first children’s book to feature a transgender protagonist.
His next children’s book, ECLAIRS WHO DARE, will be published by McSweeney’s new children’s book imprint McSweeney’s McMullens.
In a different vein, if you want TMI re. Marcus’ adolescent fling with an elderly William Burroughs (no, really), just watch the new documentary William Burroughs: A Man Within, by director Yony Leyser.