Sunday, April 19, 2009

Writer's Block Is a Problem of Butts

I am a 26-year-old woman and work as a Feature Writer / Reporter for the Daily Star in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I have always been passionate about writing, but lately I feel as if I am going through this block which is simply lasting for too long. Not many writing workshops take place here. What can I do to improve my writing skills (reading skills as well)?
No doubt my readers can suggest writing exercises and even some online workshops. And I'm sure there are online comparative literature courses.

But what will improve your reading skills? Reading. Read the types of things you want to be writing.

What will improve your writing skills? Writing. As Jane Yolen says, "Butt. In. Chair." If you're experiencing writer's block, it may be that you can't write what you want to write yet, but it's perfect malarkey to think that you can't write. Sit down and start writing, whatever it is that comes out.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Join the Absolute Write forums at absolutewrite.com/forums! It's more supportive, inspirational, and international than I'd ever have imagined. I only wish I'd found this great group sooner.

Raethe said...

Actually, I'd say "butt in chair" (and hands on keyboard, to quote one Howard Tayler) is about the only sure-fire cure for writer's block I've ever come across.

Word verification: merimbed. Which I guess is a cross between a marimba and a sleepy mermaid.

Anonymous said...

Two things I've noticed about my own writer's block.

1) Writing becomes a "chore" when I don't take a break now and then.

Get inspired. Walk through an art museum. Watch little kids play in a park. Try out a new recipe. Stroll through a farmer's market in one of those wide brimmed hats that women in movies seem to do. Watch movies. Read something outside the genre you write in -- you're less inclined to "take mental notes" and more inclined to simply enjoy it.

2) I get "writer's block" when the idea I have isn't strong enough to carry an entire book.

There's no "there" there.

Ask yourself if this is the story you should write? If your characters never seem to have anything to say, if all their obstacles are too easily solvable, you might want to consider letting the idea simmer for a while longer. No amount of butt-in-chair is going to turn a half-baked idea into a 250 page marketable novel.

scott neumyer said...

Amen! Butt in Chair is the only thing that ever works...

emay said...

I've always thought "butt in chair" was a very lacking alternative to the original expression: "apply the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair."

Bob Schechter said...

Of course, many people who complain about writer's block have not actually written, so calling it "writer's block" begs the question of whether the person is indeed a writer qualified to claim the affliction. My elbow may hurt, for example, but I don't call it "tennis elbow" since I don't play tennis.

But if you've done it before, chances are you can do it again. Butt in chair is pretty much the answer. I think it was Leonard Bernstein who pointed out that inspiration is a wonderful thing, but you only get inspired maybe 10% of the time, and so an artist needs to come up with a strategy for the other 90% of the time. I think people who complain of writer's block sometimes mistake lack of inspiration for an inability to write, or they feel they should not be writing in the absence of inspiration. Of course, they should push on with or without inspiration. And often the act of pushing on creates its own forward momentum that is a lot like inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Music. Apply your real life situation (like getting a speeding ticket) and ask how would your main protagonist react.

Chris Eldin said...

I'm going to disagree with EA for the first time ever (and everyone else) about the topic of butts.

I don't think you should ever sit in front of a computer if you don't have at least a paragraph you've sculpted in your head prior to that.

I have strong opinions about the butt-in-chair philosophy. If you sit down and try to force yourself to write something, and put yourself in a bad mood, your mind is going to create a negative association with the computer. (Perhaps more direly, with butts). Okay, small joke, but I'm serious.

Take your favorite place(s) to daydream ---in a car, in the shower, while jogging---and bring your characters along. You know, from personal experience, I get most of my ideas when I'm jogging. Not sure if it has anything to do with endorphins or whatever those chemicals are that your brain releases. But you need to have a positive association with writing and the computer.

There are other aspects (to me) that do require forcing yourself to sit in the chair and work. Those include editing and fleshing out ideas you've already jotted down.

But the creative part, do that wherever you feel happy and relaxed. Have fun with it! If you start hating the process, it will show.

(And you know, I have so many butt jokes I could've written, yet restrained myself)

:-)

Deirdre Mundy said...

Usually when I have "Writers block" it's actually "I have a hard bit of work ahead and I don't want to do it"

So yeah. Forging ahead through the muck is the only way to go.

Or..... I COULD just post inane comments on blogs ABOUT writing..... that's just as good, right? After all, I am typing on the computer so it's techincally the same thing?

Argh. Back to the coal mine.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Chris makes a good point, which is: your creative process is your creative process.

The important thing is to stick to your creative process, whether it's in a chair, in the shower, wherever.

Bob Schechter said...

I have nothing against the shower, the car, the supermarket, or anyplace else for getting inspiration or working out ideas in your head, but it wouldn't be called "writer's block" if you had wonderful ideas popping into your head at all these odd moments. The question being discussed, I thought, is not where to get inspiration, but what to do when you don't seem to be getting any anywhere. And that's when the butt in chair option seems to be the only logical recourse.

Chris Eldin said...

Hi Bob, yes, I agree there is a difference.
Perhaps it's in what we do to grow the creative parts of our brains? Perhaps if you do mini exercises on a regular basis, this will have an effect. For example, come up with five uses for a fork. Or, how would you redesign a bicycle? Or, where do you see the internet in five years?

To questions like: Give three possible reactions of a claustrophobic character to an earthquake?

Stuff like that.... I've been thinking of cognitive function as of late because I feel my memory is somehow getting worse, and I'm thinking of taking up sudoku and other games over the summer to see if this works. If not, my kids are going to have a grand 'ol time in their teenage years...

:-)

A. B. England said...

I don't know about anyone else, but two things work for me.

First, if I have ideas but am having trouble stringing the words together coherently, the "butt in chair" method is the absolute way to go. I set the piece I'm trying to write aside and write in a journal or do a "throw away" piece instead. That way, I'm writing and work through whatever is causing me to slip into incoherent babbling without getting frustrated with the piece I was working on.

When I can't seem to get past a dead end, personally, the butt in chair method does nothing but make it worse. I've noticed stressing too much about anything, especially what I'm working toward with a particular manuscript, is usually the cause of these blanking periods. Finding a way to get my mind to relax is the trick to finding the path again. Music, exercise, getting outside and hitting one of the trails, or sometimes even just staring at a candle flickering in a dark room until I "zone out" have all worked.

The method's not important. Letting go of what's gotten you wound too tight is. I have no clue why, but once the tension fades, the words come back.

Raethe said...

I think Deirdre nailed it... It seems to me that a lot of the time people cry "writer's block" because sometimes writing is hard, and they don't ever want it to be hard. It's supposed to be a "fun" thing, right?

Though Chris makes a good point, too. Sometimes the solution really is to get up, go away, and do something else for a while. For me, it's when I've been working too long at a particular problem. There are times when beating your head against the computer screen until something falls out actually works, and there are times when it doesn't.

The trick, of course, is knowing when you need to walk away and when you're just feeling lazy. That's just self-discipline and practice.

Chris York said...

EA invited exercises, so I'm sharinf this link:
http://www.yorkwriters.com/2009/02/sketch-novel-in-hour-exercise.html

This is an exercise Steve and I teach at writing conferences (the latest at Space Coast Writers Conference in Cocoa Beach), and it always garners positive feedback. After Space Coast we promised to post the exercise, so I'm happy to share it with you. It's like an organized brainstorming session, designed to help yo ugenerate and explore idea.

Use it if it helps, and have fun with it.

Jim said...

I happen to agree with Chris Eldin. I do my best writing just before I fall asleep, or when I visit the Japanese baths here in SF, or when I am walking at the beach. So rather than "butt in chair" I'd say "notebook in pocket." Once I gather the raw materials in the form of ideas, scraps of sentences, paragraphs, thoughts, THEN I get the kiester in the chair and create.

Nancy Coffelt said...

I'm sure this says way more about my poor addled brain than anything else, but I always find it helpful to distract. In my case that means the TV on in the background, checking email, and a book I'm reading open next to the keyboard WHILE I'm actively writing. That sort of overload almost always reboots my brain.

Deirdre Mundy said...

OK, I just found another reason for writer's block --

Maybe you're just telling the wrong story, got lost in a side plot, and the reason it's not WORKING is because you really need to START OVER.

(Even though somethimes saying goodbye to 40,000 of your precious words is harder than foricing yourself to write...)

Google word verify: Reduced

Can it read my mind?

nw said...

Deirdre, I am so with you! I've been pushed by writing friends to plug ahead and finish drafts that just weren't working, on the Anne Lamott "crappy first drafts" theory. Sometimes that really is not the answer.

joelle said...

READING. READING. READING. That will improve your writing. I promise. I too was stuck. Almost there...couldn't get over that last hump from "lots of interest, but no..." to "yes". I started a self-designed program reading what I wanted to write. In two years I read over 300 YA with some MG thrown in. Now I read about 100-125 books per year and have added in some nonfiction and adult stuff for fun, but I read almost exclusively YA for 2+ years. My first book will be out from Putnam in fall 2010. I wrote it AFTER all that reading. And the beauty is you don't have to read critically. You just read. Eventually, you'll read critically naturally. Good luck! I wrote during all this time too, but honestly, if I had to choose one or the other, I think the reading would've been the thing to choose. I wrote an article that was published in both SCBWI's bulletin and The Writer. You can read it here: http://tinyurl.com/bfov2f

David Dittell said...

EA,

A lot of people just don't get this. If you're a writer, you have to write.

If the thing you want to be writing isn't coming out right, get something down, then move on to the next thing that you are ready to be working on. In time, the thing you were bad at will work its own way out in your subconscious and you'll figure out what to do.

If you're on a deadline and you can't get the quality that you want, the deadline is already making the decision for you. See if you can get it to somebody you trust to give you feedback so you can improve it that way if the creative rewrite juices aren't flowing.

Heather Zenzen said...

I just wrote a post equating fighting writer's block to finishing a marathon through the desert with two shot out knees. You really don't want to fight through, it's excruciatingly painful, but if you don't, the buzzards are going to peck at your carcass and eat your brain. So, yeah, it sucks, but you have to do what you can to fight through it. You can't just sit idly by and wait for it to pass like a case of the flu.