A Tutorial by Ashley Capes
For me the idea of writer’s block is a myth.
I don’t mean that artists (not just writers) cannot find themselves struggling with motivation or with non-project related problems.
What I believe is actually false, is the idea that the BLOCK is some great, unseen, unknowable force that simply comes crashing down like a wall to stop us. We don’t forget how to use words or sentences, no force binds us to a chair in a shack deep in a jungle, no unseen thing physically stops us from writing.
For me, that’s equally unrealistic as the idea of a mystical muse that feeds the artist ideas.
Instead, I believe in the agency of the writer. And when we’re blocked, I think there could be one of two things happening from a craft viewpoint or a third thing happening from a motivational viewpoint.
1. We’re blocked if we’re not sure/have fooled ourselves, usually via excitement, into thinking an ‘idea’ is the same thing as a ‘story’.
2. We’re blocked if we’re working in the wrong mode, or even in the wrong percentage of a mode, ie: we are ‘plotters’ at heart trying to ‘pants’ a story or vice versa.
and not to forget Motivation:
3. We’ve been working on this damn novel/short/poem/script for way too long and we’re sick to death of it, we’re sick of writing, we’re utterly burnt out. There’s no motivation left, there’s no joy in the task anymore. Forget it, get the thing out of my sight!
Among other possible problems out there, I feel like these three culprits might just be at play when a writer feels blocked. But it is possible to break through each of them, we’ve all done it before and we’ll do it again – it’s all part of the job, right?
Below is how I generally beat those problems:
1. Story vs Idea
I ask myself, do I have an idea or a story on my hands? That’s the most important question for fiction, I feel, when it comes to sitting down and finishing a project. Ask yourself that question in the beginning and if you can answer ‘story’ you ought to have a great chance of finishing.
Here’s why I think that’s so.
An idea is exciting and highly motivating, of course. For me, it’s the best part of writing, but the sad fact is an idea is not a story. One is a spark, the other is a complete piece of work. A story has conflict, movement and structure, a story has narrative. I’d argue an idea does not.
So, to try and illustrate my claim I’ll make up an idea and the summary of a story:
A man uncovers a golden elephant statue in his backyard.
A man uncovers a golden elephant statue in his backyard, quickly becoming obsessed with it. His wife, however, loathes elephants and cannot bear to look at it, let alone have it in their house. She casts it into a river and the man is struck with despair, leaping after it and diving for the statue every day and every night, until his wife finally leaves him.
Hopefully, despite the silliness of my idea, the difference is clear. The idea is a starting point, and the story develops it. The story introduces conflict with the wife and the man’s obsession. Further, it shows change and includes a resolution. When we’re blocked, I believe it can be because we’re so excited about an idea that we leap into it, without realising that there’s no story yet.
Related to this problem:
2. Plotting vs Pantsing (and the ratio)
Plotting might be described as the process of outlining and planning a story from beginning to end. The amount of detail which goes into this will vary, but the key point is knowing just about everything before you sit down to write.
Pantsing is usually considered the opposite, whereby you write a story without preplanning, simply discovering and creating as you write. This can be quite enjoyable for the writer, but often results in more rewriting in subsequent drafts, while outlining usually makes for quicker work but might be less interesting during the act of writing.
At a glance, it could seem that one is a safer or ‘better’ approach than the other, but I don’t believe so.
Either or even both can work wonderfully – for different people. Especially when you’re starting out as a writer, it’s best to try each operating mode and see what happens. Neither approach is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ instead it’s whether the mode is ‘suited’ or ‘not suited’ to you.
I, like many writers I suspect, am more hybrid, in that I work in both modes. Here’s where the idea of a ratio is important to me, because I outline a book with dot points, noting vital ‘high points’ and add to this character sketches and arcs, but then I ‘pants’ or ‘discover’ within the framework I set. (And within this method I can still adjust my outline if I discover a new plot point or character during the writing etc.)
Therefore I’m probably 40% planning and 60% pantsing on most projects, yet even that can change, depending on what the story demands. I find that’s the best way for me to work, because it ensures I stay motivated during the writing and that way I’m rarely blocked.
But working in a mode that someone else tells you is the ‘only way to write’ is dangerous and will probably lead hitting a wall at one point. And the way to get around this problem is simple – experiment. Learn how you as a writer actually work best, then refine the process.
Finally I’d like to share an idea in regards to:
3. Burn Out
This one is a lot tougher to combat. Especially when you’re close to a story or if you have a deadline and sometimes you’d rather vomit than work on a project for a single second longer.
But the best advice I’ve ever been given is to step away from whatever you’re writing for as long as you can – and even to work on something else while you’re having time away.
If you’ve burn out on a particular novel you’re writing, switch to different novel or a short story for a while and see what happens to your motivation when you come back to the original novel. Or, if it’s writing in general that you’ve had enough of, go play guitar for a while, break out the paints or find some friends and shoot a short film. Try another art form altogether.
This really motivates me not only because I’m having fun again, but because I get critical distance from the first project and at the same time, my mind continues to tick away on that original story, only I’m not conscious of the fact – and the subconscious can do some awesome stuff if we let it!
After all that, I usually find that when I sit down again with that first project, I’m motivated again.
Finally, maybe the burn out is so deep that you’ve lost motivation for creating altogether. To get around this, it’s recharge time. Get inspired by consuming great art, a favourite book or film, a trip to a gallery or beautiful location, do some cooking or go for a run or hit the beach – anything but creating!
When you’re finished, hopefully you’ll be ready to hit the keys once more :)