I don’t think “writer’s block” (or “artist’s block” or whatever) actually exists – it’s really like “writer’s procrastination.” Stephen King (I think) once described the beginning of every writing session as unwrapping a dead fish – it’s hard to gear yourself up to start the task, you spend the first couple of hours gagging over what you did the day before, and you keep questioning why you’re doing this to begin with. I believe I read that in an interview in the late 1980s; today, I’d say it’s like unwrapping a fish while standing in the middle of a theme park – there are just so many things at our fingertips that are easier and perhaps more fun (for a few moments anyway) than peeling back the aluminum foil on that dead fish (I’ve spent more time the past few hours adding music to my itunes library than actually writing).
Nearly every book on writing rips off the same Robert Frost quote: “The only way out is through.” Essentially, this just means that writing takes Green Lantern willpower in order to push past the distractions and unwrap that dead fish. Whether you have true writer’s block or you’re using StumbleUpon for “research,” eventually you just have to write (though, if you’d rather surf, check this out). For me, starting out is easier if I 1) I convince myself I’m ”exercising” – not writing anything ”real” initially; and 2) I find ways to surprise myself. Here are a few tools I’ve used to make unwrapping the dead fish a little easier. Nearly all of these require setting aside five to fifteen minutes for writing “practice.” And although I refer to this as breaking “writer’s block,” there’s no reason that modified versions of many of these same exercises can’t be used by other artists.
1. The Spark Journal
Buy a cheap spiral-bound notebook. It should be the cheapest one you can find — If you spend more than a few bucks on this, you’ll think everything you write in it needs to be brilliant and you’ll spend more time chewing on a (probably imaginary) pencil than actually writing. And the cover should be non-descript to avoid influencing your recruit (see below) in any strange way.
Once you have your cheap, non-descript notebook, seek out someone who can write and spell. Ask your “recruit” to write a single word or phrase at the top of every other page in the notebook. Don’t give them any rules beyond that – just whatever words or phrases that come to mind. They should be able to do it in about fifteen minutes, just by looking around the room. If you want to give the journal to multiple people and have them each fill out a handful of pages, that’s fine, but don’t make this a major project – the whole point is to get you something you can use as soon as possible.
Once you have the journal back in hand, do not flip through it. Just turn to the first “heading” provided by your recruit, read it, and start writing. Set a 10- to 15-minute time limit for yourself and try to fill up the pages. At the worst, you’ll have flexed your muscles for the day; at best, you might end up with a fresh idea or a new direction for someting you’re already working on.
If you don’t know anyone literate or the idea of putting a physical pen to actual paper abhors you, use a random phrase generator to get you started.
2. Lyrics Warmup
Some people stretch every morning; I do this exercise. Put on a song and try to write down the lyrics as it plays. Don’t look them up – it doesn’t matter if you get them exactly right or not. Just try to keep up and type or write what you think you hear. Then, without looking back at the lyrics for reference, spend ten minutes writing a scene based on the song.
3. Fire Drill
I believe this is a pretty common exercise in writing courses. Take a character from something you’re working on and imagine his or her house / apartment / motor home is on fire. The character has five minutes to rescue whatever s/he can. You have five minutes to write it all down. I almost guarantee you’ll learn something about your character you didn’t know before.
4. Flour Drill
This exercise is inspired by the test Disney supposedly gives animators before they are hired, which requires the animator to animate a sack of flour when its angry, sad, happy, etc. The belief is that if you can make a sack of flour seem sad, you can make any character seem sad.
Spend one minute establishing a simple conflict between two characters. Jot down what Character A wants, what Character B wants, and why this creates tension or a clash between them. For the purposes of a short writing exercise, all of this should be fairly simple; don’t agonize over complex motivations for your characters, just give them some primal conflict (Character A wants to survive; Character B wants him dead).
You’re going to spend the next ten minutes writing a dialogue between these two characters, but there’s one catch: They can’t be human. They can be animals, inanimate objects, even abstract concepts, but no humans. It’s fine if they are the same type of “thing” (i.e., both are spiders) or different (one is a depressed Voodoo doll, the other is a psychotic soundwave… together they fight crime!). It’s fine if they are anthropomorphized and they can speak in your native tongue.
As you write, focus on both the dialogue itself and descriptions of how the characters convey emotion outside of chatter — body languge, expressions, tone of voice, etc. How does a clock show anger or fear? How does a grasshopper blush?
This exercise always makes me laugh, and I find that writing about actual people is easier after I’ve tried to make a xylophone express guilt (and writing a dialogue between a scared monkey and a killer chimp got me into my college creative writing program…)
5. Reverse Flour Drill
Take a character you’ve already created and spend two minutes writing down how she looks and acts when angry. Does she get flushed? Narrow her eyes? Speak in a controlled monotone? Now spend another two minutes doing the same for the character when she’s gripped by four other common emotions or states that seem most appropriate to you (happy, sad, scared, embarassed, in love, exhausted, etc.). As with the Fire Drill, you’ll probably learn something new about your character.