(estimated time: 60-75 minutes)
Want to get writer’s block in two easy steps? Here’s how:
1. Put a ton of pressure on yourself.
2. Insist on writing your first draft from beginning to end, from the first line straight through the last line.
Don’t believe me? Try it. Go to your keyboard, crack your knuckles, and say, “Great American novel, here we go!” Enjoy the next hour of creative constipation.
Or you could try a different approach. In the fall of 2016, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Marlon James was on campus. When a student asked him how he starts working on a project, he said several interesting things:
1. “Lower the stakes.” To put it another way, find a way to take pressure off yourself.
2. “The first thing you write is not going to be the first thing people read.” You can interpret this line a few different ways. Like: You don’t have to draft in a linear fashion. Or: The final draft is going to be way different than the first draft, so don’t worry about nailing it on the first try (because you won’t. Because not even a Booker-winner nails it the first time.).
3. “You’re just trying to get into the story. Being comfortable with it sucking lets you relax and get into it. The first pages are just a door to let you in. Somewhere along the way you’ll find the real beginning.”
Taking off the pressure and just exploring sounds good, but how you do it? One way is to write notes toward a draft. The first and most important thing to know about these notes is that they’re not an actual draft. You’re not trying to write a story/poem/essay/whatever. You’re just jotting down thoughts about the project. You’re mulling. You’re playing with ideas, thinking on the page, writing towards discovery. Think: Lists and questions and possibilities.
When I do this, I write in plural first-person for reasons that I don’t understand (maybe it helps me feel less alone?). For example:
What if we made Smee a boy when he came aboard the Jolly Roger? Maybe there was a time in Neverland where they were all boys. (What does he look like as a boy, by the way? Figure that out later.)
No one will ever read your notes (Why would they? It’s not even a draft), so there is zero pressure on it. You have permission to write toward discovery. You have permission to meander and explore and go down blind alleys and rabbit holes. You have permission to suck. You have permission to not rush, to relax and get into the story. Remember: These notes are not the story itself; they’re merely a “door to let you in.”
“I have advice for people who want to write,“ said Madeleine L’Engle. “I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour — write, write, write.”
For today’s prep, I’m going to zoom in on the part that I italicized about the “unpublishable journal.” Writing in this way has (at least) two benefits.
1. It helps you get out of your own way on the page.
2. It helps you with characterization.
Characterization might employ some stats and attributes—At seventy years old, Charlie was still tall, and he had most of his hair, even if it was a little wispy. In the park, the wind kept blowing his hair over his eyes as he watched a little kid drag his heel over an anthill, slowly leveling an entire civilization.—but that’s not really the essence of characterization. Deep characterization is about personality and sensibility. To really know Charlie, we have to see the world through his eyes. If we know how he thinks and feels about things, we’ll know him.
There should really be two sets of parks, thought Charlie. One for kids and one for everyone else. Not that he could say this out loud. Everyone would think he was an asshole. They wouldn’t think badly of the little tyrant who was currently tossing fistfuls of sand up into the wind—no, that boy was a precious innocent, but if Charlie dared to object to getting sand in his eyes, then he was the asshole.
For today’s prep, I want you to write one unpublishable page about “what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.” You’ll be writing from your own perspective for this page, but this kind of writing will teach you something about writing from a character’s perspective later on.
Look over the story/essay-ideas you’ve already generated (e.g. from the “I remember” exercise, or the map of your neighborhood, or from “Writing with the Body,” or any of the other exercises). Pick one to work on today. Don’t put too much pressure on this step. Just see what draws your attention. If you’re fired up and ready to go with your notes, set your timer for somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes (your choice) and jump in.
If you’d like a little more structure first, you might spend a few minutes generating some questions about your story/essay-idea to answer in your notes. For example, these are some questions I might generate about my project:
What does Smee look like as a boy?
How did he get to Neverland?
What was his childhood like before he came to Neverland?
In other words, design your own prompts for guided freewriting.
How did this go today? What worked well, what didn’t work so well?
Describe the conditions of your writing session today. What conditions worked with you; what conditions worked against you?
How about internal conditions? Are there any ways in which you’re working against yourself (e.g. criticizing yourself, or rushing, or distracting yourself, etc.)?
If you were to try these notes toward a draft again, what might you do differently?
Make an X through day 7 and jot down how much time you took with this session.