Please help me welcome Larry Bjornson for his first ever visit to RU!
Frustration, Self-Doubt, and Inspiration walk into a bar…
“What’llyahave?” says the bartender.
“Whiskey,” says Frustration. “Make it a double.”
“Gin,” says Self-Doubt. “A triple.”
“Mojito,” says Inspiration. “Extra mint, please.”
The three find seats at the nearest table.
Closing his eyes, Frustration rubs his forehead and groans. “My novel is driving me crazy.”
Self-Doubt folds his arms on the tabletop and drops his head into them. “Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a writer.”
Inspiration looks around the room and sees a patron spill part of his drink onto a heavily traveled area of the floor. “Ah-hah!”
Frustration and Self-Doubt look up. “Ah-hah what?”
Who knows? But whatever it was, a random spill and a suddenly slippery floor were just what Inspiration needed to resolve some writing impasse. And Inspiration was waiting and watching. The small event of the spill did not pass unnoticed or unexplored for usefulness.
Writing is an essentially mysterious process, and that is fertile ground for insecurity. Why? Well, what does a writer say when someone asks “How do you write a book? Where do you get your ideas?” In other words, “How did you do it?”
I suspect the question is essentially unanswerable. My book, Wide Open, is 100,000 words. In writing it, I probably made over a million decisions large and small. So, how did I do it? To a disturbing degree, looking back, I have no idea. Even more disturbing, I have no idea how I’ll do it again. And that’s where the insecurity arises. In the end, I simply have to have faith. If your supply of faith is insufficient, your supply of insecurity will multiply impressively. Many of the story elements in the book I like the best simply popped into my head, seemingly out of nowhere.
Is it all as random and uncontrollable as that? Are writers simply dependent on chance synaptic connections that have the byproduct of an “idea”? To some extent, yes, but not without qualification.
There’s a saying attributed to Thomas Jefferson – “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” For writers that might be paraphrased to read – “I find that the more alert I am to the world around me, the more inspiration I seem to have.”
So what do you do if you’re plagued by “writer’s block”? Or, perhaps you aren’t blocked; you’ve gotten something written, but it just seems lacking. Or, what if you think you’ve written something great, but you discover that others don’t share your feelings of greatness. How do you extricate yourself from these dilemmas with a minimum of teeth gnashing?
Beats me. All I can do is tell you what I do under these circumstances. And my methods work – for me.
The first thing I do when I get stuck is to set it aside. And set it aside early, before I get obsessed, frustrated, and filled with self-doubt. None of these emotional states turn out to be wellsprings of creativity. I don’t necessarily step away from the entire project, just the part that’s giving me trouble. I work in historical fiction, so I may go do some research. Or maybe I’ll proofread or polish earlier parts of the work that I’m happy with.
But, I don’t just forget my impasse. On a conscious and unconscious level, I’m now in a state of alert. Anything that I see, hear, or read becomes a potential solution. My conscious efforts are being bolstered by unconscious activity. And the unconscious stuff is pretty potent, assuming I’m not all bound up by frustration and self-doubt. It’s the unconscious that gets you up in the middle of the night to write down an idea that materialized out of the blue. You have to have faith that your brain is doing more than you know.
Isolation is another counterproductive place. Bad ideas and emotions fester. Isolation also severely limits your inputs, the raw materials you have to work with, and at a time when you need to maximize inputs.
What if you can’t set the problem aside? Maybe you’ve got a looming deadline. What can you do to break out? One method is to start combining things, things that might not seem connected – except you find a connection. In my current book, which is set in 1871 Kansas, I found a way to smash two facts of prairie life into each other with explosive results. One fact was a peculiar construction characteristic of the sod houses that settlers often built. The other was that cattle herds driven up from Texas during the summer were often held in close proximity to settler farms while awaiting sale. Putting these two elements together resulted in a surprising scene of terror and violence and altered the course of the novel.
Introduce a new element. You don’t have to work with what’s already in the scene. You’re the boss of your written world, so toss in something new or unrelated. It can be a person, a thing, an event, a sudden realization, anything at all. Just something that will supercharge the dynamic of the situation. While writing Wide Open, I began to feel a loss of momentum with the hero’s (Will Merritt) life at home and in his town, his interaction with his friends and parents. I resolved the issue by moving Will’s love interest, Anna, into his house. She was a settler girl who had been severely injured and was brought to town to be closer to the doctor. Introducing Anna opened up a raft of dramatic possibilities that hadn’t previously existed.
My final creative enhancer is an odd one (I’ve wondered if it occurs with other writers). The right music at the right time will bring on a flood of ideas, a creative storm. I’d recline on the couch in a darkened room with one particular song playing over and over in the background and write an entire chapter in my head. One of my chapters was conceived while repeatedly playing Shakira’s Whenever, Wherever for over an hour. Another was sketched out while endlessly replaying the theme music from Will Smith’s golf movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Go figure.
So tell us RU writers – what do you do to break writer’s block?
Join us on Monday for author Christina Brooke – you won’t want to miss it!
Bio: A long term resident of Southern California, Larry Bjornson grew up on the beaches and in the now vanished orange groves of south Orange County. In time he graduated from the University of California with degrees in history and political science. Despite this educational background, Larry says, “In college, I toyed with youthful notions of becoming a racecar driver, a karate instructor, or a writer. So, one out of three ain’t bad.”
Larry’s Icelandic great grandparents immigrated to America in the 1870s after a volcanic eruption buried their farm in ash. They settled in North Dakota and began a new life on a new farm. Larry’s family currently owns and operates a different North Dakota farm purchased 70 years ago by his grandfather (who once played a violin piece for Buffalo Bill Cody). There are powerful echoes of his family’s farming history in Wide Open.
Currently, he does marketing for a yacht dealer in Newport Beach, but storytelling has always been his true love. “Wide Open required an extraordinary amount of research (my folders of notes stand two and a half feet tall when stacked), but I think it may be one of the most accurate pictures of day-to-day life in a Kansas cattle town that you’re likely to read. To say the least, they don’t make towns like 1871 Abilene anymore, and that’s what fascinated me about it.”
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for June 25 – June 29, 2012
- Flashing Through Writer’s Block – Silver James
- It Happens to the Best of Us by Barbara Wallace
- How to Defeat Your Writer’s Block by Ryan Lanz
- Are YOU the Writer’s Block? With Donna Cummings