Carving the Writer’s Block

I’ve been in the industry for a little while now. One of the concepts that appears to be ubiquitously linked to the notion of professional writing is that of the dreaded writer’s block. Aren’t we all too familiar with the picture of a spectacled (wo)man in a study, seated in front of a computer screen, gazing out the window while looking for something to inspire them?

background beverage blank brown

And coffee is somehow important as well. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I found a way to save myself from this affliction. In fact, it’s a different way to view the craft that allows me to avoid halting my writing progress altogether. A little secret perhaps, that I want to share with you. Are you ready?

You’re picturing writer’s block wrong.

The writer as a painter

People usually compare writing to painting. You start out with a blank canvas: the untouched paper. The painter or writer then fills that canvas with either brushstrokes or words. The end result? The immaculate slate has been transformed into a competent display of skill, courtesy of the brilliant creator’s vision.

samma-van-klaarbergen-main-sketch

Artists usually begin by drawing a couple of rough lines across the canvas. View the final version of this piece called ‘The Lake Cabin‘ on Samma van Klaarbergen’s website

But before we get to that result, the first brushstroke – the first word – must be placed on that canvas. Enter: anxiety.

After all, what if I mess up? What is the first sentence my audience should read? Should I start in media res, or do I want to establish the state of the world first? What is the name of my protagonist anyway?

And this is where many writers get stuck. “No inspiration!”, they will cry. Or they mutter something about not being in the mood. “Today is simply a bad day, tomorrow will be better.” Or the often heard: “I will start on another project first, and then proper material for this one will come to me eventually.”

Poppycock, I say.

The writer as a sculptor

We have a Dutch saying: Schrijven is schrappen. This would translate to ‘writing is scrapping’, but you’d miss out on all the hard ‘g’s and rolling ‘r’s. The saying tells us that good writing is efficient, pithy, concise. Trim as much as you can, so that all that is left is the bare essential required to state your message. This is what we define as ‘good writing’. But to cut text is to have text in the first place. And any rough body of text will do.

So, I introduce a new concept of the writer’s block. I reject the comparison with the visual artist. Instead, I move to use the sculptor – more specifically: a stone carver – as a metaphor. I think that whatever first version you write is a block of marble at which you may then chip away.

michelangelo_-_atlas

Pictured: Michelangelo’s Atlas Slave, one of the ‘Prisoners’ series of unfinished sculptures

You need to start with a block of text: it doesn’t matter what the quality is. Everything is subject to change – all the time – and everything is a draft until you submit to final. That last bit is just a healthy writing ethos and all but common sense, but it does help lift the pressure off your performance. If you accept that everything you write will likely be deleted or revised later anyway, you won’t feel so bad about writing flawed passages.

Building a Block

Of course, there is still the matter of actually getting your hands on that block of text. There’s several approaches you can adopt. One of these is Free Writing: just keep writing for a specified amount of time. There is no stopping to think what to write next, and revision before the timer ends is prohibited. Your result is at least 50% rubbish, and the parts that you could salvage surely riddled with errors when it’s not altogether incoherent. But that’s not the point of the exercise.

Another approach is the so-called Snowflake method. You start with a basic idea of what you want to write, then you add some outlines to that, then you add more details to that, then you add additional copy to that… and so on, until you have a body of text you’re satisfied with. This allows you to add passages at different locations in your text, instead of writing a string of words from beginning to end.

von_koch_curve

Using a Koch snowflake as a model: you start out with a simple structure and add detail and body as you progress

Either approach – and be sure to find the approach that suits you best – will provide you with a block of text that you can then reshape into whatever you need it to be. You can begin carving. There’s no more anxiety while staring at the white sheet of paper. No more questioning what the first line should be. You can cut at it, create room and then fill in the blanks. You can start the actual process of writing. Schrijven is schrappen.

I hardly use Free Writing myself, because I always end up with some sort of a diary entry, just writing down what occupies my mind. I sometimes use the Snowflake method, especially when writing for larger projects. Most often though, I force myself to write something down. Whether constructing a plot, writing dialogue, barks – whatever: I write something, anything down. Because I know I can improve on that. And the process of improving is so much easier!

Some thoughts on NaNoWriMo

When I taught at a University of Applied Sciences, some of my students introduced me to the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) phenomenon. The initiative challenges you to write 50,000 words in the month of November, or 30 days. The promise? That the challenge yields you a novel.

What I asked my students to reflect on, was that the challenge of 50,000 words in 30 days would NOT yield you a novel at the end. At best you could have a solid block of textual marble to help you start off your carving. And that’s great! Who knows what masterpiece lies within? But thinking that writing 50,000 words automatically transform pages after pages of text into a novel, that’s a dangerous illusion.

It is my humble opinion that the NaNoWriMo process is a variation of Free Writing; the word count has simply replaced the timer (and a deadline was added). So, feel free to use this as a block-o’-text generator! Just understand the limitations of the process.

Sculpting this article

In my process of writing this article, I’ve gone over the text a few times. First, just to write down the main points I want to make, then I add the arguments that connect those points. This results in a rough draft. Then, I rewrite, delete obsolete words, restructure, rethink my choice of words and implement synonyms, scrap a few paragraphs entirely, consider what figures of speech to use…

black and white book business close up

And occasionally looking up how to spell ‘ubiquitously’.  Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The result is this article you’ve now almost finished reading. It’s not perfect. Primarily because there is sufficient room for me to grow as a writer (thankfully). Secondly because it’s my (academic) philosophy that a text can always be improved. My text is never finished. I can always tinker more. But the deadline comes, either sooner or later. When my text communicates what I need it to, I can label it ‘done’.

Discipline vs Inspiration

I won’t deny that I can get into a flow when writing for a project, and that it’s hard to control when this flow may occur. In that sense, mood or whatever you want to call it can help you writer better and/or faster. But I refuse to believe in what’s commonly referred to as ‘writer’s block’. I will even go as far as to state that I expect of any professional writer worth their salt to circumvent such a creative block. It’s a matter of discipline rather than inspiration. The romantic image of the writer waiting to be touched by their muse doesn’t compute in the game industry.

herkulaneischer_meister_002

Because sometimes the muse gets stuck as well (picture: Portrait of a literary woman from Pompeii)

There are many people who love the idea of writing, but never actually succeed in composing any decent body of text. They tell me they never seem able to take that first step properly. I say: scrap ‘properly’ from that sentence. Just take the first step. Write anything down. Deciding if it’s any good comes later.

Once your discipline yields you your block of text, your pen turns into a chisel, and your mind into a hammer. Carve away! Scrap your text! What emerges is your artwork.

So there’s my secret! My method of never running out of steam and always deliver on time. Please join me in craving (not a typo) the Writer’s Block. Celebrate it! The sooner you start writing, the sooner you can start the revision. You’ll need that second step if you want your writing to become great or even excellent.

If you’re using a different method with similar results: I would love to hear it!

If you have further questions concerning my approach: please reach out!

For everyone else: keep on writing!

 

I surely will!

history-of-the-world-the-end

Still taken from History of the World, Part I, directed by Mel Brooks and distributed by 20th Century Fox. All right belong to them. 

Picture in the banner: József Borsos – The Dissatisfied Painter

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Carving the Writer’s Block

  1. A very insightful post, and it helped me get over my very own block! I never knew I’d been using the snowflake method. Haven’t had great results with freewriting though, because if I don’t get a sentence just right, it irks me enough that I can’t move on with the rest of the story.

    Perhaps for your next post, you could highlight the things writers can do when every piece of their work seems like trash?

    Like

    • Thank you for the compliment, Stuart! I’m glad you found it useful. I fully empathise with your Free Writing experiences, but I understand it’s a great help for a lot of writers.

      I love your idea for a follow-up post! I’ll add it to my list of topics still to cover. I appreciate the input!

      Like

  2. Hello Gerben. I just read your post and I am happy that I did. As someone who writes myself, In the past, I used to struggle with the writer’s block. I like your idea of comparing writing to sculpting. I do believe that people need to chip away from a big idea in little bits, before it becomes practical. Thankfully, concerning writer’s block and seeking inspiration and muse, I know someone who can help.

    My strategy when I face these types of issues is to take these issues to God in prayer. I do not know whether you believe in God or not, but God is the creator of the universe and everything in it. He loves us like a father loves his children.

    The bible says in Proverbs 2:6
    “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding”.

    We are allowed to ask God for wisdom. The bible says in James 1:5
    “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking”.

    God is still in the business of giving ideas and divine inspiration.

    If you have a few minutes to spare, find a quiet space, imagine that Jesus is in front of you and say this prayer with me:

    “Father God, I thank you. I thank you for everything that you have done for me. I thank you for the gift of life. I thank you Lord. Father, I pray for the energy to be able to release everything that is impure in your sight. (Take a minute to forgive those who have offended you. Release any feelings of anger, envy, bitterness and other negative feelings. Ask God to forgive you of your sins then resume the prayer). Father I pray for divine ideas and inspiration. You said in your word that you would not rebuke us for asking you for wisdom. You are the God who knows everything. I pray that you impart me with knowledge that would be useful to me. I rebuke every evil force in either the spiritual or the physical realm who plans to steal the blessings that God would send to me away from me, Father God, destroy them by fire in Jesus name. I pray for a good testimony on this prayer, in Jesus name I pray, Amen”.

    I am sure that God would be happy to hear from you and would be willing to help. When you pray, you need to watch out for answers from God. God would communicate his ideas to you in different ways: through dreams, through your environment. You can just turn on your television and the TV anchor would say something that directly answers what you asked God to do for you. You might read newspapers and certain words would suddenly spark an interest in you. Pay attention to the things that you hear, see, and feel. If the nudging seems Godly and holy, if it sounds like something that God would say, chances are high that it is God trying to communicate an answer to you.

    If you do not have a relationship with God, and you are interested in building one. Here are my detailed suggestions on how you can do so:

    1. Confession of faith: you need to find a quiet space. Imagine that Jesus is in front of you. Ask him for forgiveness of your past sins and the sins of your ancestors. Ask him to give you the strength to forgive those who have offended you. Honestly, I suggest that you forgive the people who have offended you, because whatever they did to you is now in the past, and upon a confession of Jesus as your Lord, you become a new creation. In addition, God commands that we need to forgive others, before he can forgive us. You can also get a deliverance before your confession of faith. Deliverance will rid you off any ungodly spirits that have taken residence in your body and mind. A pastor with a deliverance anointing should be able to help with this. There are also videos on YouTube, where pastors with a deliverance anointing pray directly for people through the videos. You just need to search “deliverance prayer” in the search bar to reach these videos. Now, you need to tell Jesus that you want him to come and be your lord and personal savior, and surrender to him. You need to know that Jesus died for you. He died on the cross so that you may have a chance at salvation. The minute you give your life to Jesus, you need to know that you can no longer live as you wish, you shall live according to the stipulations in the bible. Believe in your heart that Jesus was risen up from the dead by God, and confess with your mouth that he is the messiah and your personal savior.

    2. Prayers: ask Jesus to bless you with eternal life. Tell him to make a place for you in his heavenly abode. You need to understand that praying for heaven is the best prayer that you can ever pray. Life on earth is so short, you need to be worried about eternal life, which is so much longer. God knows that you need clothes, food, shelter etc. He is your creator and he knows your every need. The bible tells us to pray for eternal life and God would provide our other needs (i.e. clothes, shelter etc.) according to his riches. If there is something bothering you, tell God in prayer, commit it to him and ask him to do it for you. However, bear in mind that this life is temporary and so are the things in this life. When you are praying, the devil will try to disrupt your prayers by bringing sudden disturbances and evil thoughts. An example of an evil thought that the devil tries to use to stop people from praying is by bringing the thought that Jesus is not present and that they are simply wasting their time. Jesus is there with you when you pray. So pray like you mean it. Pray the same way you will if Jesus was right in front of you because he is. You need to understand how prayers work as well. You see, when you pray, God answers prayers. God usually has three answers to prayers Yes, Yes but Wait, and No. God has a reason for every answer that he gives. He loves you and he will make sure that everything works out well for you in the end. When you get a No from God, sometimes it is not because that thing is not good for you at that point in time, but it may be because God is trying to draw your attention to something that you are doing wrong in your life. When you get a No from God, you need to evaluate yourself, what is the motive of your prayer? is it pure? Is it Godly? Is there an area of sin in your life that you need to work on? When you reflect on these things and you find something in yourself lacking, try to fix it. When God says Yes to prayers and sends you his blessings, trust me, there are spiritual forces of the devil in high places that work against people so that their blessings from God would not reach them. You need to pray against these spiritual forces. Rebuke them by the power and the name of Jesus. This way, your blessings would be able to reach you. Lastly, some people pray lazy prayers. For example, someone might pray for a job, without actually applying to any. God does not reward laziness. When you are praying for something, you need to be putting some work in as well. God rewards hard-work and we ought to strive to be hardworking. God’s role is to direct, bless, and make your path clear. However, bear in mind that sometimes God answers even lazy prayers and gives us undeserved blessings, that shows you the power of his love. He would always be with you. You need to make sure that you are close to God in prayer. Do not cease to tell him about what you are struggling with. If you are struggling with sins of the flesh that you believe are hindering your spiritual growth, you need to make sure that you tell God. Make sure that you pray for an increment in faith. Faith is important, you need to have faith in God. When we pray, we need to have faith, God does not like it when we doubt his ability to provide us with what we want, he is mighty and nothing is impossible with him. When you are low in faith, pray to God for an increment in faith. Remember to pray for your family, your city, your country and the world in fact, no prayers are too big for God. Pray that unsaved people would be saved. Pray for your non-Christian family members, pray that they see the light and become saved. When you pray, make sure that you take care of sins. The bible says that we need to forgive others if we want our sins to be forgiven. Make sure you forgive others, ask for forgiveness of your sins first before praying. Sins can block your prayers from getting to God. Try to avoid sin, but pray for forgiveness of sins everyday, because sometimes, we are not aware of the sins that we are committing. When you get answers to your prayers, remember to thank God.

    3. The Bible: You need to make sure that you are reading the bible and that you are obeying it. I suggest you begin with the New Testament because the coming of Jesus changed many of the things that were practised before. However, bear in mind that the old testament is also important. You can find free bible apps on google play. You can also find free bibles online. The New Living Translation is an easy to read bible version. However, the most popular one is the King James Version.

    4. Hearing from God: Trust me, God would speak to you. He would speak to you through dreams. Through people, through situations, through the bible and so much more. You need to practice and perfect the art of hearing God’s voice. Dreams contain a lot of symbolism. When you possess an avid knowledge of what the bible says, you would understand the biblical meaning of all the symbols in your dreams. However, for now, you can search online bible dream dictionaries for the meaning of things you see in your dream. You also need to know that although there are general meanings for some symbols, some interpretations are based on context. Take context into account. God does communicate via dreams. Sometimes, you might be asking God for direction on something. Pay attention to the words all around you during this time i.e, the things people say, words you see when reading the bible etc. Sometimes you might even just turn on your TV and the TV anchor would say something that directly relates to what you are going through. Pay attention to these things. You would know it is God’s voice when whatever is said is not in contradiction to the bible and God’s nature. If it is in contradiction then it might just be something random that popped up. As you practise the art of listening and hearing, God might give you the gift of seeing visions or the gift of hearing an inner voice, and take you to deeper depths of hearing.

    5. Fasting: fasting is an effective way to get God’s attention. Fasting is a way to spend time with him. You deprive yourself of food because what you seek for is more than food. There are different types of fasting, and you need to plan what works for you. There is the:

    A. Avoidance fasting: This is a fasting form where you avoid something that you cannot do without i.e. Coffee.

    B. Daniel’s fast: In this sort of fasting, you only eat fruit and vegetables and drink water. You do not eat anything cooked or anything other than fruits and vegetables.

    C. Water fast: In this sort of fasting, you do not eat anything, you only drink water. No food, just water.

    D. Total fast: In this sort of fasting, you do not eat or drink anything. You do not drink even water.

    Make sure that you work out what works for you. You can pray to God for directions on the timing of the fasting to follow. However, as a general time-frame, on fasting days, many Christians fast from 6am to 6pm. Many Christians also use those moments when they feel hungry/ feel cravings as prompts to pray. You need to have increased prayers during fasting periods.

    6. Temptations: When you believe in Jesus. Trust me, the devil sometimes would throw trials and tribulations into your life, the goal of this is to get you to denounce your faith. The goal is to frustrate you. You need to pray and fast when trials and tribulations strike. God would never leave you or forsake you. He would be with you and with God, you will overcome this if it ever happens.

    7. Spreading the gospel: Now that you know the truth, you are chosen. It is now your duty to share the truth in the bible with others. Make sure that you save people from falling prey to Satan’s tactics. You need to join the fight to depopulate the devil’s camp, while populating God’s kingdom. With spreading the gospel, do not feel the need to finish reading the whole bible before you begin. You can teach people the little you know.

    8. Read: There is a lot of material out there. There are ministers of God who have practised for about 40 years. These people have a lot of stories about their ministry. Some of them have the gift to heal others, others see visions, some of them hear God’s voice. Many of these people have written books about how they accomplished what they have accomplished, and how they got their gift. Buy these books and read them. If you do not have money, some of these ministers have shared their stories for free on YouTube, take advantage of that.

    9: Reform yourself: begin to watch Christian movies and listen to Christian music. Make sure that your thoughts, actions, and words are in obedience to the word of God. Make sure that you are not doing anything sinful in your thoughts, actions or words. Refine your world, the space around you, the things you see and hear, make it all about God. You can also join a community of bible believing Christians. However, I need to tell you that there is sectarianism in the religion. Do not pay attention to sectarianism, pay attention to the bible. The bible is your authority. If a church seems to have too much sectarianism issue going on, if they are more focused on promoting their denomination than promoting God and the word in his bible, you need to stop going there. Get a water baptism, and pray so that God would baptise you in the holy spirit.

    (I know I have written this list in the order of 1 to 9. It is crucial that you begin with Step 1. Prayers are something that you need to do constantly, so is bible study, hearing from God and reforming yourself. However, you can start small with fasting and spreading the gospel. You can start by preaching to your family members in the beginning phase of spreading the gospel, but you need to expand on these over time. I know this list seems long and all these seem deep, but trust me, you would blend into it so easily and it would become second nature to you. Pray to God to make all of these easy for you, and he will. The devil would try to trick you into believing that God’s standards are too high and that you would never overcome sin, when in actuality, you can. So therefore, pray to God and believe and he would help you overcome sin).

    If you ever backslide and fall back into sin again while trying to follow God’s word. You need to ask him to forgive you and try to get back on track.

    If you have any questions, feel free to let me know. If you need to talk, I am here for you. God bless you. Have a blessed day 🙂

    Like

    • Hello,

      Thank you for your reply and for sharing your thoughts. It’s good to know that you have found a way that helps your writing process and that works for you.

      I suppose we all need to search individually for the methods that we find useful. There is no objectively wrong or right way to write, as long as you keep writing.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s