Monday, October 14, 2013

Writer's Block: Where Did My Words Go?

I have a degree in writing, and I want to be a writer, but I excuse my way out of it all the time: I can't find the notes I'm looking for. My favorite pencil has gone missing. I don't have enough time to immerse myself in writing today. I should make sure I didn't miss anything on Facebook. I'm not going to be able to focus until I trim my nose hair. I've got a million of them. Today I'm just stuck. So I rewrite what somebody else has written--a technique that often works for me.

I had the opportunity several years back to attend a workshop given by poet Philip Dacey. The subject of that particular workshop was writer's block, and it was based on what Dacey believed to be the premise for these frightening bouts of idleness: Writer's blocks are invented unconsciously by those who wish to avoid, for any number of reasons, the task of writing, while yet enjoying the romance of a writerly aura, the cachet of suffering artists; writers, however, write.

Without going through the fine details of the workshop, let me share with you nine of Dacey's nineteen things to do when you "can't write," based on notes from the workshop.

  1. Translate from a language you don't know. I've tried this a few times with poetry and had some success. It definitely worked a different part of my brain and helped me to see things from a different perspective.
  2. Tell a lie about your body and use that lie as the first line for a poem (or maybe it will prove to be a one-line poem). An example I wrote: My hands want to tear my pathetic little head from my torso and toss it to hell.
  3. Barbarous Bucklings: Make surprising adjective/noun combinations until a certain combination leads into the process of writing a poem. My examples: caustic tendrils, decaying birth, beautiful sickness.
  4. A variation on the process that Dacey calls "The Genitive Shuffle." Combine two not obviously related nouns with the possessive preposition "of." My musings: a morsel of pain. a bag of moonlight. a forest of noise.
  5. Invent metaphors or similes and see where they lead you. This one is always challenging for me: The waves pecked at the shore like farm fowl at feeding time.
  6. Almost tell the truth. Fictionalize a particular personal experience, changing a single, significant element of the story: The barista that took my order this morning asked me how long I've been modeling. 
  7. Adopt a persona. Explore writing from a different point of view quite removed from your own. Have a mental sex change for a moment. Become your hero. Become your enemy. Channel the mind of a child you know. This can be a fun exercise.
  8. Play the game of secrets. These could be real, or they could be the secrets of a persona you adopted: I placed my crying baby in the microwave just to see if she'd fit; I only turned it on for a second. I'm in love with another man, and my wife would be furious if she knew.
  9. Play the game of as if: "if" and "as if" and "what if" are some of the most important words for poets because they open the door to the imagination. Here are a few of my attempts: If you were a car, then I'd be your mechanic. If poetry were food, then I'd need bigger pants. If you were sunshine, then I'd have a great tan.
I'll share Dacey's final ten things to do when you "can't write" in a future post--probably when I get stuck again. Now stop making excuses and go write.

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