Saturday, 4 February 2017

Games to overcome writer's block – David Thorpe

People often ask how to become a writer. It's too easy to respond: "just write". 

The idea of sitting down at blank screen or piece of paper is terrifying for someone not used to it. Partly that's why people go on writing courses: to be given exercises.

But even people on writing courses still find it difficult to write. There are too many psychological blocks.

For hopelessly addicted writers like myself it's often hard to remember what these blocks are, because we write almost all the time – even in our heads or when asleep, and when we are pretending not to be thinking about our latest plot problem in company because it's not really polite to let the people you are with know that you are not giving them the fullest attention.

Perhaps not being able to get writing even though you want to is like knowing that you need to exercise but finding it hard to get out of your chair and go for that walk.

It's not just the effort, it's actually scary.

And although the scary things are just in your head, that doesn't make them any less tough to handle.

What could be the way around this?

I suggest: to let a different part of your mind take over. 

Let us play

There is some considerable crossover between writing and playing.

Playing is what children do without even trying, without thinking about it, completely sublimely and unconsciously.

Give a child a couple of figurines or dolls and they will be making them interact, giving them lines to speak to each other and things to do before your back is turned.

Introduce two children who do not know each other and within minutes they will be playing.

The point about play is that you can't make a mistake. There is nothing at stake. You have nothing to lose. And it is fun.

Unfortunately as we become adults many of us forget how to play. In some cases perhaps that's why we drink alcohol or take other substances: to loosen our minds up.

Just as habitual athletes are used to flexing their muscles, so habitual writers are used to loosening their minds.

But beginner writers need to trick their minds into becoming loose. If you can't directly give yourself permission, you can do it in a roundabout way.

The beginner athlete isn't going for a walk, they are walking the dog. They aren't going for a cycle ride, they are cycling to the shop because they need some milk.

If you are a student of impro comedy then you will play games as part of your training, because you absolutely need a loose mind to stand up on a stage in front of an audience and be spontaneously silly.

Writers can borrow some of these games.

And there are ones for coming up with characters. Like:

Interview yourself in character

Take some names at random: two forenames and one surname. Now interview this person in the manner of a magazine article. What changed their life? What is their favourite cheese? Do they believe in God and if so what colour is God?

If you can't think of any questions yourself, just use ones from an existing magazine interview.

If you invent two characters this way, next write a short scene in which they meet each other. Try having the meet each other in unusual situations: a car crash, a funeral, arguing over who is next to be served in a crowded bar, in a spaceship due to be stranded on a strange planet.

Or this one: imagine a friend of yours in a different time and place, say gangster-ruled Chicago in the 1930s, or a country house in the time of Jane Austen. Give them a different name and have them meet another friend or relative of yours, also given a different name but the same personality.  What happens next?

Give them a reason for meeting: to arrange a marriage or a business deal. Or maybe they are in love with the same person or want to get their hands on the same stash of money or guns. What's the first thing they say? Or do?

Once you've started, write the first thing that comes into your head. Don't pause, don't analyse. Children don't analyse when they play.

Keep going, don't try to come up with anything better, just let it flow. If you stop, write the last thing you wrote again, and keep going.

Other games

Then there is guided meditation. Close your eyes. Imagine yourself going on a journey – to another place. Picture what you see and who you meet.

You have to go through a door. What is it like? Who or what is on the other side?

Stay in the trance state, open your eyes and write it down.

Or use a device to record you saying what you see and transcribe it later.

There are other games – for writing poetry for instance. See these ones compiled by Tim Wynne-Jones.

As soon as you do any of these things you are tricking your mind into playing. You are giving yourself permission to be a writer.

You are writing. And that's what writers do.

Have fun!

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