Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Writer's Block

I don't believe in muses.

Do plumbers need to get inspired? Do bartenders ever become blocked and unable to mix drinks? Can mechanical engineers only design a linkage when in the proper mindset?

I feel the same about writers.

Many disagree with me, including several peers of mine who have been blocked. They use words like art and creativity and magic while they mope around in a funk---sometimes lasting for months---until the magic magically returns.

I think they're crazy. Writing doesn't involve magic. It involves putting words down on paper, something most of us have been doing since we were five years old.

But surely creating a story from scratch requires more creativity and inspiration than painting a fence or hosting a talkshow?

Actually, writing a story requires exactly the same skills as hosting a talk show. And thinking that way is a helpful cure for writer's block.

Let's say you're Jerry Springer. You've got a topic like "Which of my Cousins Fathered my Baby?" Plenty of conflict inherent in that premise. As guests, you've got Holly, a cute 17-year-old fifth grade drop out and the mamma to be. Her cousin Elmer, a bad boy who races lawnmowers. Her cousin Zeke, who has loved Holly since puberty, but also has loved Holly's sister, Georgia. Let's also include Georgia on the show, a beautiful southern belle with an eating disorder, and the girl's mother, who is only eleven years older than Holly, and who has also slept with Elmer.

What is Jerry's job? He has to:
  1. Make sure the premise is intriguing.
  2. Make sure the guests have a chance to tell their sides of the story.
  3. Stir up conflict to keep things interesting.
  4. Try to come to some kind of resolution by the show's end.

Coincidentally, that's what writers need to do.

Jerry doesn't need to put words in the mouths of his guests, or put his hands on them to get them to attack each other.

He simply has to sit back and direct the action. And it works. Conflict ensues. Sparks fly. Secrets are revealed. Chairs are thrown.

Instead of thinking of yourself as a magician, waiting for inspiration to allow you the power to write a story, you should think of yourself as a director, watching the action, steering it into the directions you want it to go.

You aren't speaking for the characters. The characters are speaking for themselves. You aren't forcing the conflict. The conflict is happening all on its own.

The writer is simply the conduit for the story. Let the characters write it for you.

Jerry Springer isn't scripted. He has a few vague ideas of what he wants to see, and then runs with it.

Writing should be the same way. Don't worry about making it perfect. Don't fret over every single word. Let the characters speak for themselves, and let the story go wherever it wants to go.

Don't tie your own hands. Instead, ask your characters how they're feeling, what they want, and what they should do next.

If you relax and let things happen, you won't be blocked. In fact, you'll be excited and curious about where your story is heading.

And best of all, it's a helluva lot easier than plumbing.