Beat the Writer’s Block: Try Something New

Writer's block sucks.
Writer’s block sucks.

Writer’s block is a pain in the pen. I’ve been dealing with it for the past 4 months or so, and it’s rather aggravating. Of course, I think much of the block came from the stresses of teaching and grading papers and all that jazz this semester, but now I’m relaxed and on break and have absolutely no excuse. None of my usual techniques are working at this point, and I’m starting to feel somewhat stifled, creatively speaking. So I decided to branch out…and that’s what today’s post is about.

As most of you know, I’m a fiction writer. My work is almost exclusively short story-based, although I have tentatively ventured out into the world of novel writing on occasion. The point is, I write creative fiction and not much else. So my attempt at branching out is a very strange and somewhat terrifying one for me: I’m taking a poetry writing class. I’m not much of a poetry reader, to be quite honest; I love my epic poetry, some Shakespearean sonnets, and any poetry by J. R. R. Tolkien, but that’s about it. It just doesn’t appeal to me. As a result, I have trouble writing poetry. It’s so technical and feels very restricted sometimes, even in free verse. I’ve written a few poems, but they’re not very good and it’s an agonizingly painful process. But I signed up for this class anyway, because why not? Might as well try, since I’m having no luck with fiction at the moment. The class doesn’t start until January, but the professor sent out a massive list of things we have to do prior to the beginning of the course. And strangely enough, the pre-class work is already starting to erode the creative wall I’ve been trying to knock down for months. I’ve had to write some new pieces of poetry in different styles, and practice writing a poem out multiple times by hand, pausing to think about what each line means or could mean. It’s an interesting experience, and it’s forcing me to think in different creative ways than I’m used to. Mind you, my poetry still sucks, but I’m learning, as well as forcing my way past my writing issues. I’ve even gotten some short story ideas from working on this poetry stuff.  And this is even before the class actually starts! I’m excited.

Tolkien wrote some of the most beautiful poetry I've ever seen.
Tolkien wrote some of the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever seen.

Branching out doesn’t necessarily require a medium change. You don’t have to try writing a novel if you’re a poet, although I would recommend it. It’s ridiculously frustrating but quite helpful. Anyway, trying something new in your writing can be much simpler than that. If you write mostly in 3rd person, try writing a short story in 1st or even 2nd person. Worldbuilders, take a break from all that complicated detail, and work on a character piece. Free verse poets can try writing sonnets. I think y’all get the idea. When you hit a creative wall, change your writing up. Try something that you’re not comfortable with or that you just don’t like writing. It may be frustrating, but you will most likely learn things. Such detours should help you reorient your brain and hopefully push you past the writer’s block. And who knows? You may even find that you like the  new element of your writing.

Literary Catharsis

Nevermore.
Nevermore.

The idea of using writing as a means of relieving pain or releasing negative emotions isn’t exactly a new one. Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft both used their creative processes to assuage their inner demons during dark times of their lives, and there’re countless other poets and writers who have done the same. In other words, what I’m discussing today isn’t exactly a light bulb moment that will change lives or anything. Instead, I want to talk about situations in which I use this particular method of pain relief, and some ways I’ve found to be effective in doing so.

First off, I want to talk about anger. I don’t mean the grumpy, wake up on the wrong side of the bed, someone is sitting in my spot kind of irritated bad mood. By angry, I mean the all-encompassing, blood boiling, evil genius ranting, rarely ever happens kind of angry. This tends to fall into two categories, for me: anger directed at a specific person or persons, and anger directed at an event, and my writing takes a different tack depending on which category of anger I’m trying to vent. The first one has only happened twice…once directed against an ex-boyfriend, and once against a good friend’s ex. My ex was abusive, and he continued to be so even after we broke up. I was inspired to Taylor Swift levels of anger, and since I couldn’t go break his face, I did what I do whenever I’m mad at someone: wrote him into my novel and did horrible things to him. Seriously, you would not believe how much better you feel after doing that to someone. In the case of my ex, he got his nose broken, and then later screamed like a little girl while being munched on very slowly by a very hungry vampire. After that, I wasn’t really angry anymore – whenever he tried to pull something, I just imagined him being eaten by the vampire and screaming, and I could laugh at him and pretty much ignore him. As for my friend’s ex, I had him polished off by a serial killer. What really helps get rid of the anger is to write the character down, do horrible things to them, and then shred the paper/burn it/stomp on it. It feels like you’re deleting them and their issues from your life. In my experience, this method provides a lot more relief than any physical action, and it means you’re also less likely to get in trouble with the police. Just saying.

Never forget.
Never forget.

In regards to the other kind of anger, that directed at an event, the method is slightly different, and will probably vary for most people. For me, I tend to write stories from the POV of someone who could have been involved. Sometimes I write very grumpy blog posts, but usually it’s a story. I was only a kid when 9/11 happened, but I was definitely old enough to understand what was going on. I remember watching it on TV and seeing the aftermath, and being really, really angry about it. It wasn’t even anger at the people who caused it – I was just angry that it happened. I didn’t know how to cope with that anger, so I just sat down and wrote a story. I was very young, so of course it wasn’t very good, but I wrote a “could have been” story about a young married couple in New York. The wife worked in one of the towers; the husband worked downtown. I wrote about the death of the wife and her husband’s grieving process. For me, it helped relieve the anger I didn’t know how to deal with and calmed it down into a grief and pain that was easier to manage. I’ve done that for several situations in my relatively short life, and it’s always worked for me.

Finally, I want to briefly talk about using writing to relieve extreme grief/depression. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m prone to severe depression from time to time. Sometimes there’s a cause, sometimes there isn’t. Recently, I lost someone who is very dear to me (not through bereavement, but a loss just the same). So for the past couple weeks, I’ve been dealing with both grief and depression, and that’s where my writing comes in. The only physical thing I’ve found that can really ease the pain is putting it down in words…it’s the only thing that can give voice to what I feel. In these cases, I mostly write poetry. Can’t write it at any other time, but I can when the pain is too much for me to handle alone. All that emotion and grief just pours itself into imagery that is best expressed through poetry. Sometimes I write creative non-fiction – a short story that uses imagery and metaphors to describe what I’m going through. It never completely relieves the pain, but at least it helps me understand what’s going on, and lets me reach out to someone else when I normally wouldn’t. It gives me hope, and that’s really the best kind of catharsis I can ask for.

I hope this post was insightful today, and I also hope that maybe it inspires someone. Writing is one of the best forms of catharsis in this world, and I strongly encourage you all to take advantage of it.

Must Reads

Enter here to tales of yore,

Everyone has their list of books that they think are amazing.  We tend to tell people that they must read these books, thus the title, must reads.  However, while there are a lot of great books out there, and a lot of books that are beneficial to read, there are relatively few books or authors that one ‘must read’.  Books/authors that one ‘must read’ are books/authors that have become foundational to a particular genre, or that have significantly changed that genre in some way.  So, I have compiled a list of ‘must reads’ for Science Fiction and Fantasy fans.  You will not that this list is relatively short (comparatively speaking) and at least a few books that you think should be on it, aren’t.  Again, these are books/authors that founded or significantly altered the genre.

Isaac Asimov: Asimov wrote numerous short stories and a number of novels.  However, he is best known for his Foundation Trilogy.  Asimov effectively founded the Science Fiction genre, and thus is definitely a must read.

J.R.R. Tolkien:  Tolkien was a prolific author, so prolific that books of his short stories and still be found and newly published by his descendants.  Best know for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is to fantasy what Asimov is to Science Fiction.

C.S. Lewis: While not as prolific a fiction author, nor as influential to the genre as Tolkien, Lewis’s work and relationship with Tolkien are both significant to the genre.

Edgar Allan Poe: Poe is not the first person to come to mind when one thinks of sci-fi/fantasy.  His work primarily belongs to the genres of horror and mystery, but the influence of Poe’s writing is felt throughout the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres and thus he is a must read for any fan.

H.P. Lovecraft: Like Poe, Lovecraft’s writing belongs primarily in the realm of horror.  However, Lovecraft’s influence is also felt throughout all three genres, and to truly understand any of them, one must be familiar with his work.

Frank Herbert: Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune are all profoundly influential novels that have helped to shape the sci-fi genre in its entirety.  It is difficult to find a good sci-fi author (or film maker) who has not been influenced by Herbert’s work.

Of many man and dragons score,

Robert Heinlein: Like Herbert, Heinlein is a name that should be familiar to all sci-fi fans.  While Herbert dealt more with the philosophical, Heinlein’s fiction deals with practical and political concerns.  Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are suggested.

George Orwell: While there are many great dystopian authors, Orwell is arguably the most prolific and influential (thought both Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley rank only slightly lower).  Animal Farm and 1984 are suggested.

Sir Thomas More:  More’s novel Utopia (1516) is responsible for the great flood of dystopian fiction of the 20th century.  While the novel itself is not a must read, familiarity with its ideas is important.

George Macdonald: Macdonald was a significant influence on the work of both Tolkien and Lewis, and many consider Macdonald’s writing to be the first true fantasy written for adults.  Phantastes is recommended (although my favorites have always been The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdy, though these are written for children).

Robert E. Howard: Best known for Conan The Barbarian, and his many short stories involving this character.  It is argued that Howard introduced the first protagonist with a significantly different moral structure in fantasy.

Ursula K. Leguin: The Earthsea series is almost as foundational to the development of modern fantasy as Tolkien’s work.

Terry Brooks: While his work is often as maligned as it is loved among fans of the fantasy genre, the Shannara series led a major change in the way that fantasy was published (if not the way that it was written) and opened doors for many other fantasy authors.

And of the living lands all covered in war.

Stephen R. Donaldson: Donaldson’s work in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever stood side by side with Brooks’ Shannara novels in reintroducing the fantasy genre to the American public.

Glen Cook:  While Brooks and Donaldson changed the way that fantasy was published, Cook changed the way that fantasy was written.  Before Cook the fantasy genre was dominated by stories about kings, princes, and maidens.  The tales tended to revolve around men and women of significant power and influence, who changed the world.  Cook’s The Black Company changed this focus.  Cook’s series looks at fantasy through the eyes of the soldier, the mercenary, and the peasant.  Instead of great heroes, Cook’s protagonists are men and women who’s primary goal is to stay alive, and to get home with all their parts intact.

A Matter of Responsiblity

You know the drill. Pass it on.

When I was seventeen years old, I hit two pedestrians with my car.  Now, this was ruled a no-fault accident.  It was 6:30 am in the middle of February on a cloudy day.  The road was quite misty, I was coming around a blind turn and my lights were on a yard instead of on the road, and the pedestrians were walking down the middle of the road in dark clothing.  There was no action that I could reasonably have taken to avoid the accident, other than not being behind the wheel of the car.  So, this accident was not my fault, but that lack of fault does not absolve me of responsibility.  If I had not been driving, the accident would not have happened.  If I had left later, the accident would not have happened.  My responsibility also does not absolve the pedestrians of their responsibility.  If they had left later, the accident would not have happened.  If they were not walking in the middle of the road, the accident would not have happened, etc.  However, this is a responsibility that I live with, because there were permanent consequences to my actions that day.

There is a lot more to this story, but my focus today is on the nature of responsibility.  We are responsible for our actions, and for the consequences of those actions – whether intended or unintended, and this is something that we should bear in mind both as people, and as writers.  If my action, or inaction, hurts another person (regardless of intent), then this is my responsibility, and I should take steps to mitigate that hurt (it is impossible to ‘right a wrong’ but it is possible to mitigate the harm done by a wrong).  This applies to any action, whether it involves a car, a relationship, a work of art, etc, and it is something that I have noticed a distinct lack of in the American people – both in our celebrities, our art, and in our everyday lives.

We can't start living up to our responsibilities until we start owning our mistakes. We must learn how and when to be the bad guy.

We have become a nation of people who insist that ‘it’s not my fault’ and ‘I can’t be held responsible for that’, and this affects our relationships, our work, our studies, and our entertainment.  As a professor, I can’t count the number of students who argue that they shouldn’t be responsible for the actions that led to their grade.  While I certainly bear a responsibility as the professor to inform them of class requirements, to post their grades in a timely manner, and give them feedback on what they need to improve; the student also bears a responsibility to fulfill those requirements, to act on that feedback, and to ensure that their work is finished in a timely manner.

In relationships, whether friendships or romantic, when I have done something to harm another it is my responsibility to make amends.  If I have harmed another unknowningly this responsibility is not absolved (although that person does have a responsibility to make me aware of the harm before I can make amends).  If my inaction hurts a friend or romantic partner, then it is my responsibility to make amends for that inaction, and in some cases, if my kindness will lead to greater harm, then it is my responsibility to be cruel (to be the bad guy) so that the harm done to my friend might be mitigated.  This same nature of responsibility applies to us as writers.

Words and images have power, and as writers and artists we must be aware of that power, and use it responsibly – and we must also take responsibility for the effect that our use of words and images has on others.  There is, and must be, a place for darkness in writing, as well as for graphic material (this is something that we have discussed before here and here).  However, we cannot control who reads our work.   If someone decides to read H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King to a five year old, while the author cannot be held at fault, that author does bear some measure of responsibility for the inevitable damage this will do.  As artists we must take responsibility for the effect that our works have on others.  Just as a doctor, parent, or teacher must bear responsibility for the consequences of their actions, so we must take responsibility for the consequences of ours.  This is, and should be, a heavy burden on the mind of any artist – not just, ‘how will my work be received’, but ‘what effect will my work have on others’.

However, this responsibility cannot cause us to shy away from doing work that must be done.  If Schindler’s List had never been made, then it would be a great loss to the world.  If King, Lovecraft, or Edgar Allan Poe had never written, then it would be a great loss to the world.  While we must take these things seriously, and understand the gravity of our words, we cannot allow the responsibility that they bear to force us to shy away from hard things.  Responsibility is a frightening thing.  It is uncomfortable, often painful, and rarely appreciated.  However, it is also profoundly needed, precisely because it is something that our culture has left behind.  I encourage all of you, and myself as well, to be careful with your writing, but do not be fearful.