Geeky Crafting: Combating Writer's Block

Hello and Happy Solstice to everyone out there in the interwebs! For many of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this time of year harkened the onset of a few months of hard-won, glorious freedom from the daily school routine. Don't get me wrong, school was wonderful for a whole host of reasons (I know, a nerd who loved school…who'd have thunk it?), but having that extra time and brainpower to spend as you saw fit seemed like a luxury. Now, as an adult with a full-time job, the concept of summer vacation may be a thing of the past (fie on that!), but it seems as though the pace of life seems to slow a bit during these few months as people try to enjoy the fleeting bits of good weather. 

Between this and the onset of yet another battle with the workish Elder Hydra, I'm trying to cram in as much enjoyment/hobby time as humanly possible. Since the GIR and I are, lamentably enough, not going to Gen Con this year, all the effort that would normally be given to a costume is instead being allocated to my other favorite creative outlet: writing. 

At the moment, the object of my scriptic affections is something I've wanted to do for many years now: GM a campaign. You might remember back to last year's rundown of releases and gaming developments at Gen Con 2012 and a brief mention of Fantasy Flight's newest foray into RPGs, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This, my friends, will be the system with which I (hopefully) will begin my GMing career. A full review of the system will be the subject of a future post, but right now I'm giddily embroiled in a tangle of plot threads and character development. 

At this point, though the campaign universe and I have a long history, the premise of developing an RPG adventure is still new enough that the novelty alone will keep me happily creating for the time being. However, I know that all too soon the ease with which the words flow will taper and perhaps even grind to a halt. It doesn't matter how engaging the subject matter is or how enthused I am about a project. At some point during the composition process my brain will straight-up rebel and those cerebral parts that are normally happy to wordsmith will pitch a hissy fit and stubbornly refuse to continue or, more commonly, will feel generally blah and in no fit state to create.

Such is the way of things. Were time and distractions limitless, I'd leave this dreaded writer's block to resolve itself. Unfortunately, that sort of luxury is not readily afforded to anyone who writes any sort of content that is intended to be consumed by another person. We're often subject to deadlines or the expectations of our readers, neither of which will stand idly by simply because new authorial ideas have become hard to procure.

Aside from this blog, my graduate thesis, and the forthcoming campaign, I write a not-insignificant amount as part of my job and, over the years, have developed a few little exercises to help overcome the writer's block malady. Though, in all honesty, this issue extends to most, if not all, creative pursuits. So if writing isn't your thing, you can probably apply these to just about any project.

First and foremost item to consider when you're at a loss for words: Why are you writing this?

Seriously. What is your intended outcome for this work? Do you want to derive anything personally from this? If so, what? Is this a story you feel needs to be told? Are you hoping to entertain an audience? Is this a brand new genre/style that you've been dying to experiment with? Are you hoping to get published?

Sometimes, particularly if you've been embroiled in a project for an extended period, we lose sight of why we embarked on this journey in the first place. It's extremely easy to do and often causes all sorts of frustration. Taking a step back and reconnecting with the intended purpose of your work can often help clear away any mental "clutter", or extraneous thoughts about the project, and set you back on a productive path. 

If that doesn't work or you feel that mental "clutter" hasn't dropped away as much as you'd like, move on to some self-diagnosis. What do you think is causing the "blockage"? The most common responses tend to be: lack of inspiration, fatigue, overwhelmed by new project/genre or thinking that nothing you write is good enough/original.

Let's tackle those one at a time.

Lack of Inspiration
You feel completely blah about any and all ideas that spring to mind. It's not that you don't want to compose, it's that you feel you have nothing to write about. There's a lot of sitting down to sketch out your thoughts and coming away with blank pages. Counter this deficiency by indulging in some of your favorite works or, ideally, a combination of well-loved precedents and content that is new to you. Stop thinking about your own project and surround yourself with pieces you admire. Don't limit yourself to the media form that your current efforts are based in. If you love some Tolkien, maybe read a few chapters from the Hobbit and watch one of the Trilogy or listen to the soundtrack. If Gaiman strikes your fancy, perhaps take in some artwork based on his prose, then flip through your favorite issue of The Sandman. As you're doing this, try to take in the material mindfully. Ask yourself questions periodically. Why are these works so good? What about them moves you? It's also perfectly ok if you can't define the answers to those in words. The responses can manifest just as nicely in your thoughts. Let yourself drift away for a bit. You'd be surprised how not actively considering your own process for a while can free up your mind.

You are just too damned tired or stressed out. The mere thought of creating just adds one more chore to your unending to-do list. Ugh and fie on writing! First off, deep breaths. Clear your head as best you can. Once you've regained your bearings, ask yourself this: Is this actual burnout or is this ennui? At times it can be tricky to discern the two, but, frequently, the distinction is pretty clear. If you're burnt out, just physically/emotionally/creatively drained, stop actively thinking or working on the project if at all possible. Do something completely different; occupy your hours with anything but writing. Give your brain and body a chance to rest and reset. If you absolutely have to continue chipping away at your project, make notes as needed (world building exercises are excellent for just this purpose) but no further construction. For serious. Just. Stop.

Ennui, however, is a completely different matter (and a generally awesome word). This is the mental equivalent of, "I should go to the gym, but I just don't feel like it." It's what makes procrastination so easy if you're prone to such. In any case, the response is the same: force yourself to create anyway. Exert some control over that petulant mind. Rwar! Though the brain isn't a muscle, the concept of plasticity definitely applies; you'll get better the more you practice. Obviously that's not exactly what someone mired in ennui wants to hear, but it's a sure-fire way to resolve the problem (and improve your overall writing skills in the process). Get yourself revved up and back in the fight!

Taking on this project/genre seemed like such a good idea at the incept, but now you're buried under the dual-faceted avalanche of trying to create while learning something new. Since the problem is two-sided, the response should address each piece of the issue. Go back to the fundamental question: Why you are doing this? Once you've redefined why this project was so appealing in the first place, follow the steps outlined for someone lacking inspiration only, in this instance, limit yourself to the media form you hope to create. In the case of writing, look to authors you admire in this particular style. One decent way to "jump start" yourself is borrow  a section of someone else's text, then spend some time breaking it down into various components, analyze those components, then set back to your own composition. Reverse engineering works as well with writing as it does with other creative processes. Bonus: it's also a great way to introduce yourself to and gain familiarity with new vocabulary!

Nothing good/original
You've got plenty down on paper/Word docs, but it's just not good enough. Or, what you have is ok, but you feel like you've read/heard/seen this narrative a hundred times before. Well, you're technically not wrong. According to literary historians, nothing is original. Anything you come up with is one or more of the 36 Dramatic Situations (or insert any number of similar such lists here). While this may be somewhat disheartening, that doesn't imply that what you're attempting to make isn't good quality or worthwhile. By this logic, you're working with the same fundamental material as everyone else who has ever created a work of written, auditory, or visual art. That right there is pretty cool. So try not to get caught up in the idea that everything you make has to be 100% unique content. Also, be nice to yourself. The quantity and severity of self-criticism tends to correlate with the amount of emotional investment and aggregate time spent on a project. The practice is so easy to pick up that sometimes you don't even realize what your mental monologue is actually saying.  

Keep plugging away while you can; don't shy away from taking breaks as needed. Then give your work to a neutral 3rd party. It's tempting to pass your writing off to a friend for review/initial thoughts but, if you really want to know if what you're doing is any good, seek out the opinion who has no personal ties to you. Bring friends into the mix on the second or third drafts.

Best of luck to everyone wherever your creative pursuits may take you!

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