In my personal library, I have over 20 books devoted to the tricky subject of writer’s block. My collection ranges from the cutesy Writing Block series by Lou Harry (with each book printed in the shape of a 3x3x3 inch block) to the brainy treatise that is Rosanne Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Block. A quick read-through of the far-ranging titles on my shelf highlights one of writer’s block’s crucial dilemmas: the overloading amount of advice and solutions offered to squash writer’s block reflects the multi-faceted nature of the problem itself. If I’m dealing with a vicious inner critic, there are 189 book listings that can solve the issue on Amazon alone. How about procrastination? Over 100+ podcasts on iTunes can help.
The subjectivity of creative writing has created a demanding market of self-help authors that overwhelm the aspiring writer in their attempts to assist him. This frustration ultimately led to the creation of the first exercise in this series. One July, after almost two years of only freewriting to show for my attempts, I snapped. Fed up with the “Show up at the page” and “Discipline is everything” I preached at my own workshops, I slammed my Macbook shut and walked out into a blazing heat. Without the looming presence of my 5-subject notebooks and Macbook, I felt liberated from the demands I had placed on myself.
Over the next two hours, I explored the local “Rail to Trails,” stumbling upon everything from an unfortanate porcupine corpse to a severed seat belt buckle left on the trail—all excellent fodder for the writer! Luckily, I had stormed out of the house with my iPhone in my pocket. After recording my journey through photos, I later returned home and wrote about the photos I had taken. I sent out three new poems to various literary journals later that month.
Too often, the aspiring writer gets consumed with the “Product”. He devotes his time and thoughts to his project with an idealized end result in mind. The writer, however, soon faces creative exhaustion after spending x amount of hours in front a blank page. With the fast-paced opportunities that self-publishing and online publications offer, the time needed to foster inspiration and indulge the process of composing has been cast to the side. Many of the most promising remedies for writer’s block must come from the work done beyond the confines of the page margin or mouse cursor.
Before we begin the first exercise, consider this quote by two-time Booker Prize recipient and National Book Critic’c Circle Award winner, Hilary Mantel:
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
—Hilary Mantel, The Guardian, 2/25/10
Exercise # 1: The Walk
- A smartphone or digital camera
- A walking path or route, preferably in nature
Step 1: Leave your writing projects and upcoming deadlines at home. If anything, this exercise acts as a walking meditation. Attune yourself to all the sensations of your body and sights on your path.
Step 2: Devote at least 30 minutes to your chosen route. Allow yourself to carefully observe anything that catches your eye. Check under your feet for animal imprints. Scan the forest canopy for a deserted squirrel nest. Too often, we make a habit out of quickly passing through the spaces we inhabit without noting all the details that make up our environment.
Step 3: Take at least 10 pictures. This guideline is meant to force you to actively hunt out potential subjects for a new piece, and provide a set of parameters the creative mind often needs to produce.
Step 4: Incubate. Once you have your photos, do not allow yourself to write about the pictures until at least 3 days have passed. Allow your mind to take the time it needs to remove itself from the immediate context in which the photos were taken. You’ll be surprised at what new connections your mind will make once you strip the photos of the trivial memories you had from that day.
Step 5: Freewrite. Write your first impressions from the photos, allowing yourself to consider various settings, plots, or other details that weren’t part of your original walk.
Step 6: Share (Optional): Once you have finished your exercise, feel free to share your work with me via Twitter at @aarontremper