Somebody asked me about Writer’s Block – Not being able to write:
I replied:
Okay, I have written lots – as a journalist, diplomat, economist (even), and PR person working in the Italian film and cultural industries, and then as a TV and radio writer and producer and occasional narrator, and finally as a writer of fiction – literary, historical, science fiction, and even (may the gods forgive me) eroticism – but classy literate (I think) eroticism. I think one must put away the critic in one’s head. Just annul it, cancel it, and ignore it – criticism and self-criticism should come after the act of creation. Now, how to do this.
1) concentrate on form or technicalities: One theorist and historian of art, Ernst Gombrich I think, suggested that concentrating on a formal aspect – like making two words rhyme, or making your sentences only five words long (I’m joking here) can free up your creative mind, by distracting the critical censorious super-ego, because you are busy trying to see what rhymes with “dog” – say “log” or “fog” or “God” or “odd” So, while you are busy trying to solve a formal problem, you critic is lulled to sleep.
2) Treat language like a toy: I’ll confess that I suffered, many decades ago, from writer’s block – the language, my mother tongue English, seemed just too laden with toxic and taboo and dangerous materials, so I choked up and strangled myself trying to hone sentences to perfection, to hygienic cleanliness; it happened, then, that I was in love with – obsessed by – a young French woman, she was and she is extraordinary, and since I spoke French, I decided to write about the obsession in French; this was suddenly liberating because French, for me, was like a marvelous toy; it was free of all the murky underbelly of English, words were light, they had that incredible lightness of being, and then that freedom of approach bounced back into English. I ceased, as it were, to be constipated, to use an old concept and ancient terminology. Treat the English language and its possibilities as if it were a toy.
3) Non-stop writing: Write according to a strict word count or timeline. “I am going to write without physically stopping for say twenty or thirty minutes, not taking my fingers off the keyboard for an instant, or not taking the pen off the paper for an instance, or, alternatively, write to a given word count, “I will not stand up from this chair until I have written 500 or 1000 or 2000 words!” This idea came from a seminal book by a guy called Elbow – like in elbow grease – Peter Elbow, who I later discovered is a sort of guru, Writing With Power is the book. That idea – non-stop writing – changed my life. Just go for it – write, write, write.
4) Don’t overplan, just write, let the characters and situations take you where they want to take you. Creativity is a fast-footed creature. Go as quickly as you can; otherwise, the best creative ideas will escape. Blocks arise when you slow down.
There are two schools, the top-down, structural engineering school, where you have a detailed plan, and you then fill in the blanks; this can become a bit like paint-by-numbers. A plan is useful, but it should be loose, adaptable, and not taken too seriously. Over-analysis wakens the critical beast and that is dangerous. Eisenhower said something like “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.” Stephen King said something like, “I plop a character into a situation and I see what happens.” That is the bottom-up, instant-by-instant, character-and-situation-driven approach. Of course, an overarching idea is useful, and a structure is useful, what genre is this story, is it a tragedy, or a comedy, is it romantic or dark, how many acts are we going to have? But I would keep the general structure as a dreamy outline only.
When I wrote the “Adventures of V” I started from a stupid idea – I would combine Vampire and Vatican – and so I had Vampire Vs Vatican (I worked in Rome for many years and know the Vatican and its impact on politics and Italy fairly well), then I thought, I have this beautiful immortal half-alien vampire, whose mandate is to protect humanity, even from itself, and so – what do I do with her? And I thought about the big themes coming up – cloning, artificial intelligence, climate change and ecological degradation, soaring inequalities, the hardening of society into almost caste-like social classes, and etc. And the volumes starring my creature arose out of that.
So I would say, as advice: Give yourself maybe a tagline, maybe a sketch – a drawn line with some keywords – imagine the beginning, and imagine the end, and then let your characters take over.
Another device I use is Serge Eisenstein’s distinction of Vertical Montage and Horizontal Montage. His concept, or distinction, was applied to cinema; but I think it applies equally to writing, indeed to almost all the arts. But I’ll discuss that some other time.
I discuss some of these issues in a blog for House of Anansi Press, Conjuring Venice, regarding a novel which I wrote with the late, great Jackie Park. The link is below. Here is a link to a reflection of writing the historical novel Son of Two Fathers, co-written, as I said, with Jackie, who died, almost 93 years old, in January 2018. Son of Two Fathers was published in 2019. It’s big, 666-pages, but I think – blush – that it is good. It is the third volume in Jacke’s Grazia Trilogy – but it can be absolutely read as a stand-alone,
Gilbert (Reid) gilbertreid.com