Monday, November 18, 2013

Shaking off Stagnation...

Hello folks! Mark here with a few thoughts on how I break myself out of the creative doldrums. I've written previously asking about where we find our sources of inspiration. Sometimes, however, inspiration doesn't show and patience wears thin. During those times stuff roils around inside my brain, refusing to congeal enough to frame coherent thoughts. I've gone through more than my fair share of that experience. I don't like it, but I have come to learn there are reasons for such stagnation. I am pretty lazy as a rule, or at least I tend to think I am, but as I contemplated the length and depth of this most recent bout I came to realize a few truths. And reviewing my past bouts with blockage, I realize those truths have been consistent.

I now know that routine can actually work against my creative process. And yet I also know that when I commit to discipline I produce usable stuff. On the surface it might appear paradoxical, but when I look closely I realize certain kinds of routine tend to wear me out physically and intellectually. I shut down. Things gestate. In time stuff begins to come out, and it usually takes the form of verse first before working into prose. This has been true since I first began putting stuff down on paper as a youngster. I was cleaning out some boxes in the basement yesterday, avoiding dealing with a seventeen page edit letter, and I found some of my old notebooks. It was strange getting reacquainted with my sixteen year old self. I found the first reference to Talyior's name. I found the first use of the Harpist of Light, the tag Eleni attaches to Donari in her piece to him from King's Gambit, in a poem and short story in an old spiral notebook. My younger self loved narrative verse. People have said there's poetry within my prose. Some things don't really change.

What I think I mean is I don't tend to worry too much anymore about not finding the words. When verse starts to ooze out on the backs of essays or onto blank screens, I know something useful and substantial is on the way. I'm an old style percolating coffee pot. I can help the process along by making a few changes in my routine. 

I've done the same sort of thing in my teaching. I'm a veteran; I know all about routine. When I sense my students and I getting a little stagnant, I throw in a curve to shake things up. Over the years my favorite method has been to join in with my class in a unique writing exercise. Young writers struggle with thinking too literally. I want them to push to metaphor and meaning. To that end I have everyone write down 4-5 unrelated terms or phrases, wad them up and toss them into a hat for a blind draw. No one gets to keep the one they wrote. The goal for the assignment is to compose an essay making use of those terms in such a way as to make a commentary about the human condition. I place several stipulations on the composition: 1) None of the terms/phrases and be taken or used literally. We have to change their meaning, turn them into concepts or ideas and develop prose that explains them clearly. 2) They have to develop each term as a chunk in the essay with balanced development. 3) They have to weave the "term-chunks" into a humanistic essay with a central focus.

Once the howls of dismay fade away, everyone realizes they have complete freedom to frame whatever truth they wish. Usually, a goodly handful surprise themselves by reaching some surprising insights. Historically, this essay has always been the most fun to read out loud. They get to experience discursive thinking and intellectual freedom--heady stuff in this era of standardized testing. What they get usually goes far, far beyond what ever grade they might receive. In fact, we grade the papers as a class.

I still recall the first set of terms I had to deal with when I first started doing this assignment with my students. A couple of my more precocious intellects came up with the following: Snotty nose hairs, Uhhhhh..., Under water kites, and Skittleosis. One of these days I'll post what I came up with--perhaps in the comments thread if anyone is interested.

So that is one way I shake things up. It helps break the routines in my teaching life, which in turn helps break up the blockages in my writing life. What do you do?

Mark Nelson


Terri-Lynne said...

Whoever sent you that seventeen page edit letter must be a horror to work with. You poor thing. Want me to do something about her? Hehehehee!

That is an AMAZING writing exercise. Every time you post something about your classes and the things you do, I want to BE IN YOUR CLASS. Where were teachers like you when I was a kid, eh? Oh, yeah--probably growing up with teachers who didn't get it, just like me.

Now you must explain at least ONE of those precocious examples. All three would be fine, but give me at least ONE!

Unknown said...

In the dreams of my future, when my book(s) are published and people want to hear what I have to say, they ask me the question all writers fear: "What the secret to becoming a good writer?"

In those fantasies, I have two answers:

1. Read. Read, read, read. Read things you would not usually read. Get a Kindle or whatever and load it with 1000s of books. Read on the bus, waiting for your food at a restaurant. This will be hard for those--like me--who are borderline ADHD; doing what is hard is just not our thing. But do it!

2. Experiences. Do things, go places, load your brain with sensation. What does it feel like to ride on the back of a dragon? You won't get that from watching How to Train Your Dragon. But if you ride a roller coaster, especially one too small for you, you just might.

What does it feel like to have a madman chase you through a forest at night? I hope that never happens to you, but go for a walk in a forest at night (just be safe, please!). Get at least a small part of that sensation.

Walk on the Great Wall of China. Go surfing in freezing water. Go to a nude beach. Go see the last film you would ever watch (Twilight, Hostel: Part II, etc ) then watch an entire hour of Fox News (just keep a barf bag close at hand for that last one.)

More to Mark's excellent topic, I cannot write at home. I have to get away. I'm home now as I write this. Later I'll play some Star Wars: The Old Republic (my Jedi Shadow is level 41. At 43 I can install some new armor in my star ship.)

Sometimes, I think, the doldrums are more about getting away from distractions. But not always. When I am at my favorite writing cafe (it has Wi-Fi, but you have to enter this elaborate password and even then you only get it 30 minutes at a time--Awesome!)--even when I am there, I will spend 1-2 hours editing my chapters, unwilling to write more.


The same reason, I believe, Ernest Hemingway blew his brains out.


Fear that the ideas won't come. Fear that I will not be able to tell this incredible story and that it will remain trapped in my mind.

But then I write, and--somehow, I don't know how, the ideas come. I follow the river of the story and it takes me to new lands. Oh, I know the general direction I want to go, but things happen along the way I never expected.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

(TL:DR: Read stuff, do stuff, write > fear)

Terri-Lynne said...

Another fabbulous addition to the conversation, AT. Thank you. Your last lines (bolded) are words to live by. I'm printing them up and putting them in my inspiration journal.
Lots of great advice.

As for me--I don't get the fear. People tell me I'm lying to myself, but I don't think so. I'm trying to remember if I ever did fear, or if I've buried it so deeply in my past writer-self that I can't pull it out. I must have, but I truly don't remember.

Maybe it's good that I separate myself from that fear. Maybe it makes me apathetic?? I don't think so, but I'm always thinking, thinking, thinking...

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Mark! Well, once again you've written a thought-provoking and relevant post.

With me, I don't think about it so much as "stagnation"; it's more like, sometimes the current of life takes us away from writing, and that's okay.

Something about the publishing industry today creates pressure to write more and more quickly. NaNo, in my humble opinion, is a perfect expression of this. As is the overall obsession with word counts as a measure of progress.

I'm not convinced either NaNo or word counting are healthy approaches to writing. That's not to say discipline and routine don't have a role to play, but writing is fundamentally a creative process, and as such must be allowed to run its own course.

So my strategy for shaking off stagnation is to redefine "stagnation". All rivers have slow currents and rapids. The slow current may look like stagnation when compared to the rapids, but both are moving you forward in their own way. Also, when you're on the slow parts of the river, you have the opportunity to find your thrills in other ways, like enjoying the scenery, or taking a swim, or breaking open the cooler and serving everyone a beer. Or remembering how you barely made it through that last class V rapid, and isn't a good thing to have a break before the next one? ;)

I'd say I can't wait to read your next novel, but the truth is I can. Because no matter how long it takes, I know it's going to be awesome and well worth all the time that you put into it.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

I might be the sparkle queen, but I nominate Karin as head cheerleader.

That was inspiring, Karin. It really was. Great advice no matter where one is on the writerly river.


Heroines of Fantasy said...

Excellent thoughts AT. I’ve always loved the mantra about fear from Herbert’s Dune books. I don’t recall fear being one of the accepted reasons why poor Hemingway walked up that road outside of Ketchum, but I do know he was supremely conflicted.

Growing up as an Air Force brat, I sniveled at times about not having a real home town. As an adult, I realize I had the greatest of childhoods for what I want to do as a writer. I saw Europe from the top window of our camper, took photographs of North Korean border guards taking pics of me while I gave them the Bronx salute while pushing up my glasses on my nose, learned infant Japanese while a toddler in Okinawa. I’ve been swimming in the Atlantic and Pacific, Chesapeake Bay, the English Channel, and lakes and rivers from Maryland to Washington. I found a machine gun shell on Omaha beach, lived through several tornados in Oklahoma, a blizzard in Nebraska, and a volcanic eruption in my home state.

Experience does matter.

I couldn’t agree with you more about the need to read, read, read. For the writer, it’s just great practice for the ear. I love fantasy, but I find myself uninterested in Vampire fiction. I love well written history and historical fiction. We need more good historical fiction! J

Thanks for the great stuff!


Heroines of Fantasy said...


If I can get a draft past my editor, you'll get a chance to read it! :)

Mark here, wonky unit...

One of the realisms I've encountered recently is a need to clean up my available working spaces and units. Clutter on the hard-drive, slow down on the speed, etc. It seems to echo the slow down in life, too, as work and family cut into the muse-time. But the words will find their way out. PROMISE!

Unknown said...

This is off topic, but I wonder of we would like to open a thread on Katniss Everdeen. She may not be swords and magic, but she is a heroine, and one that may be a huge influence on books and film.

The reason this concerns me is that I want to adore her, but something is holding me back, and I can't quite figure out what.

Just a suggestion.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I think that's a good suggestion AT. Unfortunately, I won't be doing Monday posts for a while now, so one of the other contributors will have to take you up on it. (Or, once I see movie number 2, I can open up a Katniss discussion over on my blog for EOLYN...)

One disadvantage I have with a discussion of HUNGER GAMES is I haven't actually read the book. I'm taking the lazy person's route and just watching the movies. I do like Katniss as a heroine, though I have some issues with the story itself. Still, it's good entertainment, and that in the end is a lot of what story telling is about.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Mark, who is this editor you keep referring to anonymously? She sounds like an ogre! ;)

You've got two solid novels out. You deserve to take some time with the third. And your novel deserves the time you need to take on it, as well. Hang in there. It will all come together in the end.