I’m currently enrolled in an online “generative” writing workshop. It’s main goal is to help you overcome blocks. This first assignment was to sit down and free-associate fifty sentences about what’s blocking you. “Let the words write the words” was the instructor’s advice. Everyone else turned in finely-crafted, well-edited essays. I turned in the following mass of free-association; immediately I felt shame at somehow doing the exercise wrong.
Every critique I’ve gotten has complimented me on my “craft.” If so, this is a powerful disincentive for multiple drafts and rewrites.
50-ish (too-unedit-y) Sentences about Blockage
- I suck.
- No, I really, really suck at this.
- I will do nothing but fret over choosing the right words and stuff and forget flow.
- Flow is nothing but a psychological buzzword.
- If I surrender to the flow, I may write stuff that will upset people, esp. when it comes to memoir.
- I’m too old to say anything that anyone will want to hear.
- I rely too much on pop culture references, and no one will understand them.
- There’s too much to write about.
- No one cares.
- Stories about mental illness, esp. yours, are trite and clichéd.
- Everyone else in this class has read more books than me.
- You can’t write unless you’re an avid reader.
- You lack the attention span to read, let alone write.
- You can’t even decide on a pronoun to use for this exercise.
- I am wracked by indecision.
- Shame is holding you back.
- I am too concerned with what other people will think.
- At the same time, I am too judgy; I write to be better than others.
- I will get my comeuppance.
- I am too clever by half –look at all that unearned alliteration.
- Everyone else is deeper.
- Todd Vogel was right… I am a disruptive element… I should be quieter.
- But my desire is to respond to the situation at hand, not come into seminar (or a story) with three questions written on a notecard.
- Fuck Todd Vogel.
- How did that professor at Michigan describe your packet? Quirky. Fuck her, too… You won a Hopwood.
- Run with the quirky.
- But quirky puts people on edge.
- No one wants to read funny anecdotes about trauma… trauma needs to be deep.
- Remember, everyone else is deeper than you.
- You always will be judged by people who are deeper than you.
- You always will be judged by people who sound deeper than you. Why can’t you sound deeper?
- You have no capacity for self-observation. Your mirror is warped.
- There are always too many distractions. The cat is not your muse.
- You don’t listen to the right kind of music when you write. I mean, what is this shit Spotify playlist you’re listening to now? Canadian Gold? What even the fresh hell is that? You’re no Canadian. Stop pretending you’re Canadian. You should listen to some sort of ambient drone… that’s what serious people listen to.
- Every time you get a good flow going, you have to get up to pee. Stop drinking so much Diet Coke. Trump drinks 12 Diet Cokes a day… you’re not far behind. See, you can’t even choose writing beverages correctly.
- Why are you stuck here? Your flow sucks!
- How do you pronounce the name of that guy that wrote about flow? Csikszentmihalyi? Too bad you only studied his stuff about material culture.
- Stop going off on tangents! And you went and googled Csikszentmihalyi… that’s cheating!
- Speaking of cheating… how many shortcuts will you take in your writing? Probably too many. Remember, you’re a fraud.
- Are you even sure these “memories” actually happened? Does your fevered imagination count as “memory?”
- How much of what you remember is just fairy dust you tell yourself to make your pitiful existence sound interesting?
- Gonna try fiction? Good luck! Hasn’t everyone always told you that you’re constantly misinterpreting what other people are thinking?
- How can you properly write dialogue if you constantly think everything you see and hear is some sort of personal affront?
- What are you supposed to do… run everything you write thru some sort of cognitive behavioral therapy filter to make sure your characters’ motivations are “correct”? That’s really gonna fuck up the flow.
- No? So, you’re a mindreader now?
- Sometimes screaming is more satisfying than writing.
- No one wants to read a scream.
- Slow and low. Slow and low. Slow and low. That’s what my bowling coach says.
- Your average is up 20 pins this season. Slow and low.
- Slow. Low. Flow.
*Todd Vogel was this tool in grad school at Texas who, along with two of his toadies, invited me to coffee one day at Quackenbush’s on The Drag. When I got there, he proceeded to lay into me about how I was “ruining his grad school experience” because I was a “disruptive element” who wasn’t engaging the material in a way he felt comfortable with. (My shrink now would say he was having trouble dealing with someone possessing “fluid intelligence.” Or, in terms of this week’s reading, “divergent thinking.”). Todd recommended that I “come to class with three questions about the reading written on a 3×5 index card.” I was stricken and momentarily cowed, but luckily I tattled on them to Professor Miekle, who assured me I wasn’t a disruptive element. He said that I actually seemed “engaged.” (I like to play this scene back to my brain every time someone accuses me going off on a tangent.) PS… it was a treat spending the rest of the semester watching Todd and his toadies trying to shoehorn their index cards into the discussion.
One upside of this is that I got three ideas for stories from the exercise: 1) Fleshing out that whole Todd Vogel incident because it has struck me that it’s a raw wound; 2) The instructor says I should write a monologue from my inner-critic, whom she describes as a “real ninja of self-flagellation.”; 3) The idea of a monologue brings up a bad memory of the last time I wrote a monologue for an assignment. I must now write about that in order to subdue the demon.
So, I guess the assignment has fulfilled its purpose.
5 thoughts on “Writer’s block and how to trick people into thinking you’ve “crafted” something.”
Errmm… I’m not sure if this will be helpful or not, but do you think your flow would improve if you removed the rubber bands from your appendages? (which is the preferred term among crustaceans, claws, appendages, would it be to anthropocentric to just call them fingers? Let me know – I don’t want to embarrass myself with your people), anyway, just a suggestion. (OOPS – is it right to say people?) As it is I think what you have produced is really quite remarkable given the circumstances that seem to predominate in your photo. We hear so little from arthropodian writers that does little more than just simmer below the general awareness of the larger public. It really makes my blood boil! Keep up the good work! Lona.
I AM SO SORRY! My cat Harvey just pointedly told me that it was impolite to use the words simmer or boil. I am mortified, turning red actually. Please forgive me.
Seriously, love your piece! 🙋🏻
Thanks so much! I’ll have to remember to post more free-associated, lightly-edited things in the future. 🙂 Editing is for chumps!
And your cat was right, I was horrified at the mention of “boiling.”
I have spent the past half hour or so thinking of ways a lobster could remove the rubber bands from its own claws (not to mention how they would go about getting them on). Thanks for the procrastination-granting puzzle.
Hi there! Hey I just wanted to say I just loved your story “A trip to one of the last surviving locations of Rax Roast Beef. 4808 South Zanesville Pike. Herbert, Ohio.” I have been thinking about it again and again, and was hoping to give it a shout out on my blog (a pitifully low volume site, so picture a nearly solitary exuberant glow rather than a highly impactful shout). Anyway I am sorry to see that you seem to have taken this down, maybe that is good news, maybe it is perhaps going to be published somewhere? If so please let me know, I really enjoyed it. I loved how it swept me along, starting with a simple exploratory premise, but then moving along a current into an increasingly disjointed world. Don’t laugh, but it actually gave me many of the same feelings as “Heart of Darkness” without the organically infused racism and with a lot more laughter. Whether it is the Congo river in Africa, the Sesan River in Vietnam, or a rural Ohio highway, the precisely detailed settings in each of these is the most prominent force, sweeping the other characters along its powerful stream. We are so enveloped in the gentle rollicking flow of your setting that we hardly notice where we have arrived until we are shocked out of our smugly humorous enjoyable satiric narrative into the reality of a desperate death occurring right before our eyes. Each declension in the stream is subtle rather than stark so by the time we have arrived it seems like it was the most naturally occurring sequence of events imaginable, so when we feel ourselves tilting over the waterfall at the end we are then surprised only at our own sense of surprise. Your version ends with a more satisfying, albeit also tragic, human connection than in either of Conrad’s or Copola’s versions. Your hero discovers (and is also gently surprised by) his capacity to care and reach out to, and then finally connect with another human being. The final words “Their eyes met” (were those the exact final words…? I’m not sure dern it… the post has been taken down, hehe) are not merely spare or economical, rather they are both lovely and sad, powered by the preceding detailed self-ward focused stream of consciousness standing in contrast to those three final words. We know at that point that your hero is more than he realized, he is part of the whole setting that he has delved into, he himself realizes then that he part of the other people around him, that he can care for another than himself. The hearts beating at the end of this journey are desperate, but they are not hearts of darkness. They are hearts of hunger, need and empathy. They are the hearts of the whole world.
… whew… well, that’s that. hehe. Part of my verbose hubris to share my thoughts on a story with it’s own creator, I was hoping to share the story with my other friends, but then again, like the lobster at the top of this page, I procrastinated and now I am constrained by the rubber band reality that the story is no longer there… and oh well. But seriously, very lovely piece of work with “Rax.” Please let me know if it is going to be available elsewhere. I like it…, you may have surmised, a lot. Keep at it! Too bad I’m not an editor for the New Yorker… but I believe they would be lucky to get it.