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29 January, 2011

Writer’s Block/ A.K.A. : Creative Block Wisdom from the Ages

I am not that into myself that I can’t admit when I'm having problems… AKA an internal beat down and a resolution that suggests crying in my closet for an hour wondering “What is wrong with me?”

I can admit I have issues with Writer’s Block commonly referred to as Creative Block, or Why-can’t-I-do-anything-right-with-my-life Syndrome. The Creatives will tell you that sometimes this is normal, to feel a sense of wordlessness over duration of time with which you are experiencing stress, change, or mad drama. This happens to me ALL THE TIME. “Oh hey, deadline, what’s that? You don’t accept ‘I can’t write shit all’ as an excuse? Well damn!”

This has made me relive some of the most glorious wisdom I have come across given to me by my teachers as I flew through school. I have recently admitted that I have a problem with Writer’s Block (Before you ask me about it, I capitalized this phrase because it’s a big fucking deal). I am finding out now that the stuff teachers told me in school that I haphazardly if at all listened to would have a profound effect on how I write, and how to escape the forcefully insertion of Writer’s Block.

1. Quality not Quantity

How it affected me then

This goes back to the unsolicited mass pages of shit I churned out in grade 1 for a 1 page story assignment. My teacher used to tell my parents that I had a vivid imagination but I needed to learn that quality is better than quantity.

How it affects me now

This is probably the first rule for writers. No one wants a long piece of shit. It’s better to write something good then to just write for the sake of writing something that you know will suck. I try to update my blog when I have something on my mind, and not have dumb shit pointlessly strewn on it just so it looks like I visit it. This rule is for everyone’s sake, because the main goal here is you’re writing for other people, and if those other people can’t make it to the end of your piece it’s either too fucking long, or too fucking boring. Either way you fucked up and you need to go back and write something better. If only this rule were more widely used nowadays.

2. Write until you’re done

How it affected me then

This was an infuriating mantra of new-aged college professors when it came to writing papers. Most of these utterings came from classes I took in relation to modern ideas: Hypertext, Digital Lives, Research practicums… You’d never hear a science prof tell you to write until you were done, or else you might get a 6lb stack of papers bound with twine on your desk on Monday writing about fucking black holes or some shit. Modern profs teaching modern subjects (non-traditional classes) used to hand out the paper requirements, and it wouldn’t specify a length. There was always some asshole who took this class as an elective from a more structured discipline - like business - who didn’t know what the fuck was going on that would raise his dumb hand and be like “Uhh, how long does it have to be?” And the modern students would groan as the prof would tell us “Just write until you’re done.” Then Gulliver would ask “Ya but… How long does it have to be?” The prof would never waver – oh no – but reply that we should make sure we argued our points, and stop only when we felt we had. One time someone handed in a one page paper, and got an A. Wait that was me.

How it affects me now

Even thought there are always suggest limits, such as fantasy novels are generally longer than a traditional fiction novel, or how 700,000 page monstrosities - although amazing – would never make it to print, it’s easier to follow your own guidelines. When I was a little younger than now, I planned to write a novel. I researched for days how long novels should be (as I had yet to encounter this handy University mantra), and I could never find an actual “Here is how long a novel should be: 20,000 words, etc” which is what I was looking for. Later on, I realized you need to map out your plot, flesh your characters, fulfil your story lines, and wrap up the actions. When that’s done, then you’re done. It’s maddening and crazy but it’s true. You can plan creativity around a set standard, you just need to write until you feel that you’re done; it really is that easy, and it goes for any medium.

3. Do it. Do it all. Do it now.

How it affected me then

This lovely pint of wisdom resonated with me most of my high school life and into my 20’s when it came to writing. It came about from one of my favourite teachers (English and writing), who I ended up having 4 times in 2 years. It was such a profound way of thinking for me, that it literally affected all areas of my life, not just writing. She used to tell us when writing a story, or a paper, it is best not to plan, just write (which goes against what a lot of scholarly sources say). She’d make us get out a piece of paper and told us we had 5 minutes to write, and fill the paper up without stopping to think, just write down whatever crap came into our head. This is a way to reach subconscious levels also I found out, when my paper was full of fears I had never admitted to myself before. Almost cleansing. She also explained that when you “Do it. Do it all. Do it now”, you don’t leave pieces of your story to save for later down the road in your writing, you use them now, and this makes way for your story to naturally progress, instead of wasting time and creating filler in-between now and when you wanted to use your idea.

How it affects me now

I used to have this saying printed on a piece of paper over my computer, and in my room for almost 10 years. It’s helpful in all aspects of life, when you need to push yourself to not wait, just do it now and let your life progress, instead of stifling your desires until you feel it’s best to unleash them. It’s such a refreshing way to look at things. Also, in writing it’s helped me sit down and just write; no planning, no story mapping, just write and create the story as I go. From that point of my life on, I have never sat down and planned anything out; essays, exams, papers, research, writing of any kind. I have always just sat at my computer and started to write. It’s proved to be very refreshing and honest, as there is no time to create filler; everything you say is what you wanted to say, in the exact moment you wanted to say it.

4. Never downplay the work you’re proud of

How it affected me then

I used to take photography in high school. The class was beside my media arts class, in which my other favourite teacher used to take a look at my photos. She used to give me really good feedback. One time, I shot an amazing roll of film which I was particularly proud of, and processed it. The teacher was impressed and asked me if I would make another copy of a single shot for her, because she liked it. So I did, and when I gave it to her, she was talking to another teacher at the time that ended up looking at the print. They were both art teachers and you could tell they were talking about my shot critically, from an artist’s perspective. I immediately became anxious and full of anxiety as someone might not like something I thought was good, and I had shown this photo to her because I was proud of it. Stupidly, I went over to them and rambled how it wasn’t my best work, and I needed to fix this or that. And she just looked at me and told me never ever, as an artist, or anyone really, to downplay something you are proud of. I immediately felt like a fool, and it always stuck with me.

How it affects me now

When I write something, it’s because I want to write it, and I find it entertaining, cleansing, or meaningful to me in some way. If I'm proud of something and it offends or upsets someone else I should never have to apologize for that. I'm learning not to pretend I could have done better if I think I'm being criticized, and I try not to downplay the quality of my work to someone else in case they don’t like it.

5. Self-Deprecation looks bad on you

How it affected me then

Story of my life. I can’t take compliments, I never could (ironically I can’t take criticism either but that’s another story). Get a compliment on my writing, and I instantly try to pick out flaws. I have no idea why I do this. My whole life I’ve heard this phrase whenever compliments are given, or I over-explain myself and point out the obvious flaws to show the person I'm giving it to that I'm aware it’s not perfect, so maybe they won’t think to themselves later “wow this is shit, and she doesn’t even know!” I don’t want to be totally oblivious to anything, and if I make excuses then I won’t look dumb in case the person thinks I have no idea what I'm doing. I like to think of it as creating a buffer that allows the person to know that I tried, and there are things I can improve on, so I can be pleasantly surprised if they liked it.

How it affects me now

I realize this is called “Lowballing oneself” and is not an attractive quality. It makes people think you hate yourself, or you have no self confidence, self esteem, or pride over your work and it creates tensions because no one wants to hire a writer who thinks her work is shit. Why would you hire someone who admits her work sucks, even though it may not? No one…or an idiot. Also, in my life travels I have found that marketing yourself as dirt makes people treat you as such; no one will respect you if you can’t even respect yourself. Are you guys listening to me? This is deep shit right here.

6. Must use present tense

How it affected me then

I had this scrawled on every paper I ever handed in during high school. “Must use present tense”, “When writing, you must write as if in the present.” Apparently I had papers reminiscent of Back to the Future, for the amount of fucking time traveling going on: “Maria was so scared she is shaking and will cry.” I must have sounded like a fucking RTard. Anyway, my marks were always okay in high school, but once this little tidbit clicked I was getting better grades. I still have to consciously think about writing this way, but it really did make the difference for me between a good job and a paragraph of teachers red pen telling me how awesome my paper was. This opened up a whole new appreciation of writing for me and made my “Ho hum, I need to write this paper” and turned it into "I cannot wait to tear this paper apart.”

How it affects me now

I truly believe getting better grades helped me gain the confidence I needed to realize I'm a pretty good writer. I was always told I was good, but my “your paper would have gotten an A if you used present tense” nightmare spurred me to actually try to do it, and low and behold, I skyrocketed. Confidence is always the best motivator I don’t care what anyone says. Everyone has a point in their life where they found out they were good at something and it normally comes from other people, as you have no way of knowing because you are your own bias.


7. “If you have no critics you'll likely have no success.” – Malcom X

How it affected me then

I hate being criticized. My motto was unless I know you can do this better than me you can’t tell me it isn’t good. Getting “a friend” to read over my essay as suggested by my teachers, turned out to be almost dangerous as I found myself saying “good for you, but what do you know” to people after giving me “helpful” criticism. There really are so many types; it’s hard to know what’s helpful, and when someone’s mutilation of red pen on your printed word is just arrogance and self importance. When does criticism become opinions? Writing a paper on Atheism, I had comments in my margin about how evolution didn’t make sense, and how I should edit this portion of my paper. In the “Comments to this Editor” section I remember specifically writing “that’s a good opinion but it has nothing to do with the scientific proof of evolution.” I take criticism as a person attack, which is stupid, but that’s how I see it. Unless Yo Yo Ma tells me my Cello playing was a bit dry and exaggerated, I’ll have to say “Good day” to your opinion on my work.

How it affects me now

It’s hard to want to go somewhere in life without having criticism come up. It’s something I still struggle with, and I somehow take the “I know best” approach. Like this quote suggests, if you never show your work to anyone, you won’t go anywhere. And you won’t be able to please everyone – this is also something I struggle with – and to let some of the negative comments roll off your back. I think even the people who do this are still aware that their work was not well received by someone, and somewhere inside them it keeps them up at night.

8. Go back to the beginning (basics)

How it affected me then

Just talking about this makes me want to throw my computer out the window. Some of you will understand the ways of programming, and the intricacies of debugging. I took programming in high school (Turing, Whaaaat!), and in University (Java/Python/Jython/flash/etc), and coding is the most time consuming thing possible. You don’t just write code and you’re done, you have to write the code (which is limitless in possibility and there is no boundary to what you can create), you have to run the program and find out why your code is creating stupid hacks in your work. One time in second year I took a java class which was my death. However, in the dark and dank tunnels under the school where the computer science dept was located, right by the chains on the walls, and Indiana Jones navigating the Comp Sci labyrinth, there was tiny blonde me in a sea of dirty teen moustaches, and three wolf moon shirts coding Javascript. Whenever I had an issue with my stupid weather machine not outputting the right current temperature (I assumed 800 degrees Celsius might be a little hot for Ontario in February), I would ask my TA for help. In-between consuming crunchy Cheetos and several cans of Mountain Dew, he would tell me to start at the beginning. Translation: Go through 400 lines of code from the start, and you’ll find the error. Infuriating but wise. As a side note, the culprit was always a mistyped % sign, but my weather machine never did work properly.

How it affects me now

As with anything in life, going back to the beginning is an easy way to sort through things. Retracing your steps, remembering lessons, humbling yourself... etc. This lesson actually inspired me to write this blog today, as I was sorting through in my mind why I keep having writing blackout periods. I thought to myself, if I'm having problems writing, maybe I should start from the beginning and try the simple things to job my talents. Such as, writing about my weekend, explain a super power I would have, think up a creative name and make a back-story for that person, take 5 minutes and write without stopping… etc. I still look to these methods as I grow older, once frivolous passing comments ended up being engraved onto my way of life and thinking. And I doubt that the people who told them to me knew how much they would affect me, my talent, or my passion for the thing I love most, but I'm glad they have.
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