I was listening to Orson Scott Card speak to a group of new writers today, and he said something that I’ve mentioned before. He said, “When you get writer’s block, if you will go back in your story to what you wrote the day before and check your work very carefully, you’ll find that you wrote something that your subconscious mind recognizes as being utter baloney, a lie. So you have to find out where you went astray, and start writing from that point forward.”
I really think that this needs to be expanded upon, for those who feel stuck.
Let me put it this way. We have two brains, separated by a small bundle of nerves. Each of those brains, it has been shown, is capable of thinking independently. For example, in one case, a scientist was asked verbally (so that his left brain, which is where logic and speech is handled) understood, “Do you believe in God?” The man answered, “No, I’m an atheist.” But then the researchers wrote the question in printed words, so that it was processed by the right brain. He answered, “Yes.” Thus, the two halves of the brain were not in agreement.
In similar cases, a person who votes for a Republican candidate with his right hand might find himself voting for the Democratic candidate if he pulls the lever with his left hand. Dr. Roger Sperry, an expert on left-brain/right-brain phenomena, for example, once had a patient who reached out to hug his wife with his left hand, and found himself slapping her in the face with is right. This is sometimes called the “Dr. Strangelove phenomenon.”
In order for you to trust and believe in your own work, both hemispheres of your brain need to be in agreement.
So I find that very often, when I get “blocked” on writing, I can look back in my work and find that at some place, I feel as if I’ve gone far astray. Most of the time, it happens because I feel that I’ve gone off in a wrong direction. Perhaps the protagonist will say something that he doesn’t really believe, or he will commit to a plan of action that feels false, one that is at odds with his motivation.
I recall when I was a new writer hearing a piece of advice from one of my idols who said, “Every author needs a solid-gold crap detector.” At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant. I do know. That crap detector is a subconscious mind that screams “stop” when you’ve made a mistake.
I really believe that the secret key to productivity is the ability to recognize quickly when you’re going astray in a story, and to be able to analyze instantly how to remedy the problem.
We make these mistakes, by the way, when we are suffering from “brain fatigue.” When you’re awake, it’s because the analytical hemisphere of your brain is alert and awake. If you are functioning properly, drawing upon both hemispheres, you tend to write well and quickly. The two halves of your brain can work in concert. But sometimes—particularly at midday—the creative part of your mind will take a nap. (During traditional “siesta times” in Latin America.) When that happens, the analytical mind may keep composing, writing utter crap, and the creative mind will be quite upset with the ways that the story twists out of control when it wakes up.
It is no accident that in some literary theories, such as with the dramatica method of writing (www.dramatica.com), the central goal of writing a story is to create a tale that takes analytical arguments and emotional arguments and then fuse them to the point that they reach agreement. In short, when we write, we tell stories primarily to make sense of the world. We may not be writing for other people so much as we are writing for ourselves, as a form of therapy.
Usually, I find that I get blocked because I really don’t know quite yet what my right path of action is. In other words, perhaps I haven’t thought about the novel enough yet so that I know what the right course is. Or maybe I haven’t given much thought to a particular character’s motivations or goals. So I have to educate myself on the background of the character. I need to try to “make sense” out of chaos.
This leads to the weakness that I often saw with traditional writing courses. In college I took writing classes where I felt that we often worked a great deal on our prose—on writing beautiful sentences. We didn’t spend enough time thinking about how to create honest and believable characters, or how to write astonishing plots, or how to create intriguing worlds.
I think that a lot of writers who go through writing programs feel the same. They may say, “I feel really comfortable now writing gorgeous sentences.” Yet every story is so much more than a string of beautiful sentences.
Writing a story requires you to understand how the world works, how characters think, how their emotions drive them to do surprising things, and so on. In other words, as a writer, you have to be more than a stylist. You need to learn to become a master of storytelling.
To be fair, writing beautifully requires so much thought and education that you really can’t get a sound education in a single college writing class.
Every story brings new and surprising problems. Each is like a puzzle—one of a kind—that you as a writer must solve.
So you learn some of the elements of storytelling. You might have to spend weeks or months studying villains, or how to create a likeable protagonist, or how to build toward a climax in your plot.
Thus, learning to write well requires you master one story at a time, and no matter how much you know, you may find that on a certain tale, you hit a snag. Most of the time, that “snag” isn’t a sentence that I don’t know how to write, but some plot point that has gone astray. After all, if you’re a writer, you’ve been talking for years. You probably have vast experience figuring out how to say exactly what you mean. So it is the little intricate twists and turns where you get blocked.
Don’t become alarmed when it happens. Just sit down and figure out what it is that you don’t know. Do a bit of thinking about the topic. Research your answer, and in a bit you’ll get excited when you feel that you’re moving in the right direction.