Spring has arrived in coastal Maine. No, nothing’s flowering (or even growing). Yes, it’s freezing out. But the sun is higher in the sky. The dog leaves her bed by the woodstove to snooze outside on the deck—sometimes even in the shade. This Saturday, my little town will gather in the school gym for the annual town meeting, where we elect officers and vote budgets.
The earliest sign of spring appeared in late February/early March, when maple trees all over town suddenly sprouted lengths of blue plastic tubing, looping from one tree to the next. Larry, a lobster fisherman who lives down the road from me, had started collecting sap. This Sunday he’ll hold an open house so we can buy his maple syrup.
Wish I could get the sap moving in my brain. But sometimes you just clog up. In honor of this month’s “Spring is in the Air” theme, I thought we could share our techniques for getting the flow going.
My favorite is the character journal. If I get stuck in a story, I choose a character (often the protagonist, but it could be anyone) and just start noodling in her voice. I jot down what the character would write if he kept a journal: What was for breakfast, the weather, the plan for the day. Inevitably, the discussion of eggs and bacon turns to more important matters, not because you force it but just because that’s the way diaries tend to go.
After page or two of this—sometimes just a couple of paragraphs— the brain jam generally clears. I will have gotten to know my character better and she will repay me by at least hinting where her story should go next.
In her indispensable Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests something similar: Write a letter about your character or your history or whatever has you stymied. The letter can be addressed to anyone—she cites an example written to her young son. “The letter’s informality just might free you from the tyranny of perfectionism,” Lamott says.
She’s right—sometimes the enemy is our expectations. Sometimes it’s just thinking too much. Playwright John Cariani has a bunch of techniques for catching yourself unawares. His workshops consist of a gazillion short exercises—some ten minutes, some three—that impose arbitrary rules. For example, you write a dialogue in which the first line is one word, second line is two words, and on up until ten or so. Any instructions will do—the point is to get your brain so concerned with beating the timer and following the rules that it forgets to freeze up.
I know other writers who do sprints: Write a thousand words in an hour, or even a half-hour. The words don’t have to be good—they just have to flow.
You can always boil them down later.
So . . . help us out here. What are your favorite techniques for getting unblocked when you’re writing?