I knew this guy named Bryan. Let’s just say for the sake of imagination, his last name was Skarrd.
Bryan Skarrd was the Regina George of Everytown U.S.A. University’s MFA program, but if Regina George actually did things to earn the popularity besides just being popular, a hand model, etc. Like if Regina earned her fleeting fame in high school by contributing exceedingly to her given realm of study or even being head cheerleader. Not just riding on top of random people and wondering about a person’s alleged crack addictions.
So Bryan, right? Anything you ask, guy chugs it out. He’s good with terms and verbs. He turns phrases pretty well; his pieces always contain some a little somethin’-somethin’ you wouldn’t tell your parents about or a little somethin’-somethin’ you shouldn’t tell the cops about — a little spice for everyone to enjoy; there’s variation in sentences; there’s variation in sentences; he plays with genres and everybody loves his writer’s voice; he knows how to pace us out in his stories for a long haul or a short sprint; and everyone’s teared up over one of his characters at least once. Everybody’s hating on him. Dude never seems to falter, and he always has another idea. Other students stay trying to find dank inspiration, and he seems like he’s giving that high-grade away for free.
He’s at an open mic night. Everyone’s sipping on the verbs being laid down. Nodding to rhythms and flows. He performs and sees this guy. Of course the guy sees him, and they vibe on each other.
“I like the way you use your words, sir. You really know your way around it,” the cute guy says.
Bryan hits him with a thank-you and a “I like your verbs too.”
So, of course and on course with the night, that cute guy suggests they trade some verbs and other words and lay some lines down all night long. Bryan agrees and they make haste to his apartment to put the paper to the pen, and that might not be a euphemism.
But, the next morning, that cute guy scurried off in a bit of a hurry. He told Bryan it wasn’t his fault. It happens to plenty of his writer friends. The sheet of paper in Bryan’s bedroom looks startlingly blank. Just a mark by the pen where someone tried to put it to paper, but nothing came up.
No one ever saw Bryan Skarrd after that open mic night. Last I heard, he dropped the program. and that anytime someone put a paper in front of him, all he could tell them was, “It just won’t come up.”
The dread every wordsmith, phrase-turner, copy-writer and writing major: writer’s block. Slump. No-word funk, only junk. It comes on randomly, without provocation and certainly without relent. No indication as to when its visit is spent. Much like that ex that we have who flits through our lives with social media comments and random texts.
Experts say seven out of ten writers suffer from “Slumpin’, Funkin’, and Creative-Blockin’” (C-Blockin, for the sake of abbreviation). They say two out of remaining three are liars. The last one is Stephen King. Whether it’s an inability to put the pen to the paper, a fault in your star character or plot, or maybe a failure to launch, everyone has been and will be there.
My goal is to impart small tidbits to help any wandering writer looking to mine some inspiration for their craft.
It’s almost like we’re mining…craft, no?
Okay, I’ll stop.
This post is an effort, if not to best it, to at least produce in the midst of whatever writer’s block may befall you. For what is creativity other than sparks and lights in the darkness of mundane, murky and bland.
Dust off the old photo albums; dip into the decrepit hard drives; charge the brick phones and scour through outdated facebook, myspace, imgur and photobucket albums.
I’ve found this first method helpful when I’m feeling my Creative Nonfiction Fantasy, and it’s a pretty simple method at that. Going through old albums is a focused way of walking down memory lane. One of the problems with sitting down and trying to “come up with something” for a personal essay or the like is trying to force creativity. In doing this, we set ourselves up for failure in multiple ways. Creativity relies, in some part, on emotion– something rather difficult to direct or force. However, you can nudge and guide it. Prompt or spur its growth.
When going through old photos, I always find myself remembering something or someone I’d forgotten. A day I thought I’d never forget suddenly comes to mind, a memory of a friendship or lost love is illuminated in an awkward flash. Something like an emotional and memory-based “Aha!” moment happens and I feel an urge to capture this rebirth of nostalgia and feeling.
Favorite Lines, Quotes from Songs and Works
Personally, I have a few that I love. Most of mine come from Rap or Alternative Rock I’m a sucker for turning a phrase. But it can be any genre of any literary medium. Here’s an example:
In their song, “The New National Anthem”, band Pierce The Veil has a line at the beginning of their first bridge, in the midst of a beautiful display harmonizing, that goes: “Somebody’s supposed to fall in love. But nobody even even calls.”
This line has painted such a forlorn image and feeling in my soul for years. It speaks of yearning and hopes unfairly dashed, for me. I sat down one day and mulled over my love for the line, and for the song overall. The line began to spark the idea for a fiction and poetry piece.
I often use rap lyrics, because when it’s good (and it often is), it’s poetry set to music. For example:
In his track “No Make-Up (Her Evils)”, current God-MC, Kendrick Lamar, spits the line: “Of prettiness of wittiness, the colors on her skin tone. Her complexion in a direction I’ve outgrown.” This line sparked my interest and helped me mine and tackle my own experiences to produce a spoken word and flash fiction piece.
When lines pique your interest, when you can’t help but remember them on repeat, there’s something in the line you can work with. It’s not an act of consciously looking for lines to like, they come across you naturally all the time. The same applies for texts (religious texts are honestly great for creative inspiration in terms of sentence quality, structure and etc.) Just throw some of your favorite songs on a playlist, your favorite records on a record player, some of your diehard dog-eared books on the bed and think about what gives you that warm shiggle in the midst of your all time favorites.
I’ve used this method in different ways after learning about it from an amazing professor. A favorite of mine, the collage essay breathes life into old material: a collage of pieces used in a way to make a cohesive whole.
For this, it’s best to print out copies of your old work. These can be incomplete works that have hit the dreaded wall. They can be small pieces you want to flesh out; pieces for revision and editing, anything substantial really.
From here, I read sections and highlight the different themes or common threads I notice. In this method, it’s good to use old pieces. Usually enough time has passed to fall out of your honeymoon, “everything is fine with my piece” phase. There’s typically a more critical eye, which is useful for trimming fat and more accurately tracing themes ‘n threads. After doing that, I cut the sections up however I want to at the time (there’s no “right way” as long as it works for you). And then lining the sections in ways that help you tell a new or better story. You will often find that sections from separate pieces line up and create potential for new ideas or pieces. Sometimes rearranging a solitary piece in this method can help you visualize the sections of the piece differently.
Break Up The Scenery
Of all my methods, I feel this next one is the most “Well duh Malcolm, of course” one, (but you’d be surprised how WRONG many of you are still probably using it.)
Yeah yeah, I got it. Break up the scenery. Don’t always write at home. It’s simple and really, kinda “duh”, but you can still take this a step further. This push against always writing in the comfort of your home is a good way to cut off distractions, focus on the writing and utilize white noise. But, what if you did this for the exact opposite reason? To draw in the white noise, take in the distractions and experience where you were. That’s what this next method is for.
It can be anywhere really, the only requirement is that it be a place that you don’t normally frequent. A restaurant, a new venue, a bar, worship service, community event, what-have-you.
By going somewhere you don’t normally, you allow yourself to take in new people and settings, igniting new thoughts or connecting old memories. A graduate professor of mine utilized this in her Hybrid class to cultivate ideas to a stellar extent. I can attest to this method fervently.
Write what you saw, heard, felt, smelled. All the senses and some of that intuition stuff we have are yours to sift with. I’ve found this helpful in trying to overcome a block in larger projects. It ties in using the age old method of taking your mind off a problem to solve it.
Pull From Other Genres
I think I take back my last statement of a method being the most “duh” of them all. I think that goes to this one.
To be frank, if you aren’t using or writing in genre’s, at least playing with them somewhat like you would those kids from other blocks, then I’ve got to throw trace amounts of shade your way. If you aren’t dabbling around a bit–to quote Childish Gambino:“Yeah you got some silverware, but really are you eatin’ though?”
Are you eating though? If all you use is the spoon of fiction, you’ll have the malleable and variety of flavors it provides like ice cream, but the fork of non-fiction and knife of poetry are all waiting to the side, if we’re to stretch the metaphor further.
Writing in other genres opens the mind to a difference in telling stories. It lends to a possible blending of styles and formats. A poet might come to the personal essay with a lyrical perspective that allows them to more accurately capture a moment in prose style, than the concise structure they may feel allowed by poetry. An essayist can utilize the use of supposed omnipotence and bend the rules of truth and fiction in their work with a fiction eye.
Ours is a time in the writing world where hybridity and experimental form are making their way to the forefront. And for good reason as they open up the possibility of what we can do as writers, what a story can be, etc.
Soapbox aside, playing with different genres broadens the writer-view, scope and perspective. It’s being able to look at the chessboard from the side, maybe adding a few shogi pieces and changing the game when things aren’t lining up.
Saved Lines (Popcorn Lines)
This last method is really just a compilation of the other methods in different parts. I threw it in because it’s not really my own personal method, but it’s kinda my own personal method:
- I take some of those favorite quotes from artists and writers I have and throw them in a jewelry box or something small like that.
- I add in a few of the couple-line memories I wrote down from going down memory lane via Myspace albums.
- Take a few individual sentences and lines from larger projects I liked. (These lines that really worked in a piece that really didn’t, overall.)
- Add in some lines from incompletely spoken word pieces and poetry attempts, because genre don’t phase me.
- Let it stew for a while (days, weeks, months, years, centuries, eons, whatever)
After mixing them all together, it’s just a matter of picking out random pieces and putting them together if you like a couple, or being sparked by the power of a line you’d previously forgotten. I’ve used compilations of my saved popcorn lines to make spoken words, poetry pieces and even used them to try my hand at a collection of flash pieces.
So get out there. Go write stuff. Give your Slumpin, Funkin, C-Blockin friend the middle finger, or your trigger finger. Maybe even your ring finger, whichever floats your proverbial boat.
Malcolm Kelly is a current MFA Candidate who specializes in being necessarily vulgar and unnecessarily extra. When not working or playing with words, he can be summoned by pouring out a bottle of homemade sangria in tribute. Or, you can find him crashing Open Mic nights and possibly badgering bakeries and baristas for free baked goods.