March 19, 2012

Leaping Over the Writer’s Block

Filed under: Uncategorized,Writer's Block,Writing — Brian Triber @ 2:58 pm

Yep, every writer has a different technique to deal with writer’s block. Some swear by doing dishes, going for a walk, or some other physical activity. Others like to brainstorm their way out of the block. Still others meditate, or write down what they want to accomplish the next day before going to bed, or put out prayers and offerings to the universe, or carry a charm like Dumbo grasping that feather as he falls from the top of the burning building. But to actually produce a work, you can’t rely on those clowns to catch you in their net.

Writers block is not a disease. It’s not a writer’s malfunction. It’s a process problem. It’s a signal that as a writer you’re doing something out of order or from the wrong approach. And it’s always caused by exactly the same thing: Editing instead of Creating. (Conversely, Creating instead of Editing can cause delay, and an extended writing process.)

I got to thinking about this again yesterday after speaking with a fairly bright poet who was working as a carver at a restaurant buffet. He pined about how he had worked on dozens of poems, and was working on a novel, of which he had written 100 pages, and then found himself stymied. Full on block.

Most books on writer’s block focus on how to overcome it, through exercises, visualizations, distractions, and other tricks. But very few (only a couple come to mind) actually deal with the psychology of the block.

It’s akin to method acting — those actors who only use method acting as a tool in their arsenal to deconstruct a role and perform it usually have to follow the method precisely without interruption, or they can’t produce a complete performance. But have you ever tried to engage them in a conversation backstage? They get irate because you interrupted them while they were trying to “get into character,” even if it’s to let them know that a set piece has been moved for safety reasons, or that the understudy will be playing opposite them. Then they proceed to be thrown off when the set piece isn’t where they expect it to be, or the understudy delivers the line slightly differently and their response feels emotionally inappropriate to the understudy’s delivery of her lines. The actor who survives this kind of real-world pathos usually does so because “method” acting is neither the primary or only technique in their toolbox.

The key to successful performance for the actor is adaptability. No one approach is appropriate for all roles in every play in every production for any actor. It requires a thoughtful adaptation of the actor’s abilities, applying techniques and tricks, filtered through their experience and rehearsal, and listening and reacting to the audience and fellow actors. And even then, no two performances will ever be the same.

This idea also holds true for writer’s block – no personal technique will work every time, no trick learned from Writer’s Digest will be equally applicable in every circumstance, and sometimes the characters you’re writing just outright refuse to cooperate, whether you’re using your favorite pen on paper, blind typing, or dictating to your iPad 3. Eventually you will hit a point when the ink stops flowing, and the character crosses her arms and squints at you petulantly.

So, how does one get past the writer’s block? Purchase dozens of books on writing? Go for a walk? What if you’re on a deadline to get that last draft in? There’s no time to go through all of the tricks in the bag. So what to do? The key is in understanding what creates block to begin with, then disengage from it.

To understand writer’s block, one first has to understand a psychological model of creativity. Not too closely, of course, because as all creative types have noticed at one time or another, if you examine the mechanism too closely it eventually stops working. The idea is to understand just enough to diagnose how to step beyond the block. So, in one sentence, here’s the model I use to break through the block: The brain essentially has two functions when it comes to writing – Creativity, and Criticality.

The Creative mind kicks in whenever you brainstorm, or daydream, or when the words are flowing onto the paper. It’s the Muse of the subconscious communicating with the outside world through image, idea, smells, colors, essentially anything experiential. It’s the difference between a cloudless sky, and an effulgent sky bleeding its cerulean through the pikestaffs of the distant army of trees. Creativity works best when it is observed only peripherally. Look it in the eye and the Muse runs and hides. But play by yourself and she sneaks up on you, insisting on joining in the fun.

The Critical mind, on the other hand, is a bit of a brute and a bully, but one that is all too necessary to complete a piece. It likes to pick things apart to its finest detail. Left to its own devices, the Critical mind would disassemble a glass of water into a pile of oxygen atom and a pile of hydrogen atoms, and not content to let things go, continue to disassemble the glass into its constituent parts too.

So how do you get the Creator and the Critic to play nice with each other, to help you as a writer get to a completed product? If they were children, you’d be forced to separate them. They just don’t get along. Having the two of them living in the same brain — your brain — can be a struggle. So you have to set some ground rules to make it easier on the Creator, the Critic, and yourself.

First, never try to let both loose on the same work at the same time. This is by far the most common cause of writer’s block, and the easiest to fix if you can diagnose it. It requires completing the first draft before you ever sit down to edit. It also requires separate distinct passes at the manuscript: one to identify problems (the Critic’s job) and one to fix the problems (the Creator’s job).

This seems counterintuitive to many writers. We’ve all experienced drafting a piece and realizing halfway through the first paragraph that our focus was wrong, that we’ve introduced the same character with multiple names, that the physical setting is wrong for the emotional setting of the scene, that Toni was wearing sandals at the beginning of the scene and now has Chuck Taylors.

This usually leads to our questioning whether the story is valid, if we’ve got a good handle on the subject matter, if we’re even ready to begin writing the piece. And we’re suddenly in block, because we’re criticizing the work before it’s even been created.

There are many techniques to get around block, but the best is to prevent it from ever showing up. Here are a few tricks to prevent writer’s block from rearing its ugly head, and a few ideas on how to quickly remove it.

  • Keep a second notebook nearby. What sometimes happens while you’re writing is an idea occurs to you that is tangential to the story — a plot hook, a new character to act as a dramatic foil — or you realize that something you’ve written may be inaccurate and requires some research, or there’s something you think might be contrary to something else you’ve written in the work. Don’t stop writing to do the research or verify the continuity or figure out how to work the new bit in. Jot it into a notebook to examine later, when you’re in Critical mode.
  • Use MS Word’s Comments feature. Similar to using a notebook, you can embed comments in Word documents that can later be resolved after you’re done writing the first draft. Take caution, however, not to go back to resolve any of these issues until you’ve completed the entire first draft. Changing something as simple as a character name throughout your manuscript before you complete it can be sufficient for your Creative subconscious to not recognize the character that it’s been working with, and drastically change the story.
  • Don’t fix the manuscript while you’re critiquing it. This does the opposite of undermining your creativity. It undermines the critic, and can introduce errors in the flow of the story or its internal consistency. Mark up your physical manuscript with green or purple pens for errors and observations. (Red tends to set us off subconsciously, because we all remember those teachers’ comments on tests and papers that made us feel like we didn’t really know our subject matter. Looking at red markups of our manuscripts can create or reinforce block.)
  • Step away from the desk. When you’ve finished either Creating or Critiquing, before stepping into the next phase, do something to change your workspace. We have a tendency to associate our physical surroundings with the activities we pursue in them. Psychologists recommend removing your television from your bedroom to get a better night’s sleep for this reason — when you watch TV, you’re mentally engaged, so your body will try to fight off sleep to remain engaged. Try printing out your manuscript and sitting in a different position or place when you edit it. I use a corner chair with a window, lamp, and a table for a drink next to it. If I haven’t completed editing, the manuscript remains on the seat of the chair to prevent me from sitting down to write there.
  • Work on two stories at once. If you work on multiple pieces at the same time, consider limiting your work to 2 manuscripts. Allow your Creative mind to run free on one, while your Critical mind is engaged with the other. This can be a little tricky since both the Creative and Critical minds, once engaged, like to take on new projects, and may even see the other work as a refreshing challenge. But, once you’ve gotten proficient at acknowledging and quieting the unwanted voice, it allows you to be more productive and duck away front eh block entirely.
  • Take a field trip. If you find yourself really deep in block, or are having difficulty in reigning in the Critic or the Creator, try amusing the offended party — go to a museum to distract the Critical mind, to allow it another outlet for its nitpicking (the artists are dead and won’t mind); or try listening to classical music while you edit  to misdirect your inner Creator for a bit so that your Critic can work. A walk in the woods or along a beach can also do wonders for both.

The key to keeping the Creative and Critical minds happy is to acknowledge that what they are trying to add at the moment has value, and to pay attention to it, but don’t cater to it. If the Critical mind demands attention while you’re creating, record what it has to say and make a promise to yourself (that you’ll keep!) to address it in a timely manner after you’ve finished creating. And do the same for the Creative mind while you’re Critiquing. Think of them like siblings – you can’t treat one as a favorite and neglect the other — that leads to acting out, and stubborn resistance. Instead, acknowledge them when they pipe in, reward them with praise, but put your foot down and send them for a time out if they start fighting with each other.

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August 26, 2011

Aristotle’s Poetics — the Great Grand-Pappy of Writing Texts

Filed under: Aristotle's Poetics,Writing,Writing Tools — Tags: , , , , — Brian Triber @ 8:15 pm

Image by Kelson
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Aristotle.

Following John Quincy Adams’ Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory, and Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama, I decided to work backwards to the text on writing that still inspires books on how to write: Aristotle’s Poetics.

While Adams covers primarily speech writing of all sorts, and Freytag covers 17th century German Drama, Aristotle addresses ancient Greek drama in three forms: Epic, Tragic, and Comic (which he gives a precursory nod to, and then summarily dismisses). Keep in mind that as one reads the text, there are several substitutions of terms that need to be kept in mind. First, whenever Aristotle refers to the poet, what he is really referring to is the playwright. Secondly, references to the “climax” should actually be considered to refer to a crisis. There are other odd semantical differences between ancient Greek and modern English dramatic definitions,l, but they are fairly obvious to the reader.

The only other major point behind editing and posting this work is that, while the work and translation are both in the public domain, and widely available, including on sites like Project Gutenberg, none of the available versions have the original Greek in the translated text. THe online texts, instead, contain Greek text spelled out with anglicized letters: for instance “{delta omega rho omicron nu}” instead of “&deta;ωρον”, which is both very distracting and does a disservice to the translation.

So, without further ado, enjoy my edition of Aristotle’s Poetics.

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August 1, 2011

Good Old Freytag. Gus to his friends…


Image by Gabor
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Freytag.

I’ve just completed editing and posting Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama to BrianTriber.com. I’ve yet to complete linking the Index to the rest of the text, but I’ll do that gradually. (It’s extremely time consuming and I have other projects that need attention — rest assured it will be done, but a lot of what an index used to do for books has been replaced by the computer’s Find function, so I feel less rushed about it.)

Of course, editing any text is like inhabiting the author’s world more intensely than simply reading it. It provides insight into not only the subject, but a taste of the way the writer thinks and structures (in this case, as was true with John Quincy Adams’ Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory, the structure of the work was based on the structure discussed in the work.) So, there are a few thoughts unique to Freytag’s Technique that I’d like to share.

First, regarding Freytag and this particular work. There were points — infrequent but noticeable — when I found the text challenging not necessarily because of its subject, but its content. To clarify, Freytag was a product of his generation. As such, there were numerous nationalistic, racist, and sexist references in the text. If taken as a snapshot of the times, one realizes how much Freytag and his colleagues looked down upon female actors, Jews, and non-Germans in the theater setting. He was, of course, unaware of what would come down the pike almost half a century after his death, but as a time capsule, the piece certainly has future echoes of what would happen in Europe under the Kaiser and again under the Nazis.

Now, having said that, the book itself is an excellent deconstruction of theatrical arts in Germany circa 1880 or so (the sixth edition was translated into English in 1900). There are a few quirks regarding Freytag’s pyramid (on the right). The illustration, from Chapter 2 of the book, shows his pyramid. The quick breakdown is that each of the lettered nodes represents one of the five acts of the drama. The number of scenes per act is left up to the playwright. What the diagram may suggest (which you must be careful not to interpret it this way) is that the diagram is not only chronological, but also to scale. In other words, that each of the acts appear to take the same amount of stage time. The truth is, as derived from the text, that each act’s performance time is dependent on the number of scenes in the act. So, for instance, The Merchant of Venice is comprised of five acts, but the climax actually occurs about two-thirds through the play, and the catastrophe (more often referred to as the denouement) is the last eighth of the performance time.


Parts of the Drama: (a)introduction, (b)rise, (c)climax, (d)return or fall, (e)catastrophe.

Shakespearean theater evolved, of course, into other forms in other regions. Eventually German theater, modern English theater, Yiddish theater, and American theater all gave way to the motion picture and its 3-act structure (or 4-act structure, depending upon who you ask). This same 5-act structure finds its way into television, with 4 commercial breaks. This means that the introduction now takes 30 seconds or up to five minutes at the start of the show, the rise around 20 minutes, starting after the first commercial break and bringing us to the middle of the segment after the second commercial break. The climax and return take around five minutes toward the end of this same segment, and the catastrophe completes the show at around 30 seconds following the last commercial break. In film, Freytag’s five acts are broken into approximately 30, 30, 30, 20, and 10 minutes respectively, although with some action films, like the Transformers franchise, the climax is exaggerated into an hour-long spectacle, the return and catastrophe given barely 5 minutes to split between them.

The point here is that the dramatic form has been evolving over time to lean more heavily on the middle of the story, and simultaneously truncating the end of the story. I’m not sure what this says about our viewing habits, wether we’re being re-trained to appreciate a new structure, or whether the marketplace is pressuring film and television to adopt to the viewing public’s changing tastes. After alL, in a world of short-attention-span, it becomes difficult to keep the viewer after the climax has been resolved — once the emotional buy-in for the main characters have been resolved at the climax, how does one keep such an audience’s attention into the denouement? The answer seems to be to truncate the ending. (Television and movie series seem to have a leg up on this since multiple story lines are interwoven and get resolved in different episodes, so the denouement only has to address the main story line of the episode. Torchwood, Season 2 is a good example of this.)

Then the question becomes: do authors adopt their story structure to match the visual media to increase their audience? This seems like a slippery slope, but at the same time, it’s worthy of an experiment. After all, if the goal is to get a message across, shouldn’t it be tailored to the audience? I realize that this can border on agitprop, but there are stories that may benefit from this. Still, there is a reason the novel form still exists as it does, but you’ll notice it is much changed from where it was 75 or 150 years ago. I suppose the real answer will come along in the future, as our media continues to change. Who knows what impact the e-book will have on structure?

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July 28, 2011

Freytag’s “Technique of the Drama” — Chapter VI now available.


Image by Gabor
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Freytag.

Chapter VI of Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama is now available on the Technique of Drama page.

This section covers the following topics on playwriting and stage drama: Material. Work. Fitting for the stage. Cutting out. Length of the piece. Acquaintance with the stage.

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July 27, 2011

Freytag’s “Technique of the Drama” — Chapter V now available.


Image by Gabor
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Freytag.

Chapter V of Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama is now available on the Technique of Drama page.

This section covers the following topics on playwriting and stage drama: Iambic pentameter. Tetrameter. Trimeter. Alexandrine. Verse of the Nibelungen Lied. Dramatic element of verse. Color.

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July 26, 2011

Freytag’s “Technique of the Drama” — Chapter IV, Part 3 now available.


Image by Gabor
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Freytag.

Chapter IV, Part 3 of Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama is now available on the Technique of Drama page.

This section covers the following topics on playwriting and stage drama: The characters must have dramatic unity. The drama must have but one chief hero. Double heroes. Lovers. The action must be based on characteristics of the persons. Easily understood. Mingling of good and evil. Humor. Accident. The characters in the different acts. Demands of the actor. The conception of the stage arrangement must be vivid in the poet’s mind. The province of the spectacle play. What is it to write effectively?

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July 25, 2011

Freytag’s “Technique of the Drama” — Chapter IV, Part 2 now available.


Image by Gabor
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Freytag.

Chapter IV, Part 2 of Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama is now available on the Technique of Drama page.

This section covers the following topics on playwriting and stage drama: The character dependent on the action. Example of Wallenstein. Characters with portraiture. Historical characters. Poets and history. Opposition between characters and action. The epic hero intrinsically undramatic. Euripides. The Germans and their legends. Older German history. Nature of historical heroes. Inner poverty. Mingling of opposites. Lack of unity. Influence of Christendom. Henry IV. Attitude of the poet toward the appearances of reality. Opposition between poet and actor.

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July 24, 2011

Freytag’s “Technique of the Drama” — Chapter IV, Part 1 now available.


Image by Gabor
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Freytag.

Chapter IV, Part 1 of Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama is now available on the Technique of Drama page.

This section covers the following topics on playwriting and stage drama: Assumptions of dramatic characterization, creation, and after-creation. Variety of peoples and characters. Germans and Latins. Difference according to poets. Shakespeare’s characters. Lessing, Goethe, Schiller.

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Freytag’s “Technique of the Drama” — Chapter III, Part 2 now available.


Image by Gabor
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Freytag.

Chapter III, Part 2 of Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama is now available on the Technique of Drama page.

This section covers the following topics on playwriting and stage drama: Conduct of action through the scenes. Monologues. Messenger scenes. Dialogue scenes. Different structure. Love scenes. Three persons. Ensemble scenes. Their laws. The galley scene in Antony and Cleopatra. Banquet scene in Piccolomini. Riitli scene. Parliament in Demetrius. Mass scenes. Distributed voices. Battles.

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July 21, 2011

Freytag’s “Technique of the Drama” — Chapter III, Part 1 now available.


Image by Gabor
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Freytag.

Chapter III, Part 1 of Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama is now available on the Technique of Drama page.

This section covers the following topics on playwriting and stage drama: Entrances. Scenes. Units of the poet. Their combination into scenes. Structure of the scene. Intervals. Change of scenery. Chief scenes and subordinate scenes.

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