This blog entry originally began as a response to Bittersweet Turns‘ blog series on “Rhythm Writing”, which you can find here: first entry, second entry, and third entry. As I worked on this and read the three articles, my response really outgrew what I felt would be appropriate for a blog comment. So, instead, my response will be my own blog entry. I hope Priya will forgive my response here, and I highly encourage anyone reading this entry to run over and read her fantastic series.
Writers face “writer’s block” and other forms of writing interference for a number of reasons. Some of us face mental health setbacks, others face the blank-for-too-long page, and others get caught up in writing the next big thing.
Even professionals sometimes fall into that last grouping. I’ve seen some of my favorite top-level writers produce second- to third-tier level texts because they tried to jump on the current selling bandwagon.
One of the best pieces of writing advice given to me came from a college professor, in an English 101 class, many years ago. He lifted it from Shakespeare, who had written it in the third scene of the first act of Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.”
Being true to yourself in writing takes a number of different forms. And, it took me years to fully understand what message he was really conveying.
We’ve all heard, “write what you know”, and to a point that is true. But there’s a limit that comes with that. To the best of my knowledge, no one other than Rowling has found Hogwarts, no one other than Tolkien has found Middle-earth, no one other than Pratchett has found Discworld, or no one other than Adams, well, except for The Doctor, has met Arthur Dent and the rest of the crew of the Heart of Gold. Thus, the rest of us have to improvise what we “know”.
To “write what you know”, I add “write what you like”. By this I mean, write your story or text as the story you would want to read. If you like reading about giant mechs beating each other up on a battle field, write that. If you like reading about castles, dragons, and elves, write about those. If you like reading about the end of the world, end the world!
I know some of you are now thinking, “okay, that’s great for you fiction writers, but what about us students and academics stuck in non-fiction writing?” I’ve got an answer for you folks, too.
In addition to “write what you like”, I will add “find something to like about what you’re going to write about”. Whether you’ve been in a writing class, a writing workshop, or been suckered into reading reading a friends latest fan fiction, you, like most of us, have read a text that is, at best, boring, or, at worst, just bad. That’s usually the result of getting a writing topic like “what did you do on your summer vacation” or “why I love baseball”. Sometimes, it’s hard to find something positive to say about those topics, but that’s where you, as a creative, need to dip into your skillset and create something interesting out of something boring.
With this idea, I mean, change the topic just enough to be interesting. If you get the college entrance essay topic of “where do you see yourself in ten years”, write a first-person narrative of a day or week in your life, as you believe it will be, ten years from now. Maybe you find the cure for cancer. Maybe you teach English to and study the biology of aliens from Proxima Centauri. Maybe you figure out how to convince your government to actually go through with a mission to colonize Mars. It’s your future, no one knows what it’ll look like, so be creative. Keep in mind, we went from cars to airplanes to spaceships on the moon to space stations in orbit of the Earth in one-hundred years. We went from computers the size of small houses to computers that fit in your pocket in approximately twenty years. It’s anyone’s guess what ten years from now will really look like.
To the rules “write what you like” and “find something to like about what you’re writing about”, I also add “failure is okay”. I know, I know. I felt the great disturbance in the force when I wrote those words, so I know what you’re feeling reading them. Those of us with anxiety and OCD are especially scared of failure. On the depression side of the house, sometimes we have the advantage of already feeling like a failure at things, so we got this. We, the big ‘we’ as society, put too much emphasis on success and dismiss failure. But failure is okay, that’s how we learn.
When I say “failure is okay”, by no means, am I saying, “half-ass work is okay”. What I am saying is that sometimes you will try something, especially something you haven’t tried before, and sometimes it won’t turn out how you want it too. Again, that’s okay, it’s okay to fail, that’s how we learn. In fact, when it comes to writing, my graduate rhetoric and writing classes encouraged us to look at written papers as drafts and treat “failures” as opportunities to learn.
Sometimes the draft will still be draft level, but on its way to something great at the deadline. Turn it in anyway, take the corrections and comments, and create a better draft. I know, not all academic classes, allow for this, but sometimes, the professor will allow a revised draft to replace the final product, if you demonstrate that you have an honest interest in learning to write better.
And,with that, we’ll return to Priya’s “Rhythm Writing” blog posts. She discovered that playing music while she writes and writing the thoughts that come to mind in the moment is a good way to hold off writer’s block. She points out this is especially effective when the music is instrumental. I could not agree with her more on this. However, I think the tone, or the feel, of the music is often more important than whether or not it has lyrics.
And that brings us to trolls. By trolls, I don’t mean the idiots who come along and write stupid or offensive comments on the internet. There’s no cure for them. The best advice for dealing with them is ignore, don’t engage, and hope they lose interest.
No, the trolls I refer to are the big monstrous types that come over hills or from the skis as attacking invasion forces in fantasy and scifi. Music is an effective tool for creating a mental image or an atmosphere to write certain scenes.
For example, if I am working on a military fighting force in a story, I’ll usually have something heavy metal-ish or aggressive alternative-ish playing in the background. If I’m setting up a scene for a fantasy world or scifi planet, I usually have the instrumental versions of Nighwish albums playing to inspire the scene. If I’m writing about trolls or any other invasion force, the troll metal music of bands like Finntroll is an important soundtrack to what I’m creating.
Unless I’m looking for specific lyrics to add to a scene, my default is usually European metal with non-English lyrics or instrumental music of any type. However, at times, I’ve used other music depending on what was needed to create the atmosphere I needed for a scene.