Andrew Lewis Conn's O, Africa! is an ingenious, clever adventure novel about the first film to be shot entirely in Africa, set in the early days of filmmaking. Conn shares some ways to beat the most notorious writers' affliction.
1. Watch Movies About Writer's Block. With very few exceptions (Capote, My Brilliant Career, Deconstructing Harry), movies are a notoriously bad medium for showing the work that goes into being a writer (which, for the most part consists, let’s face it, of a person sitting in solitude for strange and intolerable numbers of hours). It’s nearly impossible for films to visualize so internal a process, so you get instead lots of furrowed brows, lovers thrashing about, and balled-up manuscript pages sailing across rooms. What movies can do really well, however, is show people going batshit crazy! So watch some classic movies about writer's block and resign yourself not to be Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place! Don’t be Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys (well, maybe, sometimes)! Don’t be CGI Nicholas Cage twins in Adaptation! Do not strive for that special Barton Fink feeling! And, for God’s sake, do not check yourself into the Overlook Hotel!
2. Play Writer's Block “Mad Libs.” Replace the names of other professions (garbage collector, litigation attorney, algebra teacher, etc.) in the phrase “writer’s block” and play out those scenarios to see what an absurd self-diagnosis it is we’re talking about here. To wit, imagine you break your arm in an automobile accident. It’s a bad fracture and you’re rushed to the emergency room. There you are, lying on the table, bone jutting out, with a tourniquet corded around your arm, and in comes a brooding, Byronic-looking doctor who informs you that he’d love to set your arm but he can’t today, just can’t, because he’s suffering from “physician's block.” Everyone’s working life is hard: do your job.
3. Get a corporate writing gig. The greatest upshot of doing some kind of writing work for a living is that it forces you to show up. By logging those hours you learn how to write through your worst day. You develop muscle memory that allows you to write professionally and well independent of your mood. You develop craft that will save you and pull you though your least inspired assignment, your worst hangover, your lowest insomnia, your crappiest day. (Conversely, the dangers of writing for a living are these: most business and corporate writing is about positioning things in very clear and concretized ways, whereas fiction is all about ambiguity and longing and questioning—the art of the “if/but.” It’s also easy to get into bad, cheap habits: speed, glibness, settling for thumbnail portraiture. For all that, I’d argue that the benefits—which include a paycheck and, er, benefits!—significantly outweigh the demerits.)
4. Place your trust in craft, not inspiration. Leave chasing vampires, looking for the Loch Ness Monster, and making friends with the Easter Bunny to others. Because writer's block, similar those other figments, does not exist. There’s writing and there’s not writing (and, within those two large camps, factions of good writing, poor writing, and mediocre writing). Like anything else, there are going to be good days and bad days. But let’s not get all exalted about it! Demystifying the process for oneself—treating it as craft, as labor, as back work; and approaching the process like a bricklayer—can relieve an enormous amount of self-imposed psychological pressure. There’s going to school and there’s playing hooky. There’s reporting for work and there’s calling in sick. A big part of being a pro is about showing up, not making excuses, and getting on with it. Be a professional.
5. Get your hands dirty. The world is bursting with things that are begging for description. So leave the lonely room or crowded coffee shop and do something intensely physical or visual. Return to lonely room or crowded coffee shop. Describe what you’ve just seen or done. Now describe what you have seen or done from the perspective of others. Describe what you have seen or done from the POV of an infant or an alien newly arrived on Earth or your future, 80-year-old self. Repeat.
6. Get your ass in a chair. Comfy? Good! Now promise yourself that you will not rise from said sedentary bucket until you’ve committed to the page or computer screen one sentence, paragraph, or page with which you are moderately satisfied. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
7. Write out of love. One of the simplest and most profound explanations of why we write that I ever heard came from Bruce Springsteen during a Charlie Rose interview. (And anyone who doubts that Springsteen is one of America’s supreme story writers, equipped with an actor’s ability to inhabit the skins of wildly different characters, has never listened to Nebraska.) Asked about his creative process, the Boss said something to the effect of: “You write about what you love and you write about things you’re trying to make sense of.” Have heroes. Read their stuff. Listen to their music. Watch their movies. Be open to inspiration and allow yourself to learn from their example. Then double-down on your commitment to doing the work—good work that takes the form of an expression of love—in the hopes that you might carry that torch a few inches forward.
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