I never had writer’s block when I was in college. Assignments had a way of getting my imagination going. The more constraints professors put on my papers the more coherent they became. I found inspiration in limitations.
A minimum requirement of citations kept my essays informed. Word count caps prevented me from going off on tangents. A strict thesis kept me on topic. The clearer the criteria the more it felt like I was cheating.
I never hit a wall when my boarders were defined.
Time never slipped away when it was hanging heavy on me. That sense of urgency kept my creativity from running rampant. I didn’t have a moment to work out every idea in my head, so I didn’t have to.
The questions in my notebook were designed to prioritize which of my ideas were most important. I started with open ended ones to gage how I felt about a subject. I moved onto closed (yes or no) questions to see what facts I already knew. I wrote a list of supporting topics and used less than half.
Clarity was more relevant than totality.
These limitations helped me make major edits before I got started. When I graduated those parameters disappeared. I figured it’d be easier to write without the pressure of 17 credits hanging over my head. Turns out, it was a whole lot harder.
Freedom from Indecision
When you have too many options it’s hard to decide on a single one.
It was easy for me to decide what movie I wanted to watch when I was limited to my old VHS library. Now, in the era of Netflix, I scan through thumbnail movie covers until it’s time to go to sleep. It was easy to decide what I’d be listening to on the way home from work when I only took three CDs. Now my iPod fits over two months of music.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice – Why Less is More says, “Too many choices produces paralysis rather than liberation, with so many options to choose from people find it very difficult to choose at all.”
This is especially true for writers coming up with fresh story ideas. We could write about anyone in any place in any time period. We could build a universe from scratch, come up with our own alien races with their own languages, and systems of government. Our only limit is our imagination, which can be a problem.
Writer’s block isn’t always a wall, sometimes it’s a fork in the road. A scarecrow mocks us, standing there scratching our heads.
“Some people go down the horror genre, others go down the comedy genre. Of course, some people do go both ways. Some people find success down one avenue then decide to go another way, afraid to pigeon hole themselves.”
I’ve gotten lost trying to go my own way. I’ve researched too many subjects, I bring in too many of my interests, and too many of my influences. When it comes to deciding on my next project, I can get really indecisive.
Long Live Deadlines
One of the best ways to get past writer’s block is to find limitations that force you to make quick creative decisions. Writers should be on the look out for short fiction collections that are taking submissions, not just to pad your resumé, but to push yourself to produce something in a timeframe.
Every November, writers pit themselves against the clock for National Novel Writing Month. The structure of the project forces them to think fast, to let their subconscious do the driving, instead of slowing down to consider all the notes their inner editors keep giving them.
Sometimes there’s more inspiration in the hour glass than the heavens. Sometimes the ticking clock is more moving than an orchestral arrangement. Sometimes Cronus is a better muse than Calliope.
It can be hard to find the discipline to keep artificial deadlines, especially when no one is awaiting our manuscripts. We could set up short term goals, like write two thousand words a day or write a chapter a week, but we’ll feel like failures when we come down with the flu and break our routines. These type of objective based goals can be easily derailed.
So how can we get the creative benefits of deadlines without that sense of urgency? By recognizing how deadlines force us to narrow our vision.
In college, my essays were usually the first ideas that came to mind. I didn’t have time to sift through my options. I’d get a premise and make it work. If my thesis didn’t hold up to the scrutiny of my research, then that’s what I’d report. I’d explain where my bias came from and why it was wrong.
These days, my blogging strategy is the same thing. I use a similar method for fiction. I ask myself what’s the “What if?” scenario my imagination keeps coming back to this week. That’s what I end up writing.
Too much contemplation can be a bad thing. When you maximize your possibilities you limit your ability to focus. When you give yourself the freedom to choose the best possible story, you waste good ideas by spending too much time considering the alternatives.
If inspiration has given you a pretty good premise, you’re better off flushing it out rather than brain storming until a better one comes along. Choosing the material shouldn’t be as much of a project as developing it.