Argue the legitimacy of writer’s block all you like—and people do—the fact remains that there are few things worse for a writer than sitting down at the keyboard with a headful of ideas only to find that the words won’t come. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Perhaps there’s a deadline looming so close you’ve lost the luxury of the time needed to organize your thoughts. Maybe the pressure is so great it’s hampering your muse. Or maybe you just have too many other things on your mind for the words to find a straight path to your fingers: bills, repairs, what’s on TV right now…
Whatever the case, it’s stressful, and it’s happened to me more times than I can count.
But, rather by accident, I found a way around it.
My problem was one of intimidation. There were days when I would sit at the computer knowing what I wanted to write but unable, or unwilling, to write it. It seemed like a task that was greater than my capacity to deal with it. How do I sit here and essentially create a world from nothing when I feel as if I’m missing half the tools? Gods of literature do not approve of ill-fashioned worlds. My situations seemed convoluted, my action stilted, my characters forced…
In the end, I looked out the window and saw a man walking his dog, and that became the solution. Did I start my story: “A man walked his dog”? No. Did I create the world in which this man and his dog belonged? Not at first. I reduced it almost entirely to dialogue and imagined the conversation this man might have with his dog, but not just an ABC run-of-the-mill conversation. After all, if you’re going to have the dog as one of your key players in this little tableau, you might as well make it interesting:
“Every day,” Patch said.
The old man raised his eyebrows. “What’s that?”
“Every day the same old walk.”
“You don’t approve?”
“I don’t not approve, exactly. But it wouldn’t kill you to change direction once in a while.”
“I suppose we could do that.”
“How about swinging down by the school? The children love me.”
“Yes, they love you. The older ones can be cruel.”
“You let me worry about that.”
“If I let you worry about that, we’re both in trouble.”
“How about the beach, then?”
“The sand is filthy.”
“That’s part of why I like it.”
“Plus, there’s that homeless guy.”
“I like him too.”
“Why not? He’s never interfered with you.”
“Maybe, but there’s something I don’t like about him.”
“Maybe it’s the fact that he stole your fashion sense.”
“And yet you didn’t even crack a smile.”
More often than not, I have no idea where this dialogue is leading me, but it spins out into a story of some sort by the time I get to the end. It creates itself based on the exchange. The characters let me know their thoughts, their characteristics, their dilemmas, and the conflict at the core of their tale. They work it out for themselves and for me, on the page. And even if I run out of steam and never complete the piece, I have overcome the block that kept me from writing anything at all. And that’s what I always do when the words are not coming with their usual aplomb. I start with dialogue.
Try it yourself. Have a look around you. Snippets of conversations caught in a crowd at the mall, or in the park, are usually enough to engage my imagination. A woman is on the phone and says: “Yes, but if it had been the blue one, nobody would have been angry.” Imagination kicks in. A blue what? Who was angry and why? It’s creative eavesdropping designed to engage the muse.
Even if you’re at home and looking out the window, you don’t even need the auditory cues to get your creativity in gear. That woman sitting in her car singing along to some song you can’t hear. Is she always this carefree and happy? Does that joy flee her heart by the time she gets home when she realizes that yet again she has to face….what? Or was she listening to a tape of her old band playing their biggest tune? Mixed in with that joy is nostalgia and regret that she left the band back when they were on the verge of superstardom. Perhaps she’s wondering where she’d be now if things had worked out differently. Perhaps she’ll get another chance…
And that’s where you come in. You’re a writer. You can time travel, teleport, read minds…it’s what we do. So when the words aren’t coming, rather than sitting there in frustration glaring at a white screen, find the words. Sometimes it’s like Where’s Waldo? but they’re there, hidden in the mundane, the ordinary, waiting like a lit match to touch the fuse of your creativity.
You just need to remember how and where to look.
And sometimes it’s nothing more complicated than a man walking his dog.
“I used to want to be a writer, you know.”
Patch looked up at his master. “I didn’t know that. Why didn’t you pursue it?”
“I didn’t know where to start.”
“At the beginning?”
“It’s not always that easy to find it.”
“Isn’t that where we are right now?”
(This article originally appeared in Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror: Speculative Genre Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Laurie Lamson, Tarcher/Penguin Books, 2014.)