My friend Alyssa asked about Writer’s Block, and my first thought was: I didn’t know Alyssa wrote. I bet she’s good at it. But then, at the moment, she’s probably suffering from Writer’s Block. I can’t recall when last I was afflicted with this dread disease. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never addressed it on the blog, and it’s high time.
Die Vampires Die
Naturally, a show tune instantly comes to mind. The 4-actor musical, [title of show], is remarkably relatable – really shows what it’s like to be a musical theatre writer. The title of my favorite [title of show] number is misleading. “Vampires,” in this case, refer to any force that’s stopping you from creating. So, take that metaphor: Writer’s Block is a famous vampire that must be vanquished. And you can do this, because vampires are mythical creatures and you’re a vampire-slayer.
On Many Burners
The most important writing task I’ve in front of me today is not this early-February blog post. I need to flesh out the final sequence to a musical, interspersing four songs with dialogue, making the whole thing dramatic, swift-moving and clear. That’s on the front burner, as we cooks say. On the back burner is the new draft of my musical, Baby Makes Three. Some recent reading I’ve done on that show’s subject matter engenders new notions I’d like to incorporate. Another burner warms my monthly letter to my aunt. She gets pages in an envelope. There are also two e-mails to write to friends. This thing I’m doing now – the blog – occupies the second burner. And yet that’s what I’m doing.
If you’ve a whole bunch of things to write, procrastination can take the form of tending to a less prominent burner. And that’s forward motion: you’re writing. Gears are turning, which is better than not.
So Many Possibilities
A musical about an artist ends: “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” To which I say: “His favorite???” Having so many possibilities is terrifying to me.
Recently I was asked to write a song for a theatre company and was assured (falsely, it turned out) I could write about absolutely anything. To me, this wasn’t good news. I thrive on restrictions. Don’t say to me, “write a song,” say, “write a love song a nature photographer might sing to a walrus in the Arctic.” The more specific the parameters, the more I’ll know what will need to be in the song. And in this example, I’d ask what year the love song should be set in, because nature photography has been going on for a while, but our knowledge that the polar ice caps are melting is far more recent.
This is something I love about rhyme. It cuts down on those “many possibilities.” When writing a rhyme-less poem, you’ve the entire dictionary to choose from. When rhyming, you’ve a much smaller column in a rhyming dictionary.
Applying this to Alyssa’s Writer’s Block query: Figure out if there are restrictions that can be applied to your writing project. Here on the blog, I always shoot for 1000 words, and this time I’m using headlines to break up the text. Parameters can be completely artificial. I used to challenge myself to come up with acrostics, poems in which the first letter of every line can be read vertically. It’s like working out a puzzle, fun.
The Shock Of The New
While I’m writing this, I’m listening to a cast album I’ve never heard before. And, you know me, I’m having thoughts about its quality – what works in it, and what doesn’t. And that’s a helpful frame of mind because when I come up with notes and words I’ll be thinking about what works and what doesn’t, also. And I’m reminded of my many trips to the Museum of Modern Art. When I saw favorites I’d seen many times before, it was like greeting an old friend. But more important to overcoming Writer’s Block is taking in works of art, in any genre, to get those critical faculties going.
While MOMA gets two million visitors a year, I used to spend many happy hours as a tourist in my own town, bicycling through neighborhoods nobody else would ever consider cycling through. In every trip, I saw things I’d never seen before, such as a rack of live chickens in cages near Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. When you go fast, the world whizzes by like a sped-up film. And this jolts your brain, hopefully knocking out the vampire of Writer’s Block.
Put Another Way
And I’d like to share a trick I picked up years ago at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Back in the days when cast albums were truly albums – 12 inch vinyl within a sleeve, there’d often be a synopsis on the back. Those might have been 500 words long. At NYMF, we were encouraged to describe our stories in various lengths: 500 words, 1000 words, three sentences (sometimes called The Elevator Pitch) and a ten-word tagline for the poster and ads. I’ve found this to be a helpful exercise in molding a story.
So, you’re stymied by the Block. Can you write ten words? Can you tell what your piece is about in three sentences? These seem like small challenges. Moving on to 100 words may be difficult, but you’re incrementally increasing the difficulty of what you’re doing. If you can tell your story in 5000 words, you’ve written a short story. Over half-a-million, you’ve written Infinite Jest.
Summarize Proust Competition
Looking up how many words are in Infinite Jest reminded me of a Monty Python sketch and also of a pair of television comedy writers who’d start each day cackling hysterically at a comedy record by the then-unknown-in-America British troupe. Feeding yourself something totally silly might distract you from concentrating on the serious problem of Writer’s Block.
Or, perhaps it won’t; but at least you’ll have had a laugh.