Writing Life: A Zen Prompt for Writing Past Blocks


My car’s view while I’m in a fiction workshop today (Freedom Tower, overlooking Biscayne Bay, Miami)

I wasn’t planning to post today, as I have about an hour to get ready to head to Miami for the last day of a writing workshop I’m doing with Ann Hood, on beginnings.  It has been a fabulous workshop, astounding in the depth of advice Ann has offered, and I’ll be putting together posts about this in the coming week.

Although I’m in a rush this morning, in responding to reader comments about managing writing time on my last post (What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here & 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time), I was struck by Eden’s comment:

“As my husband always says, ‘Do something, even if it’s wrong.'”

For many writers who are getting started, or those beginning to have successes but still balancing day-jobs, family and other priorities with their writing goals, simply doing something is at the heart of making any progress.

Do something, write something – even if it’s wrong. Claim the time, get something done.

Two other commenters on the same post spoke of the times they finally have the time, but not the inspiration or (heaven forbid) forgot what they had been planning to sit and write.  This made me think of advice I read in one of Natalie Goldberg’s books (either Writing Down the Bones or Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life).

Common writing advice is to write every day and, when writing, to keep the pen or keyboard moving.  As Eden’s husband encouraged, do something.  Write something.  It is also common advice to not be afraid to write something bad, or at least not good.  Frequently I hear writers say, there’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration.  You write anyway.  Write something, even if it is wrong.

What is different in Natalie Goldberg’s advice is her use of Zen principles, and the concept of positive and negative space.  Writers waiting to write the right thing, the inspired thing, insist on that positive space: the thing they want pictured, described, acted out.  Writing negative space is to acknowledge the non-thing.  To write what is not there, not happening, not inspired, not the focus of the story.

Goldberg offered this daily prompt, as a way to get writers past fear of the blank page.  When you don’t know what you want to write, then start by finishing the sentence, “I’m not going to write about…”

Try it.  I know it is strange, but it is oddly freeing.  The first time I did it, I remember the first line that came out was, “I’m not going to write about the blinds.”  How mundane.  But the riff that followed (I’m not going to write about the cat quacking at my feet, I’m not going to write about the growl of the trash truck and silence of the trees, with no wind.  I’m not going to write about the main character who is stuck sitting in that cafe…) revealed entire reams of detail and even a scene I hadn’t thought of before.

It’s an odd little practice, but sometimes flips energy just enough to loosen your voice.

There are two ways to use this activity.

1)  In the example above, I wasn’t even trying to go head-on at writing something I would use in existing work.  It might only shake loose distractions, quiet a preoccupied mind, and mess up that pristine white page enough to get past writers block for the moment.  It might free you enough to move on with more effective writing for the day, or might just be an activity in creative practice, maybe percolating some interesting details that might at some point be useful, or maybe just dormant or even discarded journal entry.

2)  Where Goldberg’s Zen approaches have been more meaningful to me, is her entire approach of thinking of negative space can be liberating and eye-opening in imagining story.  So often we are focused on inventing what is happening in the story, but what about what is not happening?  We focus on our main character’s experience, but what did those same scenes look like from a fringe character’s point of view?  Generally speaking, when we take our focus off the main attraction and take in the negative space, we understand (and can write) the story more fully.  We begin to notice the blank space around the story we wrote, and realize what might have been happening in the world around our character.  New “what if’s” begin to come to mind.  In using this practice, I’ve written scenes from another character’s perspective, which might lead to more insightful dialogue.  I’ve realized entire scenes or tensions, or outcomes of the conflict that hadn’t otherwise occurred to me.

That said, this girl needs to get in motion or I’ll miss Ann Hood’s reading during lunch today.  Since I won’t take time to edit this post as carefully as usual, do let me know in the comments I’ve left it unclear — or let me know if resonates with you.  Have a great day!

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Update 10/8/12: I have to share with you all a link to this beautiful post by fellow Florida writer, Kelly Turnbull, from her blog Parsley and Pumpkins on “writing what you don’t see”: Change with Color.

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9 Comments

Filed under Inspiration, Novel Writing, Writing Life, Writing Mother, Writing Prompt, Writing workshop

9 responses to “Writing Life: A Zen Prompt for Writing Past Blocks

  1. For this and the professionalism of your other posts, I am presenting you with the Liebster Blog Award. For an explanation of what this means, see my blog. http://bit.ly/IKDuGc

  2. I like the idea of writing about the things I am not going to write about.

    I don’t know how fiction writers come up with ideas and make the ideas flow together. Kudos to all of you!

    • Thanks for commenting, Gail. It’s worth saying, it works for more than ficiton. I use that same Zen approach to help 7th grade essay writers break through writers block. Brains sometimes rebel against our best intentions, and it can be freeing to start by honoring that rebellion (“I’m not going to…”), so it calms down or goes away.

  3. The “do something, even if it is wrong” thing is really helping me this morning! Some days, I just don’t want to write–I think it is a terror of writing something rotten. Thanks for posting this, it is helping me get past the terror today.

    • Jennifer, I fight that terror the most when I need to work on something that is nearly complete, and isn’t that kind of where you are, with your thesis? I have a novel draft I don’t like to work on unless I’m in the right mindset, since it’s so nearly done there’s more at risk than when working on a rough draft — although I need to get past that, or it will never be done, so I’m in the same boat. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and good luck with your writing today!

  4. Elissa, I just nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award. Well-deserved! I’ll be following you here.

  5. Elissa,
    I am honored that a link to my blog appears on your site… thank you.

    Yes, this post absolutely resonates with me. For what it is worth, I’ve found in writing I have to write in the negative space. As a beginning writer, if I waited for inspiration, if I waited for positive space, I have to say I am not sure I’d be writing. I’ve found that my inner critic gets so loud when I sit down at the keyboard that I’ve learned (baby steps) to work with that negative space… to work with what isn’t there.

    Being willing to exist in that negative space is freeing and “eye-opening” as you mention above. It takes some getting used to. It may not be for everyone. But, I think it is definitely worth a shot.

    Kelly

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