Just Tell the Story Already


“Either you want to tell a story or you don’t. Do you want to draw attention to yourself and your own writing and your beautiful style or do you want to be invisible and let the story and the characters take over for the reader. That’s what it comes down to for me. What comes into it with crime is just conflicts. I like conflict in any kind of popular art. There is no greater conflict than life versus death, so there it is. I’m not that interested in the crime aspect of my books. I am interested in the characters.” — George Pelecanos

Writing is hard work, at least I find it to be tough. If I’m tired (which is a lot of the time), distracted (which happens more than I’d like), or bogged down with work (which happens WAY more than it should), I find settling down in front of my computer screen and tap, tap, tapping away to be a daunting prospect. And so I find other things to do. I avoid the very thing that nourishes me and gives me life.

George Pelecano’s opening statement above, convicts me. If I really want to tell a story, what’s stopping me? Why, for heaven’s sake, am I letting all the STUFF of life get in the way? Why do I settle and sign and fail to put words to page, even as the story snippets wind through my brain and heart? I’ve decided that it’s not so much a fear of failure (I’m far too old for that to matter) as it is fatigue and the busyness of life.

Frankly, however, that is no excuse. I own it, and I’m going to do something about it (in all my spare time). More to come on this subject…

For now, I want to share with you a video series that has been inspiring me to move forward. If you’re dealing with a bad case of writer’s block, a general malaise resulting from current world events, or whatever else ails you, check out Pixar’s “The Art of Storytelling”. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Break Down the Blocks

“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'” — Maya Angelou

Oh yeah. We’ve all been there. Blank screen. Pristine, unmarked page. No words. Writer’s block can strike anyone at any time in any place. This malady has a particular fondness for creeping up whenever a deadline looms or you have a nice block of dedicated time for work.

Fortunately, writer’s block is rarely terminal and almost never fatal. One simply needs to have a few tools to break down the blocks. Next time you face the relenting blank screen or page try one or more of the techniques I usually find helpful:

  • Just walk away. Get up and leave the room. I like to take a walk around the neighborhood or spend a little time in the garden. If the weather’s rotten, get a cup of coffee or other favorite beverage and savor the flavor. Usually after 15-30 minutes I can go back to my work refreshed and with my creativity unclogged.
  • Press on. Just start typing (or get that pen/pencil scribbling). It doesn’t have to be about anything in particular; in fact, I often end up with a combo rant/lament about my inability to put anything coherent on paper. This can go on for several hundred words, but I find that the sustained act of writing and seeing words on paper usually helps me find a way to break through and an idea I can use.
  • Read someone else’s words. Pull your favorite classic fiction or poet off the shelf and read a passage that is meaningful to you. I am fond of Robert Frost, Billy Collins, and Mary Oliver in such situations. Shakespeare is another favorite for kick-starting my creativity.
  • Do something else creative for 30 minutes or so. Do you enjoy painting, knitting, woodwork, music, or dance? If so, turn to another creative endeavor to help unblock your mind and soul. A little diversion can make all the difference.
  • When all else fails, I turn to chocolate or a trip to my favorite local coffeehouse. Sometimes a change of atmosphere, a good cup ‘o joe, and something decadently chocolate will turn things around. Beware the caloric impact of this option.

Find the techniques that work best for you and take heart. You’re in good company. Even the best of the best hit the wall sometimes, but they don’t give up. The words come. Or, as William Stafford said, “Lower your standards and keep writing.”

Photo by Rennett Stowe used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!