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Karate Chop for Writer's Block

These are strange times. In the space of a couple of months, so much of what we saw as normal has been turned on its head. Many of us can no longer grab a coffee with friends, we've been furloughed, going to the supermarket is something that must now be planned with military precision. In the same breath, we are being told to look at the silver linings. We have all this extra time on our hands, they say, and we should make the most of that. Those who are home-schooling, working-from-a-box-room-in-the-slivers-of-time-between-cooking-and-cleaning-up-after-spouse's-regular-snacks-and-children's-regular-I-don't-want-to-be-home-schooled-tantrums might have an expletive laden retort to that claim of increased leisure time. But even for those of us with no such responsibilities, finding the right head space in order to be creative is not as easy as just writing-that-novel-we've-always-wanted-to-write-but-never-had-the-time-for.

Writing right now feels unnecessary / indulgent / hard-work / frustrating / like pushing a boulder up a steep hill only to discover you've taken a wrong turn once you get to the top - take your pick. That mental block comes from the inescapable sense of anxiety and strangeness that is swirling around us. And we as human beings don't normally produce our best creative work when under that sort of stress. So should we just write off writing as a lost cause for the foreseeable future? It might sound defeatist, but I'm certainly of the opinion that that's not the worst approach. For me, writing should be fun; it shouldn't be a chore. If it's not bringing you joy, then is it really worth it? However, there will be plenty of people who (like me) want to write. It's just that we're finding it impossible to take that first step and put pen to paper. For those people, I've come up with eighteen exercises you could try to get back into the writing groove.

The appropriate headgear for writing

A disclaimer before I go any further: these exercises are not designed to produce perfect or publishable stories / poetry of any kind. In some instances, all they will produce is a jumble of words on a page. There might not even be words on a page. They might be in your head, or distilled into a stick figure cartoon. This is pseudo writing just like someone who has been away from work for a long time due to illness might do pseudo work for a couple of weeks to ease themselves back in. My rationale is this - you know that party trick where you pat your head and rub your tummy whilst singing the Italian national anthem backwards and riding along a tight rope on a unicycle? No? Well that's pretty much the level of challenge you're attempting when you write a story or a poem. You might not be aware of it but that's just because you're much more skilled than you realise. Now imagine how much more difficult the party trick would be if it was foggy and the performer hadn't slept for two days and was wearing ski gloves and had a gob-stopper in their mouth. That's writing in the pandemic. Therefore, to make it more manageable, these exercises aim to take away some of the difficulty of the trick. They are a warm-up back into performing the whole kit and caboodle once again. And if you want to try them, I think it's important to approach them with the mindset that this is something you're doing for pleasure with no end game like publication or matching your normal writing standards.

Start small with the basic building blocks of language

  • Word Association: Pick one word at random and let your brain fire through any connection it wants (collocations - words that go together; alliteration; homonyms - words spelt the same; homophones - words that sound the same; rhyming words etc.). You might end up with pear - drop - drip - ping - pong - table - top - mountain - Mountie - horse - race - medal - meddle - metal - petal etc. From there, you could try arranging those words into a sort of story, joining the dots however you want.

  • Tongue Twister: Pick a letter or consonant cluster and write down as many words as you can think of starting with that sound. i.e. crisp - creature - cretin - create - crest - Christina - crime - criminal - cross - crack. What's the best tongue-twister you can come up with using the words you've written down?

  • Music Video: Find a YouTube video for a song you've not listened to in a while (the weirder the video, the better). Whilst watching / listening, write down any words that pop into your head, either lyrics from the song or things you see on screen or any external stuff you're aware of. Now use those words to re-tell the story of the video as if you were describing it to an extra-terrestrial / your grandmother / a time traveller from the thirteenth century.

  • Onomatopoeia: Write down all the onomatopoeic words you can think of. Invent new onomatopoeic words. Shuffle them into a random order and imagine who or what might make those sounds. Fill in the visual blanks if you want to. Or else, tell a story purely through noise. Then read it aloud. And allow yourself to laugh!

  • Every Sentence Starts with the Same Word: Pick one word and start every sentence with it. Start small and work up into sentences, getting longer and wordier as you go. i.e. Play pen. Playground swings. Play marbles with friends. Play suspended because of rain. Play at doctors and nurses in the nursery. Play in the theatre about a duck called Jeremiah. Good starting words might be: balloon, dream, face, garden, make, train.

Get Rid of the Burden of Story

  • Text Message to a Fictional Character: exactly as it sounds - write a text message to a character from a film or TV show that you've seen recently - an action hero, a Jane Austen heroine or a cowboy from a 1960s western - and tell them how you felt when you saw them on screen.

  • Re-write a Fairy Tale or Historical Event: Robin Hood, Goldilocks, the Boy that Cried Wolf, Henry VIII's six wives, Marie Antoinette, the Wright Brothers etc. - write the story in your own words or from a different perspectives. Throw narrative accuracy out the window and just let the words flow.

  • Over-the-top Breakfast: Describe what you ate for breakfast (or lunch or dinner or as a midnight snack) in the most over-the-top language you can muster. Throw in all the adjectives and adverbs you've been avoiding since someone told you they were the sort of things you'd find on the road to Hell. e.g. The wedding-dress, silky white of the milk cascades onto my cornflakes, crisp and golden like the sun...

  • Translate a Piece of Writing into Slang or Dialect: Literally open a favourite book and re-write it as if it had been written by a modern teenager or a pirate or use Cockney rhyming slang or Yorkshire dialect. "A Tale of Two Cities" might go something like this: it were reet good times, it were pants times, it were all clever but it were stoopid also, it were gullible, it were when we didn't believe shit because of fake news...

Experiment with Different

  • Try Writing as Bad-ly as you can: I've been enjoying the (intentionally) terrible writing on show as part of Virtual Zine's April Fool's Day edition. Why not give it a go? Challenge yourself to write the worst thing you've ever written, breaking every writing rule, with a plot that makes absolutely zero sense?

  • Made-up Words: Look around you and describe your setting using made up words. e.g. radiator = heat grille; pillow = head cushion; book = story-cage; stairs = zig-zag-hill. I think this might be called "kenning" but that's not really important. You can make a story out of your made up words or keep going until you've invented a secret language just for you.

  • Nonsense Poems: If you're not familiar with "On the Ning Nang Nong" by Spike Milligan, give it a read. How about making up your own nonsense poem? It's all about rhythm and rhyme but the less meaning, the better. If you're struggling to think of rhymes, make up a new word or you can use RhymeZone.

Use a Pre-Existing Starting Point

  • Middle of a Novel: Open up a novel that you love on page 93 and start reading. Read for a couple of minutes and then shut the book and continue with the story from that moment.

  • Childhood Friend: Think about someone you haven't seen since you were a child. Create a mind map of what you remember about them and what you imagine they might have done in the intervening years.

  • Writerly Consequences: This one requires an accomplice but it could be done on Twitter or Zoom or through semaphore with a neighbour. One person writes / says the first sentence. The other person takes over for the second sentence etc. Story starters for the completely uninspired: there was a three-legged My Little Pony on the lawn; the sky was unexpectedly purple; the most unusual thing about Herbert was that he had a pet computer mouse.

  • Review Your Previous Self: Read something you've previously written (and are proud of) and write a 5* review of what you love about it and dig down into why it works in your opinion.

Set Yourself Free

  • Write in your head whilst doing something else entirely: exercising, cooking, cleaning, gardening, showering, yoga-ing, dancing. This is a story just for you. Let the rhythm of whatever activity you're doing infuse your story. Don't try and remember it. Don't worry about writing it down.

  • Create a story in a different medium: draw a cartoon using stick figures (the worse you are at drawing the better); create an interpretive dance that tells the story of the Norman Conquest; work out how to mime the opening montage in the film "Up"; sculpt mashed potato into a representation of the court scene in "To Kill a Mockingbird"; re-imagine "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a quasi-wildlife documentary called "Two Killer Mockingbirds"...

If you're wanting to write but finding it difficult right now, I hope something from the above exercises has sparked your imagination or at the very least has made you chuckle. If you want more stuff like this, then you can now sign up to my newsletter. And I'd love to hear any other suggestions to help those of us who are struggling to get creative right now so feel free to add comments below.

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