It’s a simple equation: (Wish To Write + Ideas) * X = Writers Block. X may equal procrastination, perfectionism, fear, distractions, or that shadow that’s been growing in the corner of the room for the past hour and from which you’re now pretty sure you can hear breathing and muttering. At any rate, you need help (or at least your writing does; you yourself may be beyond rescuing).
To which I say: good luck, try writing prompts. They’re these handy little open-ended phrases created by other people with the sole purpose of getting you started. I recently Googled “writing prompts” and came up with this list of 60 (which is two month’s worth of one a day, as they helpfully point out).
Lord help me, they’re terrifying. They work. Because I would rather write ANYTHING than come up with a response to, for example, #25, “If I knew then what I know now.” I do not jest when I say this: upon reading this prompt, I immediately started to second guess everything I ever learned and descended into utter “what is the meaning of life” existential madness. (Sample brainloop: Do I REALLY know more now than I did then? Or do I just ASSUME or HOPE that’s the case because present-me needs to feel superior to past-me? What is the “now” versus “then” they refer to, anyway? What is time? Where is that video of Henri the Cat?)
Compared to that, I’ll happily focus on writing topics that don’t induce use of the Caps Lock key any day.
But some of these prompts did resonate with…something, inside me. They may yet emerge once I’ve had time to think them over. #45, “I open the last book on earth.” Immediately, I remember the power of Fahrenheit 451‘s conclusion. People become books – ” ‘Walk carefully. Guard your health. If anything should happen to Harris, you are the Book of Ecclesiastes. See how important you’ve become in the last minute!’ ” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451).
I find depths of insight in Bradbury (more on him later), and this scene in particular has shaped my view of societies, cultures, and the accumulated learning that is the best excuse for civilization. Knowledge emerges in unusual ways, sparked by odd chemistries and catalysis and chimerisms. The rational world provides a framework, but something else flutters around its bars, just out of sight. As a writer, allowing this mental ecosystem to emerge and evolve is one of the most difficult tasks – it is far too easy to go in with pruning shears and over-critical judgement, as it were, and accidentally exterminate a few evolutionary lines – and then spend the next several days staring at a blank page, wondering why everything is so scorched-earth quiet.
Hence my newfound respect for the writing prompt. I envision it as the equivalent of a night vision camera, allowing me to capture elusive species in their undisturbed state inside my head. It surprises them as much as me – and I find surprise is a wonderful antidote to self-criticism, because you can’t argue with it. You can analyze it, yes. But you know you were surprised. And since it is notoriously hard to tame – unlike that thing in the corner – your best bet is to leave the windows open and hope a surprise flies in. Or try writing prompts. Because if I knew then what I know now…you get the idea.
For a wonderful exploration of the element of surprise, look up Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time. And as always, please share surprises or writing prompts in the comments!