The Writers Circle: Getting Un-stuck

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Many of us have experienced times where we are suddenly stuck in our work – no new ideas for how to continue the story, no way out of a situation the characters find themselves in, no further interest in the story.  What are some of the ways you have found that help you to get past this feeling and continue writing?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

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Storms and Drought

Weather and writing. More generally, weather and creativity. They are inextricably linked together through metaphor.

Throwing out ideas is a Brainstorm.

Ideas come in a flood—or sometimes a torrent.

Ideas come out of nowhere like a bolt of lightning.

Weather seems a particularly apt analogy for creativity. They both seem out of our control—random even. While weather forecasting has given us more lead time to react to weather, we still have no actions to control the air and water around us. When ideas come we are similarly expected—and we’re generally happy—to simply weather the storm.

While there are tips and tricks to keep the creative stream flowing—write every day at the same time, use handwriting in a journal to warm up, etc—we have all been struck down by writers’ block from time to time.

There’s weather for that, too.

Ideas dry up.

A chronic lack of ideas is a drought—or somewhat less frequently, a depression.

If you’re stuck in a rut and can’t get out, you’re in the doldrums¹.

While not universal, the tendency to relate our creativity to natural phenomenon is certainly widespread—cutting across several languages, and not limited to the cultures that spread out from Europe.

This close metaphorical tie has an interesting side effect. With weather there is no shortage of terms for describing when weather goes wrong, yet there’s a dearth of terms for nice things like a pleasant, sunny day, with a short rain shower for good measure. Similarly, there are few elegant ways to describe the condition of having just the right balance between new ideas and the time to explore those ideas.

This is all scene setting for the situation I’ve found myself in. While I’m not swimming in free time, I do have some. But when I sit down to write, I find myself tilling the dry, crumbly ground for even the hint of an idea.

 


 

¹ Doldrums refers to those parts of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans affected by a low-pressure area around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm. The doldrums are noted for calm periods when the winds disappear altogether, trapping sail-powered boats for periods of days or weeks (paraphrased from Wikipedia).

When a writer is not a writer

By the very definition, a writer is someone who ‘writes’.  It’s something that infects the blood, drives you to finish that paragraph, become a stalker in coffee shops –  to listen in on conversations for character development, create an obsession with Pintrest with boards so weird and varied, you decide you need an alias login so you don’t need to explain the midget horse board or the 18th century womens’ underwear collection. Writing is that passion in the blood until one day something happens and you stop writing. Excuses and busyness lay hurdles in front of your writing. Suddenly, its months since you opened your writing files. You’ve stopped “writing”. You have nothing to write about. Many state it’s just a bump in the road, a slight case of writers block. But you know in your heart, it’s more like writers atrophy.

So when, along the journey, do you consider that you are no longer a writer? That you “hang up” your writing tools and “call it a day?”

I am a private person, who doesn’t share a huge amount of the turmoil and issues I have faced in the last few years; but feel its time to give light to some, in the hope that it inspires or motivates others.

Flashback 8 years and flash fiction writing was a living, breathing obsession for me. I had several vibrant blogs, loyal followers and built strong professional relationships with writers around the world though collaborative writing projects. I wrote new fiction every week, was part of an exciting editorial team, had begun my path in publishing and submitted a number of articles a month to various online writing websites. Writing both fiction and non fiction was an emotional outlet for me and a way to deal with the mounting personal issues my family was facing. In short, six months before my husband of 24 years eventually died from a horrific brain tumour, I stopped exploring words. I stopped sharing. My worlds became numb and my characters voices, once so clear; were silenced.

This halt to writing was no ordinary writers block. No manner of workshopping, brainstorming and doodling on blank pages could encourage words to flow again. I had access to excellent tools for creative blockages and over time, attempted to utilise them to kick start my lifeless passion.  Attempting to write even the briefest email has been excruciating. The great nothingness of depression has been an overwhelming and consuming entity living skin deep against my heart.

Once, I proudly wore that sly smile as I announced I was a writer, before giving a few details about my latest WIP. It took a lot of courage and self belief to go beyond the “faking it till you make it stage”. Now, I hide behind the statement of “I used to be a writer”; and even that feels false.  The journey back to ‘being a writer’ seems insurmountable. However, deep inside, there is a tiny flame which continues to flicker, waiting for inspiration to feed it, for passion to set it alight again.

Over the years, I’ve written some great columns, given great advice, coached and mentored many emerging writers, so for me, there is a huge slice of humble pie sitting in front of me to consume before I set off on my journey again. Though more than a bump in the road, I am hoping this diversion away from writing will prove to be a strength, rather than a hindrance to my overall journey.

I stand now, unable to claim to be a new writer; but unwilling to claim writer status. How many readers out there are able to empathise and stand with me in this no-mans land of writing? How have you launched yourself off again? What strategies have worked (or not worked?)

I would like to publicly thank the readers, writers and editors of Today’s Author for being so gentle with me over my absence. It is my intention to hang out here more often. Who knows, I may even start writing again.

Writing fiction in layers results in more speed and less frustration

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week it struck me:  I’ve rarely read an article on how to write fiction—more specifically, how to actually put words down on the page!

When I started writing fiction regularly about eight years ago, I read many books and articles to help me create great plot, make dialog realistic, and strike the right balance between “show” versus “tell”.  I thought I was reading books and articles on how to write.  But instead I was actually reading books and articles on how to create great plot, how to make dialog realistic, and how to strike the right balance between show versus tell.

As a novice writer I’d sit at the keyboard for a couple hours and squeeze out two well-polished paragraphs that read as though they came straight from a book on the shelf of my local bookstore.  But the agonizingly slow pace raised self-doubt, and I’d quickly wind up with an unfinished manuscript of a story that I felt wasn’t worth telling.

Today I have a completely different approach to writing fiction compared to the past. Now I write my story in layers, resulting in a speedier process with overall reduced frustration and self-doubt.

Think for a moment about how a house gets built.  Most people don’t wake up with the idea to build a house and immediately run down to the hardware store to make a huge lumber purchase, or worse yet, buy a brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.  In most cases building a home starts with an idea like desiring a 2-story, 4-bedroom colonial style home, then creating several hastily-drawn sketches, then more formalized measured drawings, then performing the rough framing/plumbing/electrical, then followed by the building shell until finally finishing up with the small details like soft pastel paint colors and finally that brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.

Writing can be less painful if you write in layers:

Layer 1 – Outline

Start with a high-level outline.  I’m not talking about anything fancy here, so just go ahead and open a word processor and drop some bullet-point sentences on the page.  Re-arrange them.  Delete some.  Add new ones.  Get 10-20 sentences on paper in the right sequence that depicts the story you want to tell.  You can even insert page breaks after each sentence to visually depict the start of a new chapter.

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”

Layer 2 – Fleshing the Story Skeleton

Now go back to your word processor and start building in more bullet points to flesh out the story skeleton.  The objective here is not to write a polished product, but instead you just want words on the page:

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”
    • PL standing on church steps, conflicted whether to go inside
    • PL encounters another friend, Lauren, who challenges him on why he’s there
    • PL reluctantly goes inside, realizing he’s turned into “that guy”
    • PL doesn’t quite know his strategy, but feels this is his last chance for true love
    • Ceremony begins, bride looks beautiful, priest asks the infamous question to guests…

Layer 3 – Rough Carpentry

For me, this stage is where the real work begins.  However the frustration level is usually much lower because I can jump around to different parts of the story on different days, taking a sentence or two and writing a few paragraphs.  Maybe I spend fifteen minutes in one session, or two hours in another session:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.  I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.

“Kevin?” asked Lauren.

“Lauren!  What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself!”

It’s a sloppy mess and it won’t win me any awards, I agree.  But at least now I have something down on paper to react to when I come back to revise in another pass.

Layer 4+ – Revision

I generally find my full-length novel equates to about 20,000 words at this point in time.  What’s that, about 80,000 words shy?  Queue the self-doubt.  But alas, now you can begin seasoning your story and adding bulk.  Writing now gets even easier because you have something to react to:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  It was nearly six years to the day since I last stepped inside the church for my nephew Evan’s baptism.  But today was much different.  Today I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.

I stood on the granite steps for several minutes watching many smiling faces enter the church.  Every time the decorative brass doors opened, I could catch a whiff of the residual incense that burned earlier in the morning for Mr. Covey’s funeral.

I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.  “Kevin?”

I turned to find Lauren with a tear on her cheek, and she immediately embraced me in a loving hug.

“You know, there’s still time to turn back…” she whispered in my ear.  “I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself.”

Iterate, iterate, iterate…

I’m skeptical whether there’s value to me in the lather, rinse, repeat directions provided with each bottle of shampoo.  When it comes to writing, however, I’m sold on the iterative approach to building long manuscripts.  For me, it’s invaluable to have something down on the page at each writing session to react to and revise.

Silently suffering

WARNING – This post contains material some individuals may find disturbing.  Reader discretion is advised.


Several weeks now I’ve suffered silently with severe bouts of extreme stomach discomfort.

For the first few weeks I expressed little concern for my long-term well-being.  Surely everyone must experience this once or twice in their life, I thought.

Like most experiencing this condition, I’d start my—session—with a tucked newspaper under my arm as I headed to my quiet space.  I’d sit down, roll-up my sleeves, and read a few paragraphs of the daily news before getting down to business.  But I found myself tensing up, which absolutely didn’t help, and I’d find thirty-minutes would pass in a heartbeat without affording any relief to my gut-wrenching discomfort.

Although a few weeks passed, I wasn’t quite ready to seek professional help.  I suppose I was in denial, so instead I decided to try a few home remedies.

I dimmed the lights and played some smooth jazz.  No luck.  I tried some light exercise to no avail.  Finally, I began to exponentially increase my daily caffeine intake; I hear coffee works wonders for people suffering from this awful, uncomfortable condition.

And here we are today; now ten weeks later still suffering from this horrible condition.  But I’m no longer embarrassed, and am here to seek professional help.  I’m suffering from a severe case of writers-block.

coffeecup

It would seem work-life balance is taking a toll on my creative writing.  Maybe it’s the eleven-hour workdays, coupled with other demands like household chores, exercise, and family obligations.  I’m not sure.  Lately, the gut-wrenching stomach discomfort I feel is brought on whenever I realize that I haven’t had the slightest inkling to sit down and put pen to paper.  I don’t think about writing unless it’s watching the deadlines zoom by for my posts due for Today’s Author, and I haven’t logged a single plot or character ideas in my writers’ notebook, which for the past three years has happened at least once weekly.

My mind is a cluttered-mess.  Please tell me this condition will pass?

The Writers File

One of the most fundamental challenges a writer faces is writers block. The major concern sited is the lack of ideas to write about. For this reason, I urge all writers, seasoned or beginner, to begin a writers file — a place to store ideas, characters and phrases for the times of “idea drought”. 

Like an experienced farmer,  a seasoned writer understands the ebb and flow of the seasons, that the rains flooding with ideas, characters and plot lines can gush forth, threatening to flood the entire room, but just as quickly dry up into a searing drought which appears to have no end. Similarly, they understand that the idea of tithing– putting a little away for the leaner times or droughts which inevitably come around– is a wise move should they wish to stay in business for the long term.

Just as the GoT Starks broodily shoot stares across the room and mouth “Winter is coming”, so ought writers take heed that the spring and summertime of abundant ideas has a short span of accommodation in their life.

A writers file can take on many guises, from a tatty notebook kept stuffed in a back pack, to a high tech electronic notes system on your i-thingy. It can be a manila folio of newspaper articles, maps, a list of names, odd photos and magazine clippings of interesting faces, rooms or environments. A writers file could be a shoe box of recycled (read – stolen) movie ticket buts, menus, postcards, theatre programs and timetables from around the world. Writers love to sit in cafes, snatch dialogue from passerbys and customers, reflect and imagine what others are doing with their day and about motivation for what they are experiencing on the streetscape going by. Wise writers will continue to collect prompts, ideas and springboards for their writing, even when they are focused on a specific novel or piece; understanding that they may need their hidden gems to nudge them out of writers block one day. 

Regardless of the format in which a writers file is kept, at some point it needs to be sorted into basic areas, if only to assist pulling oneself out of writers block. Sections titled , “setting”, “characters”, “events”, “props” and “dialogue” alone might prompt some ideas to begin with, should you have nothing to start your writers file up with. Never throw away a single “thing”. Every idea, no matter how strange or unrelated it may be from your current WIP or genre, may serve a purpose in the future. Sift through your notes and collected bits to file them roughly into these sections, and make sections which are more relevant to your own needs as you go along. 

Emerging writers are encouraged to write every day. Every writer should strive to write something every day. This writing can be a simple journal, a turn of phrase, a description of an emotion or words which capture a feeling, place or character. From these small things, a novel can emerge and blossom.  Writing regularly and as a commitment to yourself and to your craft will give you confidence to explore language and shape it alongside your characters. Keeping and maintaining a writers file will ensure that the flow of abundant ideas is kept at a constant, instead of a trickle, dominated by a temperamental muse. 

A Pantser in Need of a Plan

It’s day six of NaNoWriMo 2013. Things are not going real well for me so far.  There are several things that are causing this to be a struggle for me this year, some work-related, some life-related and some creativity-related. The work and life issues are “normal”, in a way at least.  But the creativity issues are new and different for me.

The issue is not a lack of ideas for what my 2013 masterpiece should be. Rather, I actually might have too many ideas. There are six brand new novels in my head at the moment, along with one or two “version 2.0” ideas for previous novels.  And they all want to come out all at once.  Which, as you might guess, means that none of them are coming out smoothly (or at all).  I have actually started three novels in the past few days. I got about 2200 words into the first, 1500 into the second and 1148 into the third (so far).  I haven’t yet figure out how to smoothly integrate these three vastly different stories into one so that I can count all of the words toward my 50,000 word goal, but perhaps a method of doing so will come to me soon. Is there a market for a sci-fi-mystery-steampunk-comedy-romance novel set in a fantastical world filled with magical creatures who like coffee and candy corn? Hmmm…

Anyway, the biggest issue for me with NaNoWriMo 2013 has actually been one I’ve never experienced before.  I’ve mentioned the fact that I am an unabashed “pantser” when it comes to writing.  I take a blank page and just start writing, never knowing exactly where I’m going (or even starting) until I get there. I have always written like this and have been successful with it. This strategy comes with a certain level of needing to trust that the “how’s” and the “why’s” of the plot will just kind of work themselves out. And again, they always seem to do that for me.  But for some reason, as I’ve sat down to write each day this month, I am finding my creative mind trying to proactively think about these “how’s”, “why’s” and “what’s”.  It goes something like this:

Me: Okay, so, there’s this awesomely powerful and evil wizard and he needs a sidekick/apprentice but doesn’t like any of the young wizards that are available to him. So he goes out to the real world and picks Sally to be his new minion and she will do his bidding just so that she can learn how to be a magician from him so that she can ultimately defeat her mentor.

The voice in my head: Okay, that’s great! But what is the evil bidding this wizard wants little Sally to do and how does Sally know he’s evil and why is he going outside of the magical realm and what will the end result be when Sally ultimately takes him on.  Oh, and isn’t this a bit too much like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” or something?

Or:

Me: So, the land is suddenly cast into complete and total darkness for 13 months, as has happened every 150 years for all of recorded history. The evil marauders from the northern Darklands invade, again, as they have done every 150 years… enslaving the good people of the southern lands, stealing their food supplies and drinking their treasured coffee.  The Chosen One among the good people of the south will rise up, as he or she has done each time this has happened, to push back the invaders and restore peace and harmony to the world.

The voice in my head:  Okay, but what causes this darkness and why does it repeat every few generations. If it repeats so often, wouldn’t the people of the south have, oh, you know, built up defenses against the invading forces? I mean, come on… they should be smart enough to anticipate that this is going to happen by now? And if they’re dumb enough not to anticipate it… well, maybe they don’t deserve the coffee they treasure so much. Oh, and, isn’t the premise of this just a little bit like “Nightfall”?  Just sayin’.

Or:

Me: Okay, so there’s this vampire and—

The voice in my head: Just stop there, dude… the world doesn’t need another vampire story right now.

I’m not saying that I think any of the ideas I have is necessarily destined for the best seller’s list any time soon, but this has never stopped me before. In fact, I’ve never really cared about that when I write.  So why is it that now – when the point is to get words on the page whatever they might be – why  am I now suddenly overthinking it and not just writing? I really don’t have an answer for this, but this feeling of doom is the reason why I do not plan my stories out in advance.  I’ve always felt that if I were to attempt to be a planner, I’d get to a point in my outline and get stuck, then abandon the project completely.  And that’s where I feel I am with these novels right now: stuck and ready to abandon them.  The trouble is that my mind is in this cycle now where it will not allow me to just start writing without thinking about the details of the inciting action or problem or the details of how or why it will be resolved.  Unfortunately, I don’t know how to actually think about these things in advance!

So that’s where I am and here’s where I ask for help:  I know a lot of writers are planners to the same extent that I am completely not a planner.  So, how do you do it? How do you look at your worlds/plots/characters and determine – before you really know them – what they will do and how they will react and why they will do things? Do you have any advice for someone who has never figured out the “how’s” and “why’s” in advance? I’d really like to hear from you about this. Also, if you are doing NaNoWriMo this year, how have your first 5 or 6 days gone so far?

Alternate Uses for Rory’s Story Cubes

Like many of you, in various English classes through Junior and Senior High I had to keep a journal. For the first 5 minutes of class we each pulled out a cheap spiral notebook and wrote about…whatever. I’m sure the intent, when the assignment was first conceived, was a bit more focused than it was by the time I made my way into the classes. If the intent was to have us write about anything profound, or to make progress toward some useful writing, it was lost on me–especially the years where English was the first or second class of the day.

No, my journals were often filled with musings (feel free to read that as whining) about how difficult it was to come up with something to write about in 5 minutes. My forced creativity occasionally led to my journal being filled with disconnected sentences, and wishes that I had enough time to focus on a fun topic. Nearly every time a teacher graded these I got unfocused comments that were about as close to a teacher calling a student a smartass as they could get away with.

As I’ve gotten older, and continued writing for another 30 years, the process of coming up with something to write about hasn’t gotten any easier. I guess I’ve just always had a problem with unfocused inspiration. Give me a pen and a blank page and my mind starts ticking through possibilities–but instead of whittling them down to a select few, the topics multiply and multiply again until my writing paralysis starts to look like fear, rather than overload.

I didn’t understand this all back then. In fact it took me a long time before I saw the pattern–as soon as a teacher told me what to write, I was off on a tear. Whether they gave me a narrow focus (an essay on a narrow topic) or a broad suggestion (write about aliens), the paralysis was over.

This still holds true for me. When I need to write a story I feel so overwhelmed with all the potential stories I could write that I have trouble settling on one in time to get something on paper. But when someone says, “Write a story using one of these characters as your protagonist,” or “use this song as inspiration for your sci-fi story,” I can pick few key points and I’m off.

Now, a little not-so-secret about me is that I like games. I spent years playing tabletop role-playing games, and even now my friends and I play quite a few party and strategy games. So, make something a game–and more importantly, tie in a set of custom dice–and you’ve got my attention.

4751141_origSo when I came across these boxes in my local game store it wasn’t a difficult decision to fork over $7 to try it out.

The concept here is not difficult. There are nine 6-sided dice, each side with a simple picture. You roll the dice and try to incorporate the nine pictures into something coherent. That’s if you play by the rules. But anyone who’s ever played Dungeons & Dragons–or even Risk–knows that everyone makes up their own rules.

To me nine pictures seems fine for a game, but I’m not trying to see if I can link all the images; I’m just using them as a kickstart. So now, when the blank page has been mocking me for a few minutes I don’t hesitate to whip out my special dicebag, pick 2 – 5 dice at random, and see what comes up.

This little writing tool is no cure-all. It doesn’t help me schedule time to write, it doesn’t help when my subconscious or ego gets in the way. But, when I’m ready to write, and can’t come up with anything, it’s amazingly useful.

And it’s kind of fun, too.

Currently there are 3 sets of Rory’s Story Cubes: the Original (red box), Actions (blue box) and Voyages (green box). The MSRP for each is $9.95 although my local gaming store has them for $6.95 each.There are also Story Cubes apps for both Apple and Android platforms. As of today, the app costs $1.99 – $2.25, which comes with the main pack, and you can download the Actions pack for free. The Voyages pack costs another $1.99 – $2.25). The apps seems a little overdeveloped for what they are, but not so much that they become unusable. The only limitation is that no matter how few, or how many dice sets you have downloaded, the app always rolls nine dice, no more, no less.

Birds of a feather

By FC Robinson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By FC Robinson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m suddenly awakened by the deliberate plunking of a piano blues riff: Daah duh duh duh dhaaam…daah duh duh duh dhaaam. 

“Cut it out, N’awlins,” I yell out in a raspy voice.  “Yuh hear”?

The rhythm continues to crescendo from across the room.  Daah duh duh duh dhaaam…daah duh duh duh dhaaam.  I yell out again, “That you, Money Fatts”?

My wife is not amused at my early-morning attempt at humor.

In one swift motion I swing my body off the bed, pulling half the entwined sheet and comforter combination with me until it’s tugged back into place like a rubber band.  I take a few clumsy steps in the dark, feeling for the top of my tall mahogany-stained dresser with outstretched arms, and retrieve my phone from the charger to silence the troublesome “blues riff” alarm tone.

The air in the room is brisk and cool.  About sixty-six degrees, I suspect.  I hate January; we really should move to Florida one of these days.

It’s nearly five o’clock on a Tuesday and I have just one hour to devote to writing and related research for the day before showering, dressing, and leaving for work.  I need to make this hour count!

I throw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, feed the cat a small portion of his morning breakfast to keep him quiet, and bump up the thermostat.  Click, click, click, ker-plunk, ker-plunk, whooooosh.  The burners fire and warm air begins to flow throughout the house.

I finally head into the family room where I sit down at my laptop to start writing.  The room is dark, as I’ve deliberately kept off the lights sans for the glow of the laptop LCD at the head of the table.  The daily self-interrogation begins.  Do I dive right into writing, or do I check my Twitter feed first to see what new insights were posted by my writing friends?  Maybe I’ll tweet the word count of my current WIP?  Or maybe I’ll comprise a romanticized tweet to impress others with my dedication to the craft at five o’clock in the morning? 

I log into Twitter and take a moment to skim my feed.

That woman is a machine…was she really awake two hours ago to comprise a tweet about her WIP? 

There’s this guy again…why did he re-post that same article he posted just yesterday afternoon?

I swear this woman…best-selling author of nineteen novels I’ve never heard of…must have six identical Twitter accounts!

I put my hand on the crown of my head, feeling to see if the thin spot has gotten any worse from the day earlier.  I slump back into my chair.

Coffee.  I need coffee!  I walk into the kitchen and brew myself a cup of Keurig.  The aroma of sweetened espresso shifts throughout the room when the forced-air blower kicks on for a second time.  This will surely wake her up.

Returning to my chair at the table, I see fourteen new tweets are available to me.  Three are duplicates, two are advertisements.

It’s now ten minutes to six, and I realize I’ve squandered yet another potentially-productive writing morning with no substantial benefit.

With the push of the mouse, a small arrow glides to the upper-right corner of my screen.  Account… Settings… Deactivate My Account.  Complete.

If I want to be a writer, I need to actually write, I think to myself as I snap shut the lid to my laptop.  Tomorrow’s another day.

It’s not always easy to be funny

Live cat is funny. Dead cat is not. Unless it’s the other way around.

One of the perennial frustrations of my writing life is that I have an uncomfortably close connection with Schrodinger’s cat, or at least my sense of humor does.See, when I’m not trying to be funny, I can hum right along and say funny things, or at least say things that seem funny to ME. I can talk and talk, cracking wise and being silly to marvelous effect. The people I talk to and that read my stuff generally seem to agree. However, when I’m actively trying to write something funny… I get nothing. I can feel myself trying too hard, feel the phrases locking up as I try to get them down on the page, feel the kludge and clumsiness of them as they fall flat.

I’ve tried to trick myself into being funny “unintentionally” when I have something funny to write. There I’ll be, hammering out something that’s dry instead of wry, shitty instead of witty, and boring instead of something that rhymes with clever. Then, from out of nowhere, BANG! I try to surprise myself into being funny. I think of something utterly unrelated, like that part of a cow where the milk comes out. With luck, the shock of the non-sequiteur shakes loose some bit of mental gravel that will go banging about in the mental machinery, there to get ground into the magic pixie dust of humor. With LOTS of luck, this happens before the grit in the gears derails my thought process entirely.

The method is a bit like sneaking up behind Bruce Banner and pouring a glass of ice water down his shirt in hopes of getting the Hulk to come out and play. Come to think of it, the results are usually about as chaotic.

While there are some standard forms and methods to being funny, they’re only helpful when using them (and breaking them) is done in a natural way. This might be innate or it might be internalized, ritualized and habitualized through long practice. If you’ve been making people laugh for years and years, your sense of comic timing and comic word choice can appear effortless. In reality, this is no different than someone who is “effortlessly” charismatic, charming, masterful, or regal. Do it long enough, strive for excellence and expertise, use practice and focus to build on native talent, and you’ll look effortless, too. I promise.

What does it mean to have something be “naturally” funny? I don’t mean that it’s funny to everyone, since everyone’s sense of humor is different. For some people it’s nonexistent, but that’s another blog post. No, by “natural”, I mean “anything but forced-seeming”. I’m not quite there yet with respect to my comic writing. It remains, alas, far too heavily tinged with the patina of “please tell me this is funny”, and as yet possesses too little of the firm, confident brushwork that says, “this is funny, let me share it with you”. This is something I continue to strive for and to work on.

If Schrodinger had used a dog in his gedankenexperiment, I’m sure this wouldn’t be an issue. Dogs will laugh at anything.