Every writer goes through a creative dry spell. And sometimes that point of struggle can leave an author straining her brain for the right idea, plot line, or word. Everyone will give you differing advice on how to handle Writer’s Block, or to enhance your creativity, but few will tell you to take a deep breath and do nothing. Except for this piece of advice.
The following is an excerpt from a short section in one of my favorite resources, Crafting Novels & Short Stories: The Complete Guide to Writing Great Fiction. This book combines the advice andinstruction from best-selling authors and writing experts like Nancy Kress, Elizabeth Sims, Hallie Ephron, N.M. Kelby, Heather Sellers, and Donald Maass into an invaluable package. Topics covered include creating a rich setting and backstory, crafting dialogue that rings true, honing your story’s point of view, and more. With the best advice from Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Digest Books, this is a tremendous resource for writers of short stories and novels alike.
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CREATIVE LOLLYGAGGING: WORK HARDER AT WORKING LESS
by Michael J. Vaughn
Every writer knows you can’t sit down in front of a notebook or computer screen and wait for ideas to simply show up. You’d better have some ideas before you sit down, and you’d better figure out a system for harvesting those ideas.
Ironically—and happily—one of the best ways to achieve this is to do … nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly. Think of it as “creative lollygagging.” Picture yourself as a satellite dish. The way a dish receives signals is a decidedly passive activity, but nothing comes in until the equipment is properly charged and opened to the universe. A few years ago, ensconced in one of my “brewing” modes—done with my last novel, waiting for the next to come a-knockin’—I decided to take my dish to the beach and open ’er up.
About a half mile into my walk, I noticed a friendly spark among the small rocks and found bits of frosted glass—triangular shards worn to a gem like smoothness by sand and waves. I remembered the fascination I felt as a child—that nature could take a piece of man-made litter and make it so beautiful. I walked a little farther, discovered another smattering and had the following thought: What if someone became so obsessed with frosted glass that he decided to make it his life’s work? I didn’t know it yet, but the satellite dish had just taken in an entire novel.
But not just that: It also took in the process for imagining a novel. In the following months, as I continued my beach hikes in search of frosted glass (if my character was obsessed, I had to be obsessed), I discovered an intriguing pattern. I arrived at the beach between chapters (my characters dangling in midair, awaiting their instructions); I left with pocketfuls of glass and my next chapter, nicely mapped out in my head.
If you subtly stimulate your other senses—in this case, tactile (the glass) and auditory (the ocean)—you can take the “edge” away from your conscious, purposive mind, return the satellite dish to a state of active passivity and open yourself to the forces of serendipity. And if you come to the beach for frosted glass, you’ll also get ideas for your story, slipping in along your peripheral vision.
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A Creative Lollygagers To-Do List
The key to successful lollygagging is to do it creatively.
So what makes lollygagging creative lollygagging? Let’s look at the basic elements. First, consider activity. We are not talking about sitting around on a couch. Just as a satellite dish needs electricity, you need some blood pumping into that brain. Next, consider low focus. The activity shouldn’t be so intense that you don’t have time to think (Grand Prix and ice hockey are out). Look for a mellow pursuit, surrounded by low-level distractions.
Finally, consider separation. If you don’t hie thee away from the computer, the television, the bills, and the kids, you’re headed for a mighty wall o’ brain lock. Following are some specific types of creative lollygagging to try:
- Mobile (because it’s difficult to preoccupy a moving target): biking, hiking, kayaking, rollerblading, a long road or train trip
- Idle: fly-fishing, horseshoe tossing, kite flying, a solo game of eight ball, a solo game of bowling, a session at the batting cage or driving range
- Boring jobs (for those who simply must be productive): paint the garage, rake the leaves, wash the windows, clean out the roof gutters, mow the lawn
- Dilettantism (effective only if you try something for which you have absolutely no talent): abstract painting, making up tunes on the piano, creating monsters from modeling clay, inventing a ballet to your favorite symphony, pounding on a conga drum.
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The Coffeehouse Ritual
If you’d like to take this one step further, try incorporating your lollygagging directly into your writing ritual.
The Coffeehouse Ritual is a routine I’ve followed for fifteen years, with excellent results (in fact, I used it to write this story).
- Pick your place: Locate a coffeehouse that’s a mile or two from your home (ideally, a thirty- to forty-five-minute walk).
- The walk up: Head off at an easy pace (no power walking, please) and let your thoughts drift. For the first few blocks, you’ll likely be occupied by small matters of the day. Don’t worry—this is a necessary step, one that will clear out your mind for the work ahead. As you pass the halfway point, your thoughts should turn naturally to the project at hand.
- Write! Buy a large beverage, find a nonjiggling table and go to it. Note: Keep your coffeehouse sacred. Be polite but not excessively friendly to baristas and regulars. If a friend drops by, tell him that you have five minutes to talk, but then you really need to get back to work. If he’s not buying it, tell him you’re on deadline.
- The walk down: The hike back home is often the most rewarding part of the process. Still adrift on your creative buzz, you may find that your satellite dish is more open than ever. It’s a great time to think about what you’ve written and to contemplate future developments.
As I continued taking my walks along the ocean, searching for inspiration and frosted glass, it began to seem, in fact, that my novel was scattered along the beach, like pirate’s treasure, and all I had to do was come along and scoop it up. The real secret, however, came from my protagonist, Frosted Glass Man, as he was helping a neophyte who’d lost her “glass vision.” “Let me guess,” he said. “Suddenly you can’t tell frosted glass from the Queen of England, and you’re sort of losing your place on the sand. Feeling disoriented.”
“Yeah. That about describes it.”
He grinned. “You’re trying too hard. When you begin to lose your sight, just rub the last piece you found, and listen to the ocean.”
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of eight books, including the Kerouackian novel, Nature Boy. A 20th-anniversary release of his novel Frozen Music received an honorable mention at the 2014 San Francisco Book Festival. He is a 30-year opera critic and a drummer/vocalist for two Bay Area rock bands. Musicians and other artists populate many of his books, most notably the opera novels Gabriella’s Voice and Operaville.