Lost in the words?

A marine inversion layer covered Vancouver in a blanket of fog for much of October. When I rode the SeaBus from Lonsdale Quay to Waterfront Station last week I couldn’t see six feet beyond the windows. That felt a bit like writing a novel:

  • I couldn’t see where I was going. 
  • I couldn’t be certain of reaching my hoped-for destination
  • There was a sense of being suspended in time and space with a cast of unknown characters  
  • The short commuter ride into the gloom was both frightening and exhilarating.

Word count: 433                                                                               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Over the years I’ve collected some tools and practises that help me navigate past the obstacles that threaten the direction of my work:

  • Free writing. Ten minutes minimum. Don’t lift the pen from the page. Just keep going. Great prompts for free writing exercises can be found here, Sarah Selecky and here, Writers Write Daily Writing Prompt.
  • Copy type. I pull out work by a respected author and let his or her words flow through me. Ten minutes minimum.
  • Don’t worry about the big picture: look at what is in front of the bow. Write that one small scene. The next day, write another one.
  • Get on a bus. Go to a coffee shop. Listen, smell, taste, and feel. Give the brain a holiday from the screen.
  • Turn off the ruthless self-editor. Accept permission to write something truly dreadful. After that, there is no way but up.
  • Read a good craft book. There are tried and proven ways to improve writing; skills can be sharpened, new techniques can be tried.  
  • Go for a walk, a run or a bike ride. Do something to wake the body up.
  • Share the work. On Questions Tuesday recently John Green said Curiosity is not the most important human trait. The urge to collaborate is. A second or third set of eyes are often the ones that find a critical weak spot and help a story shine.
  • Read the work aloud. From Neil Gaiman’s acknowledgments at the end of his book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane: As this book entered its second draft, as I was typing out my handwritten first draft, I would read the day’s work to my wife, Amanda, at night in bed, and I learned more about the words I’d written when reading them aloud to her than I ever have learned about anything I’ve done.  

What methods do you have for finding light in the darkness? How do you keep your bearings when the path ahead is unknown?


 Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Burrard Street Bridge & Fog, DougVancouver

Spring Growth

Word count: 247          Reading time: 1 min. 

As the local cherry petals drift to the ground, the rhododendrons are starting to open in a riotous display of spring colour. The other day I drove around a corner and a host of golden daffodils almost blinded me. My mistake: it was a thick carpet of dandelions.

Still it’s a season when the world seems bursting with life and new energy and I feel out of sync when my work isn’t infused with the same urgency. As usual, I turned to wiser people for help. Walter Benjamin said, “Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written.”

I can’t find the full quote to determine whether he meant copy your own work or copy the work of masters of your craft. Some people I’ve spoken to disagree strongly with the idea of copying other people’s work; they suggested it might lead to plagiarism. On the other hand, William Hazlitt maintained that rules and models destroy genius and art.

Because I needed help, I made a decision and started copy-typing pages from Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood. The sensation of such polished prose flowing off my fingertips invigorated me. I returned to my novel freshly inspired.

When ideas fail or your prose writhes flat and lifeless on the page, how do you encourage new growth? When you aspire to daffodils but dandelions keep invading your space, how do you get back on track?


Photo by: Andrey Prokurononv