the tamago report

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Tag: writer’s block

Writing about boring things

by MDY

The trick is to remember what Hamlet said. My first writing job involved me putting together encyclopaedic entries about antiques. Very few seventeen-year-old boys have a natural interest in antiques. I was not one of them. But after completing only a few of these entries, I realised that antiques weren’t just antiques. The process of intaglio, for example, has much to do with Walter Benjamin’s arguments in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, while the term “campaign furniture” (the subject of my very first entry) draws for its etymology a long process of utilitarian evolution going right back to Julius Caesar’s ill-fated invasion of the British Isles. I was writing about so many more things than just old jugs, and while younger more nubile ones might have commanded greater attention, it didn’t matter, because antiques weren’t boring. Once you realise everything is tied to everything else, you can write about anything with passion and vigour.

Writing helps you understand. Unlike most journalists or professional writers, I don’t have a particular area of expertise which I’m most comfortable with. If anything, my area of expertise is my writing – and I’ve not particularly exemplary in that regard. But I can only write effectively about something if I understand it – and not just the superficial “A does B and B does C and therefore impending apocalypse” understanding, but the sort which tries to really get what’s going on and what’s at stake and exactly how a bunch of wires can enable some cute-looking cone of expensive hardware to single-handedly (-wiredly?) arrest a 12,000-mile-per-hour descent and plonk itself down in a crater on a red and dusty and entirely alien world.

So I talk to people who do understand. I ask them questions, and read their books, and follow them around, and do my darnedest to gain a smidgen of the understanding which they possess. Terrifying? Yes. Boring? Never. And it also works for academic essays (understanding a concept), job applications (understanding a business), and longform fiction (understanding a life which is not your own). Too often boring is a synonym for incomprehensible. Too rarely is writing a synonym for learning.

I have trouble with repetition, though. Even the most interesting subject in the world gets dull once you’ve written about it more times than there are rings in Olympic iconography (which, if you’re having trouble counting, is still a single-digit figure). I treat these occasions like weightlifting – painful, and potentially sweaty. But just like a body-builder, I know that “doing reps” is a necessary part of my development. Repetition ensures the understanding you’ve gained doesn’t disappear. It renders you more fluent in what you’re writing on, either by dint of familiarity with your subject matter or the ability to present it to different sorts of people. It gives you the chance to improve your writing technique by strengthening old things or trying new ones.

My pectorals are not much bigger than when I was a seventeen-year-old. But that’s not what my daily work-outs seek to do. They help me write about a world where ab can be a preposition, a testing framework for start-ups, or a latitudinal core strength indicator  of which I currently possess approximately 1.07. There’s nothing boring about that.

How to break writer’s block

by MDY

Just keep writing.

It’s the only way, really. “Writer’s block” implies that writing is inherently connected to inspiration, or creative “flow”, or any number of other nebulous externalities over which you have no control. Bullshit, I say. Nothing and no-one is responsible for your writing except you. That’s not to say writer’s block doesn’t exist – it does, and it’s one of the hardest things to overcome. But I disagree with its name because calling it “writer’s block” implies you just have to sit and wait for the stars to align.

There are a few types of writer’s block (or, as I prefer to think of it, obstacles to progress). I’ve encountered each of them many times and I’ve had to come up with various means to beat them:

The “CBB” Block: Turgid academic essay. Mind-numbing report. 100-page tactical briefing. There are some things which are just plain dull to write. Eventually you find yourself ready to dance on hot coals, drink poison, go jogging – anything to avoid typing another word of that hulking dirigible of text which you need to finish. Most commonly felt by students, business writers, and 5-star generals.

The breaker: Go and do something else. Yes, that’s the solution. When you feel this, you’re usually sick and tired of slaving away at the same prose for hours on end (unless you haven’t started yet: see the next Block). Your mind is a muscle like any other, so give it a rest once in a while. Alternatively, you can be crazy like me and just keep writing until you finish. I once finished a 3000-word article simply by typing until my fingers went numb. True story. Mostly.

The “It’s too much” Block: SO MANY WORDS I’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO DO THEM ALL AAAARRRRGHHHHH. Almost exclusively felt by students. And copywriters.

The breaker: Set yourself easy goals. “This essay needs to be 4000 words, but I’ll write 200 of them today.” Then write them. If you feel like going on, keep going. If not, don’t. Writing a book sounds impossible, but writing one word, then another, then another? Not so tough.

The “I don’t know what to say” Block: Sometimes you’re just not sure what words to use, or how to frame a concept, or whether you can find another simile for “groundbreaking”*. Of course, you could just leave a blank and keep going, then return later. That’s the magic of word processing. But that’s like building a bridge with a hole in it. Or no pylons.

The breaker: Do some vocab-exercises. I got this idea from a workshop with Markus Zusack and often do things like

  • The “rhyme game”, which is useful for finding synonyms or more interesting words to fill your prose/poetry. Start with the boring word which first comes to your head. Let’s say we have an “old car”. Boring, right? Now think of words which rhyme with “old”. Bold, cold, sold, mould, gold…list goes on. See how each one sounds in place of the boring word. If none fit, keep going, or otherwise follow the associations generated: “mould” could be “mouldy”, which makes you think of “grime”, which rhymes with “time”, and so on.
  • The “alliteration game”, which is the same as the rhyme game except you look for words with the same letter as the boring one.
  • The “opposites game”, where you find antonyms to the boring word and continue until you find something interesting.
  • The “casual speech game”, where you phrase what you’re trying to say in as colloquial and conversational a tone as possible. Particularly useful for fleshing out theoretical concepts, then converting them into more rigorous prose.

The “It sounds like a wet fart but I don’t know how to make it less flatulent” Block: You wrote your entire article but it smells like garbage and tastes like paper. That was delicious.

The breaker: Get a second opinion. Ask a friend, family member or other unqualified individual to read your work. Listen to their most instinctive reaction. If necessary, push them to tell you what feels right and what doesn’t. Proceed accordingly.

In brief: Writer’s block can always be broken. Find what works for you, and apply when necessary.