Image source: Flickr CC / muffett68
I'm not the most prolific or consistent writer. I'm not the kind that wakes up at dawn, writes a thousand words before lunch, and has a steady literary output. I'm a binge-and-starve kind of writer, the kind that doesn't write something for maybe a few months on end. The drought makes makes me grumpy and irritable in the search for words and inspiration, but when it finally arrives, I write a bunch of poems, one after the other. Sometimes the droughts are shorter and the bursts longer, but quickly this cycle returns.
The droughts can be frustrating, and I sometimes have to remind myself what production feels like. To prompt it all out of me, I remember the magic of Ania Walwicz's poetry class, which I took two years ago at RMIT. Each Wednesday afternoon I would produce a stack of poems. The trick? Part social pressure, part spending the afternoon away from Facebook or Twitter. We’d just discuss poetry, and then write our own. Sometimes these sessions used a small prompt - a word even - and then we’d go on from there without too much thought.
During the course of this class, I discovered that while in my writing droughts, I would spend hours thinking about a poem. Rather than writing, I’d ponder how to construct the perfect first line, or how to create the perfect arc for poem. This over-thinking compounded if I was going to enter a poetry slam with the work - but you know, it never comes out like you imagine it. But in Ania's class, I had no time to overthink. I just wrote, and the thought process came as I was writing, rather than painfully and for hours before actually doing so.
It's a simple method that has been taught in many a writing class:
No editing while writing. Just keep moving forward. Write the first thing that comes to your head. Sometimes it's easier when what you’re writing isn't for anything in particular, so that there’s no pressure for it to be publishable. That freedom to write what comes to your head often produces unexpected but welcome results.
Sometimes, for this exercise, the thought process that goes on in my head is better on the page. It's like a rusty morning run after weeks of hiding inside my warm bed. I get my fingers moving and that's part of solving the problem - soon I'm going for the keyboard or the pen while I'm thinking, without hesitation.
Julia Cameron suggests the concept of ‘morning pages’. Three hand-written pages (or about 750 words) can help lubricate the brain, and get things moving. Aimless writing, like a blog post, a journal or diary entry, or maybe a plan of what you want to write later on. For me, my morning pages are usually gibberish and deliberately so. I'm looking for some launching-off point. This normally appears in the form of hyperbolic language used to describe absurd events. Suddenly, my brain breaks free from the desire to write things in a chronological order with measured and realistic descriptions. My mind is open to random word association or childish description.
This technique is more commonly known as freewriting - an exercise where you try to write the first thoughts that come into your head. Some people also call it automatic writing - though automatic writing rests on the premise that you're trying to write from material within your subconscious, and I'm not one to subscribe to that being possible. I believe that everything that ends up on the page is conscious - it just often gets deleted or shot down by my internal editor before I write it down. Once I bypass all that though, I can produce description that defies logic, like in my poem ‘I’d like the speak to a minister,’ which a lot is the result of word play and word association such as “the minister for cucumber in those cute little sandwiches.”
Reaching the writing rhythm is often trial and error. Procrastinating from some other piece of writing, posting some witty Facebook status update that turns into a poem out of nowhere like a rhyming dictionary falling from the sky, hitting me in the head.
Speaking of wind-up toys, another trick to get the freewriting moving is a wind up clock - like an oven timer. Set a timer for 15 minutes and just write. This trick was taught to me as part of National Novel Writing Month. Known as ‘word wars,’ it can take places online or in physical ‘write-ins.’ We would sit in a room together throughout November, high on geeky conversation and way too much sugar, pulling weird storylines out of nowhere. But amongst all of the excitement, sticking a timer on the table made us all shut up for 15 minutes and just write. No one talked. The only noise was the sound of a million plastic keys stampeding toward word-count goals.
Regularly making use of these techniques and tricks to get the words flowing is most of the struggle. Once I have something - a poem, a page of gibberish, whatever - from there, I can work with it, edit it, and memorise it for the stage. I won’t look at all of it again, but that’s okay. It's that process of trial and error I talked about before, that constant push to keep producing stuff. Some of that stuff turns into my best work.
Benjamin Solah a writer, poet, spoken word artist from Western Sydney, now living in Melbourne where he is the Director of Melbourne Spoken Word. His words have appeared on pages, screens and stages, mostly around Melbourne, including in Overland, Cordite Poetry Review, Geek Mook, as part of Midsumma Festival, #MelbourneNow at the National Gallery of Victoria and many local poetry and spoken events.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.