Michelle Wittle On Writer’s Block

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

This happens to everyone. You are going along just fine…the story is flowing out like liquid gold. Then, BAM!! You hit a wall. You look around and wonder just where did that wall come from? You certainly didn’t write up a wall. But then, there it is all white and huge. You touch your head and feel bumps that form the words, “You Loose Sucka!” First, you are annoyed because you now have the word “Sucka” on your head and then panic starts to seep in. What is this wall? How long will it be up? How do you get it taken down? You break out in hives and you can’t breathe. You know you will never write again. You look to the heavens and just like that chick in that bad movie “I Know What You did Last Summer or Last Fall or Yesterday” you start screaming, “Why”.

Well, the answer is simple, really. You have writer’s block. Now, there are no creams for it. You can’t just take a pill and the liquid gold will just start following again. Also, it isn’t contagious. But it is, in fact, a very real epidemic that plagues writers everywhere. Although it comes on without warning, we can do something to fix it. Here is just what I do.

First, I try to do simple things. I will go get the mail, grab another Coke Zero, punch Yoda in the face, something and anything to just remove myself from the computer. After a few minutes, I will come back to it and see if I can get the momentum running again. If that doesn’t work, then I will actually leave for a longer period of time. I might even call a friend and make them go to the book store with me or play Find the Mii’s on the Wii (have you played this game? You have to find the look-a-like Mii’s…it is very addicting).

Now, if I come back and I am still having trouble, I will save what I have and either start writing something else, or I might start reading. Maybe if I am really upset that I can’t write, I might turn on the TV and watch full seasons of a show (maybe “Sex in the City” or “Scrubs”) or some movie On Demand. The point is I am trying to think of everything but the story so it has time in my brain to wiggle out the kinks.

If you are having trouble getting started, I have a very good suggestion. It’s what I like to call brain dumping. My former students will recall it as a “free write”. Here is where for about ten or fifteen minutes, you write whatever is in your head. No matter how silly or stupid, just write it down. Your writer’s block is happening because you are simply blocked. So, start spilling.

I would love it if you would all humor me and post your own brain dumping. I will do the same. Here’s mine:

12:32pm

Time…why have you punished me? Why is my coke bubbling? Is there a rat in there? A bet there is. It would be my luck to get a rat in my coke. Surprise…it’s ratatatsic coke. My luck, I would drink the darn rat and not even know it.

I swear I am going to wind up like Emily Dickinson. I’ll be dead and people will find all my writing. She had problems with her thyroid as well. See, another connection.

Ha-ha…I wrote the word Sucka…dance sucka dance suck dance sucka…move sucka movie sucka move sucka….that was a funny movie…Blades of Glory.

Hmmm….nothing in the old noggin. That isn’t true and I know it. There is a least ten pounds of something in my head. It could be cheese. Who likes cheese? Frick…I miss that one.  You don’t call…you don’t write…all bull really.

12:37pm

I only did five minutes because no one should really have to suffer with the inner workings of my brain. But seriously, try it…I have to go get the mail now.

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Michelle Wittle On The Importance of Reading

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Maybe it is the English teacher in me, but I can’t help it. I really feel that in order to be a good writer you need to be a good reader. I don’t mean to say that if you read 100 books a month you automatically qualify as a good reader. I think you need to be able to read and absorb what the author is not only saying but also how they are doing it. Are they using literary techniques to get their point across or are they just telling you the facts? What do you do in your own writing? Are you a “just the facts” person or are you leaving small clues for your reader?

I’ve talked about my failed attempts at poetry and I really think it has to do with the fact that I didn’t really read poems. Sure, I would read Sexton, Plath, Parker and Langston Hughes…but that is where my poetry education ended. I would rather pour hot sauce in my eyes and poke them with dull needles then read a poem by T.S. Eliot. Why I hate him so much, I don’t know. I think it has to do with the fact that I feel like he tries to throw his intelligence around. Joyce is like that as well. I threw his book down when I read in the introduction that no one will understand his book. Really, I don’t have that kind of time to devote to something he already thinks I wouldn’t get (I know, but I love a challenge…but not from someone who’s opinion doesn’t matter). Because of my stunted education in poetry, I couldn’t really expand as a poet and it showed.

That is why I think reading is so important. Pick your genre and read all that you can from it. You will get so used to reading it and seeing how it fits that it will become a part of you and you will mimic things in your own writing without even knowing you did it. Also, you can learn new words and different stylistic approaches. If you can, form or join a book group. Just as a writing group is helpful, so is a book group. There you will be with people who (hopefully) read the same book you did and you can hear how they saw things. Every reader brings his or her own life into what is read and it is so awesome. I loved discussing literature with my students because I would even learn new ways of seeing something or they would pick up on something I hadn’t noticed before.

Writing and reading, although they are put on paper and it seems like they are stagnate beings, are far from that. Reading and writing are liquid. They change and evolve just as the people who read their stories change and evolve. A perfect example is when I was a high school student; I had to read the book, The Great Gatsby. I wanted to poke out my eyes every time I opened the book and I had no idea Gatsby got shot when I read it the first time. Then, as a teacher, I had to read the book again. I fell in love with the book. Fitzgerald does amazing things in just nine chapters and that book is a pure work of art as it is of genius.

People always stress the importance of reading, but I don’t think they fully understand its importance. We learn so much from books and, as a writer; a book is your teacher and your classroom.

I feel that there are two things any serious writer must do everyday. Of course writing is one, but reading is the second part. 

Review: Cider Press Review

Reviews

I’ll start with a confession. Many years ago, I dabbled in poetry. Haiku, sonnet, free-verse. Villanelle. Sestina. Name the form, I tried it.

But today’s world is no place for a poet, at least not for one with skin as thin mine, so I laid my quill aside and, with a sigh, set my sights on more prosaic pastures. My own failure as a poet, however, gives me great admiration for anyone who stays at it, and even greater admiration for anyone willing to provide poets with a venue, an area in which to be appreciated. Caron Andregg and Robert Wynne, the co-editors and publishers of Cider Press Review, have done just that, and their journal is not only a labor of love, but a bastion of hope for struggling poets and poetry lovers everywhere.

The latest issue of the journal opens with a poem titled “About the Type” by Marilyn McCabe. As its title suggests, the poem consists of an imaginary note on the type in a book set in a font called Requiem. Yet Requiem, the poet notes, has fallen out of use. The irony, of course, is that while the typeface is no longer used, it is, nonetheless, the typeface used in the book that the poet imagines. In many ways, it can be argued that this is the state of poetry in the modern world: while the pundits of cultural production and mass media may insist that the poem is a form of communication that is itself “now out of use,” poetry continues to resurface and prove that reports of its death are grossly exaggerated—as demonstrated, of course, by Cider Press Review and other journals like it.

Another poem in this edition of CPR that caught my eye was “Night of Broken Stars” by Brian Lutz. Ostensibly a love poem, this piece takes the conceit of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 into the free-verse realm of a gothic American October. Where Shakespeare finds beauty in the black wires of his subject’s hair and the reek of his subject’s breath, Lutz finds beauty in “the undusted room” and likens it to the “second hand/of working things ticking.”

Overall, Cider Press Review does a wonderful job of collecting the poetry of new and exciting voices as well as that of award-winning poets from around the world. The latest issue is nearly 150 pages long, perfect bound, with a bright, beautiful cover. If you’re a poet, you certainly can’t go wrong in subscribing to this gem of a journal.

Michelle Wittle on Why Writers Need Good Writer’s Groups

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Humans are social animals. We like to feel like we belong somewhere and we like to talk and listen to others. Writers are the same way. That is just one of the many reasons I think it is so important for writers to find others with the same passion and join a group. I know that for myself, I need others to look over my work. I want to make sure what I write on the paper corresponds with the image I have in my head. Also, when the rejection letters come in, it is easier to talk to someone who has a pile of their own verses someone who can’t really relate.

Writer groups also spawn ideas. Maybe a character or a setting in someone else’s story triggers a thought bubble for you. Perhaps Joan’s character reminds you of your Aunt Susie who used to talk to birds and eat peanuts. Then the word “peanuts” sparks your mind into thinking about those peachy hard marshmallow circus peanuts you ate as a child. That takes you to that summer day when you and your friends ran to the ice cream man and your one friend “purchased” an ice cream cone with monopoly money. You think about how ingenuous it was for your friend to con the ice cream man out of a free ice cream cone and then BAM a new short story is born.

 Writer groups can also help you make connections. Maybe Mark knows of this great writer’s retreat and tells the group how everyone should consider going to it. Perhaps Josh knows of a great book you should read to help you out of the literary corner you boxed yourself into. It is a group of people with your same interest and they know people you don’t and that can turn into a very good thing for you.

Writer groups give you a sense of family. Sure, it can be more dysfunctional then maybe the Hogan family (yeah, I said it…so what…what are you going to do?), but it is a family created by a common goal and that in itself is a comforting thought. Being a writer can be very lonely. You sit all day with your computer (sure I have my Coke zero and Yoda, but others may not be so lucky) and your characters beat you up and demand all types of things you didn’t even think they would want from you, so isn’t it nice to have a place you can go to sit down and just breathe?

I say you should join as many groups as you can find. Even take classes if you have the means. Try them all out and see which one or ones work for you. As writers, we need to keep ever option open because you never know where it can lead you.   

Elizabeth Mosier on What is Lost and Found

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All writers tell rough drafts aloud, but this was grad school, so we gave ourselves themes: crappiest job, caught-naked scene, best prank, worst party, the moment that changed your life.  It was less like a slam than like dinner theater with a rapt, appreciative audience.  Since that summer, I’ve rarely listened to or told a story that someone didn’t interrupt.  Sad as it sounds to my students, this was entertainment in the age before YouTube.

 

One night, I told “The Story of Menstruation”, about the sex-ed film the girls at my school were shown in fifth grade.  More to the point:  how, a week before the premier, Danny Favata pulled the pizza-sized reel from the AV closet, threaded the forbidden film through the projector, and wheeled the contraption into our classroom, where we awaited what we thought would be “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.  Blinds drawn, lights out, we watched as a background of purple velvet appeared on the screen.  And then, letter by white girly letter, swirled just enough of the film’s title to horrify, before Mrs. Grimstead yanked the projector’s cord from the wall. 

 

This oral draft was really Danny’s; it paid tribute to his status as AV Operator and his bad boy ingenuity.  It was as truthful as memory could make it, and yet it skirted the true story, which I wrote as fiction years later for a ‘zine called Whispering Campaign. 

 

 “What I wanted was his courage,” my female narrator confesses, “which I could only imitate.”  No wonder.  “The Story of Menstruation”, as we were to discover at a segregated viewing of the film, was full of baffling information and censorious imagery:  a girl cluelessly riding a bike in a dress, a girl collapsing in tears over a tangle in her hair, a girl unhappily showering in an avalanche of ice cubes.  This, we were told, was our story.  And these were our instructions, delivered in a voice — as familiar as a lullaby — from Disney’s “Cinderella”. 

 

“All this time I thought you were exaggerating,” my friend, the writer Brian Bouldrey, admitted in an e-mail message that arrived yesterday.  Attached was a link to “The Story” on YouTube, where, as Brian says, all that is lost is found.  “Why is nature always called MOTHER nature?” he teased, quoting the film.  Thirty-five years later, the film is exactly as I remember it.  But I’ve spent those years writing a different story.

 

For me – as a writer and as a reader – the story often hides in the rough draft’s odd image: a perfumed permission slip, a bully’s scabbed knuckles, a classroom arranged in battle formation with boys against girls.  Whenever I read student work or submissions to Philadelphia Stories, I look for these odd images in order to find the writer’s truest intentions.  They are like a treasure map carried across the desert during the long process of revision, instructions creased closed and spread open again and again until the document disintegrates and the gold is found.  

 

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