I’ve heard the arguments against writing in public, and I’m compelled by them: There’s no real way to concentrate in a library or café, people tell me, and maybe they’re right….Either way, it’s hard to get much done. Here’s the rub though: I also get blocked at home, where I know all my playlists too well and where the closest thing I have to conversation is a photograph tacked to the wall above my desk….So I end up walking down to the café, where a crisp set of distractions kicks loose memory and feeling. And suddenly I can write again….
Whenever I sit down to start writing something, I repeat the words that the editor S.I. Rosenbaum told me years ago as I was working on a piece for her: ‘Tilt for the cliff,’ she said. ‘Tilt for the cliff,’ I tell myself as I start every piece, or when I feel things getting flat or safe. ‘Tilt for the cliff.’ The words work like a spell and electrify body and brain both. Push, push harder.
“Writing a book isn’t all that complicated, it turns out. You just sit down in whatever bits of time you can find, and you put words on a page. You do it, day after day, until the pages pile up, until your thoughts coalesce into ideas, and your ideas begin to sort themselves into themes.”
—Margaret Renkl, in “5 Over 50″ in the Poets & Writers Magazine November/December issue; read the rest at pw.org!
When you don’t know what to write, return full circle to what you’ve already written and begin to experiment and play. Like a musician at the piano or a florist giving shape to an ikebana arrangement, exploring the shifts of intonation and meaning that come with reevaluating your punctuation can result in the sensation of creating something new.
I almost always write at home. I have a big stack of notebooks and books piled up around my chair. I probably write something almost every day even if it’s just a few lines. Sometimes I keep a dream journal, which is a good way to ease into a poem.
“I’m sixty, but it doesn’t matter. The book took twelve years, but it doesn’t matter. There is no correlation between those numbers and the work’s resonance.”
—Timothy Brandoff, in “5 Over 50″ in the Poets & Writers Magazine November/December issue; read the rest at pw.org!
Recalling memories and taking notes is a practice I prioritize over any writing activity. I don’t know what might interest me until I see it reflected in the physical world. This includes objects, nature, overheard dialogue, and sounds that I encounter in my everyday life. I keep a stack of note cards with context on the front and the visceral memory of what moved me on the back.
I find it helpful to think of plot as a laundry line. If you keep it taut, it’s possible to hang all sorts of ideas on it, and the weight of them won’t pull the line down into the grass.
Great ideas happen for me while someone is talking or there is a discussion. It’s a form of active listening but also creation for me. It’s not unusual for my coursework notebooks and conference programs to have concept maps drawn in the margins. This is how I got through attending church as a teenager.
If I’m in the middle of a story and I stall out, I’ve found that creating a playlist is useful. Music is closely connected to memory for me, so being steeped in it jars forgotten details loose. Whether I’m putting together a soundtrack to echo the overall mood of the scenes or compiling songs my characters would be listening to, music allows me to reimagine the setting I’m trying to evoke.