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Cutting (Out) Corners: Breaking
free when you get boxed in
A writer friend called recently because she had "written something into a corner" and couldnít seem to get out.
Finding yourself in a corner when writing, as in the rest of life, means itís time to turn around and (metaphorically speaking) get a bigger view. Turn to face its widest side -- that is, do something as far removed from what youíve been trying to do as possible.
I often dip into another writing project or manuscript instead. But what brings the most immediate benefits is to get away from my desk and do something completely unrelated to writing. (This is what I save my laundry piles and bathtub rings for.)
Room to move
This remedy of moving away calls for choice, however. It wonít help to shackle myself to something that feels like drudgery. I have to want to take that walk with my kids or get that household task done, because the trick is for it to feel like an escape AND an accomplishment at the same time.
What Iím really doing is shifting away from so much absorption in the writing that got stuck, so that those other helpful parts of my writerís mind can run back in from where they felt banished. (I picture them peering furtively around, then dashing to my unoccupied desk much like my children when they see a chance to play at Momís computer.)
As I fold that laundry or scrub that tub, the physical activity loosens me up, shifts my focus, and releases my mind. This often frees up useful ideas for other things, a nice by-product. But itís important that I let the task take me away from that corner completely.
Then sometime LATER, usually out of the blue, the ideas and inspiration I need for that corner just show up. When I backed off and let go, my unconscious mind moved in naturally to have its say, and believe me, this is my best idea collector and most creative thinker. I love this method of giving it the time and space it needs to speak up, because it hasnít failed me yet.
The Internet can provide a place to let your mind explore something else without leaving your desk, and some writers find it an effective place to turn when theyíre stuck. Personally, I can still get too caught up there with "busy mind," but someone I know described how it helped him out in an unexpected way.
He began surfing the Web when he got stuck, mindlessly scouting out a travel site. Suddenly, he noticed something about his (now deceased) motherís hometown, and investigated. Up popped a message box that said, "You have a message from your mother, who says you need to get out more."
Coincidence or synchronicity? (Actually, it was just an advertising ploy of the Web site) But he says it doesnít matter, because letting himself move away from where he got stuck led to what he intuitively knew was the "truth" of the matter, and things improved after he heeded "her" advice and got out of the house.
Then, itís time for some good questions, which will lead to decisions. Like sculpting, writing is about finding the piece by carving away to find its essence. Itís time for activity that will help take your focus out of that corner.
Dilemma: You canít get that story or article to do anything but spin its wheels.
- Pretend a friend called to ask what itís about, and get down quickly anything that comes to your mind. Sometimes, I actually "tell" the story to someone in this way (though writing it makes better use of your time) in order to see its outline take shape before me. In some instances, I've also done this same thing with my older children and have received invaluable (and of course, unfailingly candid) feedback that helps me see in an instant what truly works, or what helps make a piece of writing truly accessible for the reader.
- Accomplish the same thing by "mapping" out the elements of the information in words and phrases, drawing circles around them, and linking the related circles together. However you do it, this is where you let your creative self play with the pieces without imposing limits. Critical editor mind has to wait outside for a turn later, thank you.
- For fiction, get the characters to help. Some writers interview characters to accomplish this. Others dialogue with them, but the important thing is to find out what they want, because plot will snag if youíre not in sync with where the characters would naturally take it. This is where you need to know what would truly motivate them.
Of course, you can also ask for feedback directly from other writers or friends that you know and trust. Show someone where youíre stuck and that reader often sees something (or something missing) that you havenít yet.
Recruit your allies
The time when I block everything out and burrow-in with tunnel vision is when Iím rewriting, polishing and fine-tuning something I feel Iíve already fleshed out. Thatís when I finally invite that all-too-eager critical editor inside to plant herself at the desk and be determined and ruthless.
Helping these two writing selves -- creator and editor -- work in respectful harmony as a team is one of the best ways I know to stay out of writing corners in the first place. But if you wind up in one anyway, try stepping away for a while, and see where it leads.
Mother of two Phyllis Edgerly Ring is a parenting columnist for several magazines and an instructor with the Long Ridge Writers Group. Her articles have appeared this year in American Profile, Christian Science Monitor, Liguorian, Mamm, and Pregnancy magazines. She invites parents to contribute thoughts for a book she is writing about gender equality in the family. For more information visit www.phyllisring.com.