Monday, April 11, 2011

Piers Anthony on Writers Block

This is known as the bane of writers. You finally have time from your busy schedule, you have your system organized, you have a great story idea, you are ready to write—and you get constipation of the brain. You know the oomph is there, but it just won't come out. The more frustrated you get, the more it blocks up. It's absolutely maddening. I think in terms of analogies, as this intro may suggest, so here's another. In school and college I liked acting. There's something about being on stage and wowing an audience that appeals. But I got stage fright, which threatened to wash out any notion of being an effective actor. It can blank your mind so that you can't remember your lines, which is a real problem when you have to deliver. I realized early on that I could not afford stage fright. But I couldn't simply banish it; it lurked, waiting its chance to do me the most damage. I finally did get over it, and I know how I did, but I can't recommend it as a cure for others.
You see, I was a teacher, first of basic math in the US Army, then of high school English in civilian life. In the end I washed out, not because I didn't know the subject, or that I couldn't get it across effectively, but because I was not a great disciplinarian. Keeping order in an American high school class is like fighting trench warfare; teachers can suffer PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I did have nightmares for years following my retirement from that arena. But here's the thing: years of facing classes entirely depleted my store of stage fright, and I no longer suffered from it. I can address an audience of any size, either reading my material or extemporaneously. So I solved that problem simply by spending a lot of time before audiences of one kind or another. There are strong similarities between stage fright and writer’s block; the latter is really stage fright of the imagination.
Fortunately, I do have a solution for blockage. I did suffer it early in my career, knew I couldn't afford it, and devised a system I believe will work for anyone who really wants to write. Yes I know: telling a blocked writer that he doesn't really want to write is inviting a retaliatory blast of outrage. Nevertheless there are some. It's not a matter of intelligence or talent. I think of Theodore Sturgeon, arguably the finest stylist the science fiction field ever had, with a phenomenal imagination, who really didn't like to write. He had remarkable talent, he had editors eager to buy his material, but he just couldn't sit down and start typing. I have an imaginary dialogue in case some Sturgeon fan who resents my far greater commercial success despite not being in Sturgeon's literary league ever demands, “What does a hack like you have that Sturgeon didn't?” My answer would be, “Discipline, and the fact that I really like to write.” And you do need both.
But sometimes you can get hung up regardless. I did. It can be in the middle of a scene that abruptly refuses to jell. I devised a technique to unclog a scene that I think will work to unclog anything. In fact, I think that if all writers used my system, the only ones who would block up would be those who truly prefer TV, golf, or sex to writing, in contrast to me. Well, that last one can distract me from my text, but I won't be spending all day at it, so will return to writing soon. It is what I call the Bracket system. It started when I was penciling my first drafts, because I was taking care of my hyperactive baby daughter and simply could not stay at a typewriter long enough to accomplish anything. So I used a clipboard with paper and pencil and stayed with her, writing sentences while she played with toys, pulled books off shelves, splashed water around, ate dirt, and did the myriad other things toddlers do. I could literally drop the clipboard to catch her before she fell. So when I was amidst a text and needed to make a separate note, I put it in squared off [brackets] so it would not be confused with my story text. Then in second draft, when I typed and edited my material, transcribing from the pencil, I would eliminate the brackets and their contents, their purpose having been served. Later, when I computerized, and my daughter was in college, so I could stay in place longer, I used a separate notes file for bracket discussion, and that worked just as well. So when I refer to brackets, that doesn't have to be literal, any more.
So let's say you have a sequence that hangs up. Maybe your protagonist, Expressica Lovelorn, has just met the man of her dreams, and she has no idea what to say to him. You, the writer, have no idea either. So you step into brackets and discuss it with yourself. Remember, your alter ego is just as smart as you are, and can have good input. [Come on, now, I don't want her to make a fool of herself. But if she doesn't do something soon, that ideal man is going to move on, never even noticing her, and her chance will be forever lost and she will die a frustrated old maid. Can she say something intelligent? No, she's tongue-tied; that's the problem, dummy. Can she do something? What can she do? Ask him the time? No, that's a stupid, transparent ploy, especially considering she's wearing a lovely wristwatch that sparkles in the sunlight. Suppose she faints? Yeah, sure, that will impress him, as she conks her head on the pavement. He'll wonder whether she's likely to do that when driving or holding a baby. Suppose she stumbles and almost collides with him? But then she'll look clumsy, and that's not the impression she wants to make. Well, then, if she does collide, so he's up against her softness, that might impress him. And he takes her for a floozie. How about asking him directions, like maybe, “Excuse me, but I'm lost.” Yeah, sure, when she's lived here all her life. But he won't know that, and anyway she really is lost, not physically, but emotionally. But you said she just doesn't know how to start a conversation with this guy, and she's running out of time. So how about honesty:”Excuse me, but I can't think of a thing to say to you!” Worse and worse; sounds like a brushoff. Let's break for lunch and ponder this.] So you take a lunch break, and when you return you still haven't thought of anything, and your two characters are hanging there suspended in limbo, not even breathing. You can't let this horror continue. Back to the brackets: [I wish she could just blurt, “I'm Expressica. I think you're the greatest. Will you talk with me?” Of course that's so stupid. But you know, maybe that candor would get through to him, and if it doesn't, what has she lost? So let's try it and see how it works.] So you exit your bracket and try it, and the guy says, “Say, that's what I was about to say to you, Jessica, you lovely creature. I'm Tall Darken Handsome. Let's go somewhere for a bite to eat.” And she says, “Sorry, Thrall, I just ate.” [Wait, wait, you idiot! That's me, the writer, who just ate. Delete that and have her gratefully accept. You've got it, by sheer ignorant mischance, you hack.]

And so it goes. Sometimes I use up pages in bracket notes, but they always get me there eventually. The point is, brackets keep you writing, keep up the momentum, and when you figure it out you can adapt from them for your sequence. See how it works for you. I've been using it for forty years and have no trouble with Block.


  1. This sounds like a very fun excercise, I definitely think I'll try it. There are days when I get on the computer in the morning and next thing I know it's midnight and I've written 2-4 chapters of a story, and then some days where I'm sitting and my brain simply refuses to cooperate. I'm taking my first baby steps into the publishing world, so the last thing I want to suffer from is the dreaded writer's block.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. I always make notes as I write. The story grows in organic directions, keeping my characters real. What they say and do surprises at times. Best job in the world.

  3. I really don't want to complain, but the white letters on black is quite a contrast and is hard to read. Other than that, I like your site. We've talked a couple of times in email and it's always interesting to hear your ideas. Good luck with your blog!

    1. Use stylish with Firefox (or another add-on for another browser). It does wonders for your browsing experience.

  4. Thank you for fixing the bg colors! So much more readable.

  5. I like the idea about brackets. Usually I just stop and work on something else, then return to the problem project.

  6. Hi Piers: I'm so glad I found this blog! I'll never forget "borrowing" my dad's copy of Blue Adept and reading it into the wee hours... Who would guess decades later I would actually be able to type a quick note to Mr. Anthony about writer's block?! Anyway, I think the key to stop the block is writing something, anything even if it is gibberish. The Bracket System focuses this into something really useful, and before you know it, no more block. Improv has a similar exercise where you say nonsense words over and over until they turn into a real beginning of a scene. Thanks Piers!

  7. I remember reading about your use of brackets in an Author's Note 20+ years ago - and I've been using them myself ever since. It's so nice to (finally) have an opportunity to say "Thanks for the tip!" after all this time :)

  8. After all these years reading your newsletters on HiPiers, I thought I'd never see Piers Anthony blog or use Twitter and Facebook. I am just stunned.

    Anyways, good tips on avoiding writer's block. I usually just write stuff even if I know it isn't good. The important thing is to keep writing no matter what.

  9. Ha! I don't get writer's block, but I do procrastinate. I was writing this little summary earlier this afternoon...

    6.40am - Alarm wakes me and I give myself 5 more minutes.
    6.55am - I get up.
    7.20am - Lily is ready for school and off we go.
    7.35am - Having dropped Lily at school, am heading home with thoughts of writing.
    7.45am - Start having breakfast, excited about spending the morning writing.
    8.00am - Pets fed, cup of tea on my desk, time to check email and deal with a few small things.
    8.05am - Darn. A bit of website stuff to take care of first. Will write shortly.
    10.35am - All web stuff taken care of, time to write.
    10.36am - Phone call.
    10.55am - Off phone, time to write. After I've dealt with something.
    11.40am - Dealt with. Now it's time to write, but first, a quick look at someone's blog.
    11.45am - Just found out (from there's another word processing program called LibreOffice. Must try quickly.
    11.55am - Installed. Let's take a look.
    12.10pm - Hmm. It's based on OpenOffice and looks exactly the same. It's supposed to more robust though, and going forward will be evolve faster. Anyway, back to writing. It's time.
    12.11pm - Probably best to have lunch first. Back shortly.
    12.35pm - Back. Okay, opening manuscript.
    12.36pm - Just browsing quickly, before I get stuck into writing.
    1.05pm - ANYWAY, time to write. Although, honestly, I really should get a couple of bits of work done before Lily comes home from school. I can always write later if I run out of time.
    2.20pm - Work is DONE, time to write. I have half an hour before I go get Lily.
    2.40pm - Finished reading back the stuff I'd written previously. Reads pretty well, my head is in gear, and I'm ready to go.
    2.41pm - Dog needs to go out.
    2.42pm - Have about 8 minutes before I go get Lily. Probably not worth writing anything now, so will resume later.
    2.50pm - Off to get Lily.
    3.10pm - Back home with Lily. She wants me to play Wii. I need to give her some attention, of course.
    4.40pm - Better start thinking about dinner.
    5.20pm - Have thought about dinner and am now browsing through freezer.
    5.21pm - Microwave is set to work.
    6.45pm - Lily is doing homework. Nessa is home so I'll escape for a bit into the office.
    6.50pm - Catching up on mail, no point writing at the moment, too many distractions. Definitely tonight though.
    8.30pm - Lily is in bed. Need to watch an hour of TV with wife otherwise DVR gets too full.
    10.00pm - Perfect time to go to office and write. Nice and quiet, have cup of tea, ready to go.
    10.05pm - A little sleepy. Eyes are tired from staring at screens all day. Might call it a night, maybe watch some more TV as that's less strain on the eyes. But that's okay, I can make up for it in the morning and write from 8am-1pm, five hours straight. Can't wait.
    11.15pm - Going to bed with characters and plots whizzing around in my head. Can't wait to write in the morning.

    6.40am - Alarm wakes me...

  10. excellent advice - I play in visual more than taxt bit the bracketed stuff is often the best work. kind of like turning the page on the "useless" doodle & finding the template for a painting there later

  11. I'm sorry I didn't get back sooner, but I wanted to thank you for changing the colors on the page. It is definitely easier on my eyes now.