“Are we feeling limber yet?” – not a quote from Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum
Before I go any further with this post, I would like to acknowledge that my fifth grade history teacher showed the film pictured above – Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum – to our class. I’d like to think it somehow tied in with a unit on the Spanish Inquisition. The guy had been teaching at the school for years and clearly had tenure, so I don’t think he really gave a shit whether or not showing a Corman film to a classroom of fifth graders had any (historical) educational value (Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t).
He had a reputation for being terribly boring (he was) and falling asleep in the back of the computer lab (he did), but in retrospect, I applaud his brazen decision to play the Corman film. Kudos sir.
Anyway, unfortunately, Corman and Edgar Allan Poe don’t really have the slightest to do with this week’s post. I wanted a picture still from a movie of someone getting stretched out on a torture rack, and sure enough, I got sucked into the black hole that is any Google Image search. The point was supposed to be “stretching,” so hold your breath folks, here comes another running analogy.
I hate to always bring back my equating of running and writing, but given that these are the two activities I pursue out of borderline-obsessive habit, it’s only natural for me to do so. However diligent I may be with regard to running (nearly) every day, ever since I stopped running competitively (high school), I’ve been terribly about stretching, before or after a run. In the balmy summer months, that’s less of an issue. But in the brittle winter months, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little stiff. Usually I’m too tired to think on it for very long, but it takes me about a mile before I’ve adjusted the pace and motion I’m accustomed to.
Writing is not so different with respect to the idea of “stretching.” If you can come home after a long day (and/or evening or night) of work, and jump right into a draft, then hats off to you, you’re a freak… and I sincerely do mean that as a compliment. Most of us need time to decompress, or to amp our minds up, to get free and limber.
Ask any of my close friends, whether they’re writers or not, and they’ll tell you that the term “writer’s block” sets me off on a tirade, foaming at the mouth. There is so such thing as writer’s block. We all get stuck. Any project in any form – short, feature, play, prose, whatever – will present difficulties, whether you’re in the nitty gritty of writing a draft or just in the outlining or note-taking stage. This is inevitable, and again I will reiterate, we all get stuck.
The question is, what do you do when you get stuck? You have plenty of options. Anytime I’ve thrown in the towel, I know I’ve kidded myself by thinking that by reading or watching a film instead, I was somehow being productive. And of course there are worse things you could do when you get stuck (see F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc.). But one of the worst, in my book, is ascribing this moment of being stuck to a larger paralysis of the mind, i.e. writer’s block.
Lately, I’ve made a point of beginning every writing session with a bout of free-writing. I crank up the stereo (lately favoring the new My Bloody Valentine album as my go-to) and let fly the thoughts until I feel the bout leave me completely. It’s a wonderful tool for those stuck moments, you’d be shocked what nuggets you find buried in the troves of stream-of-conscious dribble. Even better, it’s a great way to stretch out the mind before diving into the material at hand.
Extrapolating on the idea of writing exercises, I’ve taken the exercises a step further, applying them to the rewriting of a feature film script. Without going on to much, it’s a work I’m co-writing, and after draft two, we’re at a play where we’re pulling together ideas for the next re-write.
While drafting up notes, I started to outline a few things that would be considered off-page – in other words, elements that are instrumental for the writers to better understand the characters and their motivations, but the sort of details that will probably never make it into the actual script. So far, I’ve written two brief prose pieces for two different characters; short illustrative narratives about their backgrounds.
By doing so, I think I at least helped to better define the world (and its history) in which the characters appear. I’m cheating, I’ll admit, in that we all agreed to sort of step back from the script for the week, which in obeying to the letter of the law, I’d say I have.
Even when you stray away from a writing piece – whether by choice or by feeling cornered in one of those stuck moments – there are ways to re-enter from a new angle. These short narrative pieces came from my free writing, and they add new dimensions to the story I never would have thought about.
To revisit the running metaphor, in training, the analogous scenario could be “tapering” before a race. Before a meet, usually late in a season, a runner cannot afford to be exhausted going into a race. Conversely, a runner certainly cannot afford to stop running altogether either – this would be far more detrimental.
The answer is to taper, or ease off the training a bit, while still continuing to run. I’m not suggesting a perfect analogy, because I don’t think it’s particularly beneficial for any writer to write less. But you can ease off a particular piece without ceasing to write. There are just as many outlets for writing as there are excuses not to write, to be blunt about it.