Friday, January 29, 2016

Ruts, Routines, and Writer's Block

By Art Taylor

Like my co-panelist Tracy Kiely earlier this week, I tend to conflate this week's question—"It’s so easy to get into a ‘same old, same old’ rut with your writing. What do you do to break out of it?"—with questions about writer's block, though I know these may fundamentally be too different things. 

In each case, however, I think a change of perspective is key—whether that shift in perspective is taking place on the page (or screen) or away from the keyboard or pen or pencil entirely. 

Yesterday, Alan Orloff mentioned that the seemingly endless blizzard clean-up helped to get him out of a rut, and while he may have been half-joking, I usually find that if I'm getting no traction with my writing (carrying through on some snow imagery, the idea of a rut, etc.), then stepping away from the computer helps to free the mental processes a little, loosen the imagination, provide new ways of looking at some problem on the page, new ways to push ahead. A walk, a drive, a shower, or really anything more physical than mental helps in that regard. 

But both Alan and Tracy speak to the more distinctive connotations of a "rut" as well—when you're traveling the same path routinely without variation. To that end, I like Tracy's suggestion of exercises in style and Alan's approach of varying genre from project to project. As a short story writer primarily, I'm often starting fresh with each new project—in terms character and plot and tone and sometimes even style—and while that poses its own challenges, it also helps to avoid overworking the same moves.

One of the nicest comments I've gotten about my book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories concerns the structure of the book—a series of stories that are each distinct in many ways but that cohere as a longer story, ultimately as a novel with a larger narrative arc threading through the individual adventures of the title characters. The comment that I get focuses on the various tones in each of the individual parts of that whole: a screwball tone here, a more somber tone there, for example; or a caper tale at one point and a whodunit at another. All of that is by design, of course—my own desire to sample a variety of tones and approaches and even (as Alan said) subgenres under that larger umbrella of crime fiction.

I'm certainly not advocating that all writers should hopscotch through styles and structures and stories in an effort to keep things new, but I do think that those exercises like Tracy mentioned and an awareness of what we're doing generally help to keep the mind and the imagination well-tuned and well-focused.


Alan Orloff said...

It's cool that you visited several sub-genres within one book, and I must say, you did it masterfully.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Alan!