Break writer’s block with translation

In college I had a professor who told us one of his favorite ways to get past writer’s block was to translate a poem into English from a language you don’t know. In fact, to do this correctly, you should choose a language you know nothing about. Most people recognize too many Spanish and French words for this to work well.

Instead of looking for the meanings of the words, treat the poem like an object. Look to the shape of the poem and the length of the lines. If you can sound out words, use the sound to help you. If it character writing, look to the shapes and guess the meaning. Look for patterns in the writing and repetition.

Treat it as a real translation. The first time through you should get a rough approximation of the poem. Then, once you have a feel for your “translation,” smooth the language and amplify the meaning. Choose appropriate vocabulary. Read it to yourself.

Once you’re done, you’ll have a completely original work. The professor said that he had several published poems that were actually “translations” from great poets. Don’t read any actual translations until you’re completely finished, but do read a translation just in case you are too close.

William S Burroughs writing tools

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 8.46.01 PMWilliam Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, famously used mechanical means to spark his creativity. He and Bryon Gysin were the first to use the “cut up” method in literature. They had various methods for cutting up pages of text and rearranging them to create something new. They by taking the text apart and reassembling it randomly, you could reveal the real meaning behind it and create associations you would have never come up with. Languageisavirus has a tremendous number of these methods automated and available for you to experiment with.

Burroughs and Gysin also experimented with a flickering Dreamachine that sparked hallucinations in some and seizures in other. It has worked for me, try to see if you find it useful. Don’t use it if you are prone to photosensitive epilepsy.

Play with the cut up method here.

Allen Ginsberg’s mind writing slogans

In MInd Writing Slogans, Allen Ginsberg selected and arranged a series of quotes and presented them as a guide to perception and creation. They are posted all over the internet, so I won’t re-post all of them, but the first series on primary perception (22 out of 84) really struck a chord with me today. The two that keep pinging around in my head are “notice what you notice” and “if we don’t show anyone, we’re free to write anything.”

  1. “First Thought, Best Thought” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  2. “Take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  3. “The Mind must be loose.” — John Adams
  4. “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”
  5. “My writing is a picture of the mind moving.” — Philip Whalen
  6. Surprise Mind — Allen Ginsberg
  7. “The old pond, a frog jumps in, Kerplunk!” — Basho
  8. “Magic is the total delight (appreciation) of chance.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  9. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” –– Walt Whitman
  10. “…What quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature? … Negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” — John Keats
  11. “Form is never more than an extension ofcontent. — Robert Creeley to Charles Olson
  12. “Form follows function.” — Frank Lloyd Wright*
  13. Ordinary Mind includes eternal perceptions. — A. G.
  14. “Nothing is better for being Eternal
  15. Nor so white as the white that dies of a day.” — Louis Zukofsky
  16. Notice what you notice. — A. G.
  17. Catch yourself thinking. — A. G.
  18. Observe what’s vivid. — A. G.
  19. Vividness is self-selecting. — A. G.
  20. “Spots of Time” — William Wordsworth
  21. If we don’t show anyone we’re free to write anything. –– A. G.
  22. “My mind is open to itself.” — Gelek Rinpoche
  23. “Each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound.” — Charles Reznikoff

Read the rest here.

10 Ways To Prevent Writer’s Block


Everyone worries about how to get rid of writer’s block once they have it, but why not prevent it before it starts? This is a list of proven block stoppers.

1. Sleep:  There’s actually science to support this one. Eight hours of sleep helps you reboot your brain, think more clearly and be more creative. Lack of sleep makes it difficult to make connections. Even the easy stuff becomes difficult.

2. Eat: Eat healthy foods. Eat a variety of foods. Watch how much alcohol and caffeine you drink. This will keep you well. It’s hard to be creative if you get every cold and flu that comes your way.

3. Exercise: Now, I’m not saying that you need to join a gym or get to Terry Crews size to prevent writer’s block. I am saying that you need to move every day and get your heart pumping. Take a walk, play some basketball or toss a tennis ball for your dog.

4. Read: If you want to write, you should read constantly. There are few pleasures as great for a writer as finding a great book to read. Don’t just read a great book, reread it and absorb its secrets. Then use them.

5. Keep Learning: Take a class, go to a museum, read a trade magazine for an industry you know nothing about or watch a weird documentary. Just keep learning, the world is huge. The minute it starts to feel like there’s nothing left to discover, it will also feel like there’s nothing much to write about.

6. Write Every Day: Even if it’s only for 15 minutes, write every day. Develop a pattern, a constant rhythm, that can’t be broken. If you write every day, it will become as effortless and necessary as breathing. Better to write for a short period every day than for marathon sessions when a deadline is looming.

7. Listen to People Talk: Don’t just lecture or tell stories, really listen to what other people have to say. These are your characters, your inspirations and you should steal all you can. Practicing unjudgemental listening opens the door to hearing everything going on in someone else’s head.  Ask lots of questions and listen to the answers. Using details from other people’s lives is a lot easier than making something up from scratch.

8. Lower your Standards:  Poet William Stafford said, “I believe that the so-called ‘writing block’ is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance … One should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It’s easy to write. You just shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing.”

9. Get Rid of the Doubters in your Life:  Have someone in your life that doesn’t think you’re really a writer and that you’re wasting your time? Either learn to ignore them or get rid of them. Dump them. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known them. You already have enough doubt inside your head without having to put up with some jerk adding more doubt outside your head.

10. WRITE!

The Seinfeld Secret of Productivity

Well, this article from Lifehacker has one of Jerry Seinfeld’s secrets. And I quote…

He (Seinfeld) told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. "After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."

"Don’t break the chain." He said again for emphasis.

Of course, the other secret of his success was to stick to his vision. He has a clear "no hugging, no learning" rule for his sitcom. Part of the reason that Seinfeld is such a great series is that the characters don’t grow or learn. They just are what they are. Such clear statements of purpose.

Don’t break the chain!

Theory of Obscurity – creating for yourself

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 8.04.49 PMThe Residents may be the world’s most famous unknown band. No one knows who is actually in the band, they disguise their face with giant eyeballs or other disguises, and their music is not designed to appeal to everyone. In fact, it is purposely composed to appeal only to them. They developed their interesting way of looking at the world through the theories of (possibly fictional) Bavarian composer N. Senada. The theory, as stated in this Wired article, goes as follows.

According to this philosophy, artists do their purest work in obscurity, with minimum feedback from any kind of audience. The theory adds that with no audience to consider, artists are free to create work that is true to their own vision.

I bring this to your attention because it led The Residents to try an interesting exercise. They decided for this theory to truly operate, they would have to create music that was not intended to be heard by anyone. They recorded an album that there were going to lock away in a vault until they forgot about it. Eventually, during a dispute with their label, it was released under the name Not Available.

I remember a woman in a poetry class I took years ago. She was so
desperate for an audience and so fearful of a negative reaction that
she would write poems, tear them out of her notebook and abandon them
on park benches and buses. She hoped that someone would find them and
be touched in some way. She would sit in class and cross out negative things in her poems because she was afraid people would like them less.

I was often left wondering what she actually thought because all she wrote was what she thought I wanted to read.

Creating for no audience with the intention of locking something away may be just what you need to spur yourself onwards. If nothing else, forgetting an audience will let you push yourself into areas you might not be comfortable with. It will let you bring up ideas and thoughts that you do not otherwise consider for fear of being judged.

Use the Theory of Obscurity in the spirit in which it is intended. It only matters while you are creating. Afterwards, if someone does see it, it doesn’t compromise the initial process.

Idea source: police blotters

Looking for a plot twist or a dramatic moment? Police blotters may be the answer. They are a perfect cure for writer’s block. Blotters don’t supply all the information you need to understand a situation, just what happened. The emotions and motivations are completely left to the imagination.

Here’s an entry from a San Francisco blotter:

Officer Amoroso and Officer Sugitan were sent to O’Farrell St. and Larkin St. to meet with a victim of a stabbing.  The victim reported that he was walking in the area when three men offered to sell him drugs.  Instead of walking away, ignoring the men, or saying, “no,” the man said he wanted to buy hashish.  The men asked how much and the victim said, “Just kidding, I have no money.” The sellers became irate and pushed the victim away.  Again, tempting fate, the victim pushed one of the dealers.  The incensed dealers then struck the victim with a cane, stabbed him with a knife and started to pummel him with fists.  The victim, now fearing for his life, was able to extract himself, despite repeated attempts to stab him again.  The victim fled and called the police.  The victim was not able to identify his attackers, despite the fact that the officers detained two men who fit the description provided.  The incident is under investigation.

What kind of a day was the victim having that caused him to act that way? What happened to him immediately before this incident? He joked with dangerous people and then pushed one. He could be having a bad day. Or maybe he just got out of his therapist’s office after being told that he should use his sense of humor to make more friends.

There are so many questions to be answered it’s a perfect short story.

Here’s another from Dartmouth College

Dartmouth Safety and Security reported to Hanover Police that a man had repeatedly feigned drowning to entice lifeguards, usually female Dartmouth students, to swim out to him and discover that he was not wearing any clothing. After detaining 28-year-old Luis Hurtado of Miami, Fla., Hanover Police learned that Hurtado had overstayed his welcome in the United States and turned him in to Border Patrol.

Imagine having a character bio like that for a minor character in a novel.

Just type “police blotter” in google and you’ll have inspiration galore.

Page vs stage: the debate continues

In the world of poetry, there is a large divide between written poetry and poetry intended for performance. Although there are a growing number of poets that see the value of both, performed or “slam” poetry continues to be seen as being of lesser value by many academics and traditional poets. The debate is often referred to as “page versus stage.”

Poetry Foundation is featuring an excellent interview right now with someone who has mastered both, Susan Somers-Willett. Here she discusses what academic poetry might learn from slam poetry:

The academy can learn something crucial from slam: how to put butts in the seats. It’s ironic that, at the same time critics were debating “Can Poetry Matter?” and lamenting the death of poetry for the general reader, slams were starting to emerge across the nation. Slam found poetry’s so-called lost audience, and instead of instructing it to sit quietly, hushed and reverent in the presence of the author, it said to react to the poet—boo, hiss, applaud, give the poem a score of a 10 or a 2.7. Having an actively engaged audience helped the slam grow into what it is today—a series of national competitions that sell out large venues in major U.S. cities.

I think this is an excellent point. Just as there are many types of music, why can’t there be different and equally valuable types of poetry. Classical music has a solid but limited audience, so does academic poetry. Slam poetry engages the audience, makes them feel passionate emotions and lets them know that their reaction to the poem is an important part of the poem. Slam not only puts butts in seats, it makes those butts think and feel. Slam is the rock super-group of the poetry world, capable of filling arenas.

If you have never been to a poetry slam, you should really try it out. Check for a venue close to you by clicking here.

Click here to read the article
Click here to listen to a podcast featuring slam discussion and one of Susan’s poems.

Comedy By The Numbers

Comedy_by_the_Numbers_2nd_loresThe new McSweeney’s book, Comedy By The Numbers by Eric Hoffman and Gary Rudoren, is a really rare thing. It’s a book about comedy that is actually funny. Pretending to be a comprehensive guide to the 169 comic attitudes and situations ,it manages to be equal parts sarcastic snark and earnest opinion. There is actual information in the book. It’s easily more useful than a book like Comedy Writing Secrets and a heck of a lot funnier.

I recommend it, especially if you enjoy the humor of Mr. Show. Definitely not recommended if you are easily offended. In fact, stop reading now because I’m going to quote it.

Here’s one tip:

One of the masonry units of physical comedy – the chairman of the board of reactionary humor. This comedy device is to one’s repertoire what trinkets and beads were to the Native American Indian way back when – once you see it, you must have it! You will need full use of your eyes and eyebrows, mouth, neck and sometimes ears in order to get the substantial laugh that accompanies this baby.

Easy. Follow this simple example of a typical situation where THE DOUBLE TAKE reaction is set up – Picture this scene:
1. You come home from work and say, “honey, I’m home” as you’re walking through the door.
2. You hang up your fedora and coat and walk into the living room.
3. You pick up your newspaper and sit in your favorite easy chair, barely noticing your wife and dog across the room.
4. Your wife is sitting on the couch wearing a huge piece of cheese as a hat and your dog, King, is sitting next to her in a push-up bra and crotchless panties.
5. You ask your wife how her day was in such a manner that means you don’t really care.
6. You flip through your newspaper nonchalantly as she answers: “unusual”.
7. You say: “That’s nice, dear” in monotone that befits your lack of interest.
8. As you flip the paper one more time, you glance over at her and King and clearly notice what they are wearing is inappropriate, but it doesn’t register in your brain at that moment, so you look back at your paper.
9. BUT at the same moment you stop rustling the newspaper, your brain DOES finally register the inappropriateness of their attire and you pull the paper down to your lap, while snapping your neck back to look at them and raising both your eyebrows, widening your eyes and leaving your mouth agape (open). Your face is expressing how unbelievable it is that your wife is sitting on a couch with a dairy product on her head and your pet is cross-dressing in intimate apparel!!

Interestingly enough, this facial comedy began with the immigrants who brought with them to America, not only their yearnings for freedom and democracy, but also a sense of reactionary humor bred from the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

Read a few excepts on their website.

David Sedaris Inteview

There’s a great interview with David Sedaris in The Missouri Review about his life and how he works. Also, some great discussion on fiction versus nonfiction. One interesting exchange was about the need to wait before your write about something. I think this is one of the big problems with blogs and blog culture. People feel like they need to fill the space in a blog, so they often rush to post about something without letting it percolate.  Here’s what Sedaris had to say:

Interviewer: Do you ever feel you need to wait before you can write about certain events, or about things in your own life?

Sedaris: Definitely. I generally have to wait until I can laugh about something or put it into some kind of perspective. There are stories that I try to write every summer. I turn back to these stories and I wind up thinking, “Nope, not time yet.” There’s this woman named Helen who lived across the hall from us in New York, and I wrote about her for Esquire seven years ago. I worked on it really hard, but it just wasn’t right. It’s not time to write about Helen yet. The first magazine thing I ever did at Esquire was to spend a week at the morgue in Phoenix. I’m not a reporter, and I felt this pressure to flatter the people who worked there. They were very kind to me. Every summer I think, okay, maybe now I can write that story, but it’s not time yet. Sometimes I’ll try to force it. Then other times, wham, all of a sudden I’m able and the time is right. I tried to write about going to the Anne Frank House right after I went, but it took me two years. Was it Flannery O’Connor who said that a writer’s job is not to have an experience but to contemplate experiences? That seems right to me—trying to make sense of it all. Then, too, it’s all about finding the first line.

One of the great things about waiting to write about something is that you get to find out the actual end of a story. Blogs encourage you to record what happens to you, but without the luxury of knowing the impact it will actually have on you. How you are is often not as interesting as what made you that way.

The next time you sit down to write and it’s just not coming, maybe it’s still too soon. Set it aside and try again later. It’s not writer’s block, it’s just not ready yet.

The Missouri Review

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