Michaeline: When Words Fail

The Oblique Strategy of the Day was “State the problem in words as simply as possible”.

A girl gagged in a laboratory, watching a gooey liquid man experiment with test tubes

When words fail, sometimes you have to use other tools to define the problem. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

And you’d think this would be an easy-peasy strategy for the writer, since what we do is words. But there are two sides of every argument, and there are two sides to every brain, and sometimes, just sometimes, the problem isn’t from the verbal half of the brain, but that mysterious, artsy-fartsy, swirly-whirly half of the brain that sends us dreams of hairbrushes and neglects to make clear exactly what that means.

So, when you don’t even have clear images to base your words on, it’s time to dig in the toolbox and look for other techniques to make the problem more clear – because half of solving any problem is knowing exactly what the problem is.

1. Make a playlist. Don’t be overly picky about your playlist. If your Girls in the Basement say the song goes on the list, don’t argue. Put it on the playlist. You can always remove it later if they seem a bit grumbly about it. Make sure you have an order to the playlist, and play it in order – then turn around, and play it on random. The order will give you insight into the bigger picture. The random juxtaposition of sounds and lyrics might just lead to new information about the problems you have.

2. Try a collage. Again, don’t be too picky about your images. You can collect images in a computer file, or you can cut pictures out of a magazine. Since this is for your eyes only, and maybe for a friend or two who has consented to be a sounding board, don’t worry too much about copyright. And don’t worry about art-worthiness. Thanks to modern technology, you can size your pictures according to whatever whim your non-verbal brain is following. Maybe that evil villain in the first half of your book winds up to be about a seven millimeters tall, and then you suddenly discover an image of a snake that you blow up to cover the whole page. And just as suddenly, the problem that couldn’t be expressed in words now can be: the current villain is just trouble and not the real antagonist. Or the current villain is possibly only a minion. There’s a big-bad out there who hasn’t made it onto the page yet.

3. Use someone else’s words. Find a poem or newspaper headline or book title, then print it out, snip it into tiny words, and scramble them all around until something catches your eye. If you like, Elizabeth’s Friday Writing Sprints are a great place to find a random selection of words. You can read more about this technique (or rather, family of techniques), which was employed with great satisfaction by William S. Burroughs, here at Open Culture.

4. Use your own words. Just get started writing. Explain to an imaginary reader how to solve an imaginary problem. Don’t worry about writing tight or even about being very clear – there’s a good chance that no one will ever see your little essay on how to solve problems. But, if you notice some little phrase or concept tugging at your sleeve, pay attention, and steer your writing there. Circle around the area two or three times, and then take a break and see what else pops up. Sometimes writing around a problem is the fastest way to writing through a problem.

Good luck, and good writing!

(I really like the Oblique Strategies created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. They are wonderfully random ways to shake up your creativity and look at your work from a new direction – or they can confirm your sneaking suspicions that X needs to be looked at more closely. Eno often tweets a random Oblique Strategy, so you stop by his Twitter feed and see what’s up, almost like a daily horoscope. (-: In fact, I often find the right kind of horoscope to be extremely useful. If what The Random Oracle says resonates, I pay attention. If it doesn’t, then I just move on. It’s just another tool in the toolbox – remember, the point isn’t to have the most versatile hammer of all. The point is to make something satisfying.)

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: When Words Fail

  1. These are helpful tips and I use some version of most of them during discovery, as well as when I’m hitting mental blocks or having trouble re-immersing in the story world after being away from it. Unfortunately, some days, despite all my tricks, I just can’t get writing done during scheduled writing time, if at all. When I’m in one of these places, I open the manuscript file and notes files (I pre-plan a few scenes ahead at a time) and try to force myself to just slog through it, but if that last resort fails, I just don’t get the writing done for that day :-(.

    I’m sure feeling like the world might explode any minute doesn’t help, so I’m trying not to beat myself up too much. But these are the times we live in, so I need to write in spite of (and sometimes because of) them. Argh. Writing isn’t just a process, it’s a hard process.

    • *Hugs*! We were too young for Watergate, really, but I remember hearing something on the radio about the president not being president anymore, and my parents failing to explain it very well. (-: Who can explain that kind of thing to a four-year-old? But, the older generation has been through rotten things. I don’t think this is going to turn into WWIII. I hope it doesn’t. I hate the fact that the whole thing is taking so much bandwidth in my head!

      Aside from the feels, the plotting to this is much more crazy-sauce than anything in my current WIP. I feel very humbled.

      I think I’ve got a problem with the villain, though — the big bad not being on the page at all yet. Must write more, and not worry about it. Plus, we can really revel in the fact that we can get away with a lot of crazy stuff in fiction in this day and age. It may age ridiculously — gosh, I hope it does!! — but we’ll worry about that later.

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