Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Ten ways to fight creative blocks

I was teaching an introductory storytelling class last week and one of my students asked, "What do you do when it just won't work? When the story won't come together? Is there a storytelling equivalent of writer's block?" What an excellent question!

Yes, I have found there is a storyteller's equivalent of writer's block. Though the image to the left is about writing, those same mysterious forces can conspire to stop the storyteller from pursuing their craft. There are times when I am working on a story and just can't find the right words. Or can't find the right hook to connect with the audience. I've even had my throat close up in the same place in a story each time I tell it, so I can't speak for a second or two. That's scary. And then there are prams, bees, poltergeists and so on.

There are all kinds of ways I've had stories not work, ranging from issues in crafting, practicing and development to problems during performance. Here are some of the things I've done that help me get past troublesome moments in story crafting. I use some of these same techniques when I develop a story.
  1. Ask myself why I'm having the problem. Am I ready to tell this story? Are there big emotions attached to it that I need to sort through before I can tell it? Do I like the story? Is it interesting? 
  2. Kill my darlings. William Faulkner advised, "In writing you must kill your darlings," meaning writers must be wary of the pieces of their own work they most treasure. This applies to storytellers, too. I don't mean we shouldn't love our stories and characters, but we need to be careful that we don't use the same tropes over and over again, without ceasing. We may also become so attached to a character or scene that we refuse to allow the work to change or grow. Darling bits may obscure the actual storyline, may inhibit your ability to connect with the audience and may be redundant. When I'm stuck I will take a hard look at the piece and ask myself if I need to remove the parts I most adore. I'll try it and see what happens next.
  3. Turn it inside out. What would happen if I told the story from a different point of view? Or started at the end and told it backwards? What if I made the hero the villain? This may get me around the trouble spots or, at a minimum, I will learn more about the story and its meaning.
  4. Minimize then regrow. Sometimes I'll try to tell a story in six words. Red cloaks won't stop the wolves. When I do this I'm forced to pick only the most crucial elements. Cursed sleep now, insomnia ever after. Once I've done a few six-word versions I'll then try telling it again and see if I can move beyond the stuck parts. Pigs flunk out of architecture school.
  5. Give it a break. If I'm having a tough time I may go for a walk, read something unrelated, cook, clean, work on a different piece. To make sure this doesn't lapse into procrastination I will set a times or schedule my next work session for the piece. 
  6. Get inspired: Remind myself why I love the craft. This is another kind of break, really. I will sometimes stop what I'm working on and listen to another storyteller, one whom I love. Listening to them might frustrate me or it might inspire me to try again with renewed enthusiasm. Alternatively I'll give myself an artist's date, an exercise pioneered in The Artist's Way . I'll go to a museum and spend 15 minutes looking at one piece of art. I'll listen to music with no other distraction. I'll find some way to remind me of the value of art and storytelling.
  7. Approach it through a different art. I keep a pad of construction paper and a box of crayons handy. At some point when I'm working on a story I will often draw out scenes using stick figures and speech bubbles. This makes me get away from the words and concentrate on the images instead.
  8. Get listened to: Freetell. There is a writing technique called freewriting, where you write without stopping or regard for errors for a set period of time, usually 5-15 minutes. When I freewrite I then circle the one phrase or word that seems most meaningful then freewrite again using the word or phrase as my topic. After a round or two of freewriting I often have something I really want to work on.
    In freetelling I ask someone I trust to listen to me babble about the story for a set period of time, usually three minutes. When the time goes off I state what seemed most meaningful and may ask the listener what struck them. I'll then try to tell the story with that information forefront in my mind.
  9. Get listened to: Interview my characters. Again, with a trusted listener I will assume the role of one of my characters. I will ask my listener to ask me questions and I will answer them as the character. How do I feel about the events in the story? What is my favorite ice cream? Who do I really love? Etc? All of these questions give me new insight into the characters and the story. This is often enough to propel me out of a block.
  10. Get listened to: Get appreciated. Sometimes when I'm stuck all of my demons begin to shout. I'mnotgoodatmyartWhowantstohearmeanywayblahblahblah. When this happens, if I'm smart, I ask someone who knows me and my work well, someone I respect, and ask them to tell me what they like about my work. I let them praise me and I remind myself that they are not lying, they are telling me about my work from the outside without all the destructive mess I carry around. And then I try again.
What works for you when you're stuck? How do you get over those humps in the storytelling road?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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