What reminds you why you love words?

DinoIn the same way that all kids love dinosaurs, I think everyone spends at least some portion of life loving words. Whether it be their commandment power over parents that is more effective than vague crying or the aggressive quality when wielded against classmates or the way a well-written assignment could earn the admiration of teachers or the transporting power of a psychedelic school bus. Some of us then become paleontologists and writers, while others of us take photos of animatronic dinosaurs at museums and aspirationally list "writer" as occupation on their passport.

I turn 30 on December 12 of next year. Often, people set 30 as the age to meet some goal. Usually, it's a goal that requires other people--make a million dollars, get married, have a baby. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to pick a goal that I could achieve myself. So I'm going to publish a zine before I turn 30. I'm twice the age I should have been to write a zine, but I didn't know about them in high school and I think this is a good way to finally make it happen. And I can use some tips and inspiration. For my birthday this year I'd appreciate your help.

What is a story that blows you away? What reward (or punishment) helps you power through writer's block and get those words on the page? What helps you write? What do you appreciate in the work that other people do? I know, there's entire sections of book stores devoted to this stuff. But, just share one silly, stupid, wonderful, awful thing that matters to you. Thanks for your time and for helping me become a (better) writer and get to know you (better).

Also: I value your suggestions, but it is the season of giving. For each person who contributes a suggestion (you may do so anonymously), I will donate $5 to a literacy organization (to a max of $300). I have some organizations in mind, but thoughts welcome on that as well. Thanks.


I appreciate when the sincerity and honesty of a writer comes through in their work. And, while I want that writers would give thought to how to think considerately and not disrespect potential readers/listeners, I dislike the idea of being pandered to as a reader/listener. I like writing that's "real" and it shows.
Music is what I write; and I think some of the same challenges w/ writer's block/motivation is shared between composers and writers.
For blocks, my favorite thing to do is ask myself "what am I trying to say/convey here?" and then, without trying to consciously answer the question, leave the physical space I'm in and do something recrational and completely different that will take my active thinking off of the writing process; and I keep doing that or other recreational things until any residual feelings of frustration or being sunk are gone. Then, still not having thought about the writing process, I'll come back to the writing space, restate the question of "what I'm a trying to say?" and then just write without hesitation or self-critique. Then after I've written for a while, I'll see if anything's shifted.
I believe in the power and effectiveness of the uncounscious mind being trusted to work things out sometimes when our active/direct thinking gets stuck.
For motivation, my favorite thing to do is make a game out of giving myself a small amount of time to get a large amt of info out of my head and onto the page. I find this helps externalize what's in there so I can look at it in more concrete form, and- even if I end up discarding most/all of what I purged, this process frees up more thinking for moving forward with developing ideas.
Often, I find that my own self-directed critical eye can be the biggest impediment to moving the creative process forward; gotta side-step it pretty frequently.
The biggest thing that helps me write is being in a physical space this is condusive to creative work and a mental space that is clear of distractions. What works for me is a few dedicated spaces where I write, times of day/wk when I write and rest and nurishment before I write. ...and I always give myself a mental hug when I'm done, regardless of the outcome- cuz it's not an easy process.
This story, Brian Blade - Get There: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST48K75hxDk
Backing you all the way, Erika!

This rocks. Thanks for all this feedback, Corey, and for being first!

I think what helps me write most is to change my surroundings as much as I can. Some people need particular circumstances in order to write well. I try to not be that way.
It's hard sometimes, but it might be as simple as getting up from my desk and going out for a walk for a few minutes. When it's just my apartment, or my office, or the same coffee place over and over again, it gets harder to draw inspiration from surroundings.

Thanks for this. I find a change of scenery helps a lot also. Just have to make sure the change isn't too distracting.

This video comes to mind: http://vimeo.com/24715531

And here's a transcript, courtesy of the internet:
Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me, is that all of us who do creative work, like, y’know, we get into it. And we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’tso good, Okay? It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of disappointment to you, y’know what I mean? A lot of people never get past that phase, and a lot of people at that point they quit. And the thing I would just like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing what to do is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, going through it right, if you’re just getting out of that phase, you gotta know it’s totally normal and the most imporant possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that you know each week or each month you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. In my case, like I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It’s going to take you a while. It’s normal to take you a while and you just have to Fight Your Way Through That. Okay? — Ira Glass

This is great, thanks, Naomi. A drama teacher in high school gave me similar advice. It can be hard to think that you'll ever get through that gap of what you want to do and what you are actually able to do, but always cool to hear from folks who have made it over that.

My son inspires me to write. Being a new dad I’ve found this writing prompt, shared by an astrologer, to be therapeutic and fun.
1st - Take one issue/problem that you're going through in your life right now and express/frame that issue in fairytale language. Use a cast of character like bears or animals as your hero or maybe a knight or princess. 
2nd - Resolve the issue by inventing a magic trinket, prop or power that solves the problem.
3rd – Finish out the story with your best version of living “happily ever after.”
This exercise really helps put a new perspective on issues you’re going through and it makes for great stories to read to your children.  Grimm fairytales are wonderful but having a book of personal fairytales to give to your children is priceless.
Good music also inspires me. In the last week or so, I’ve stumbled on a band, Dear Nora, (probably 15 years after the fact, which is analogous to your zine making situation) and I’ve been listening to their stuff over and over.  Since then, I’ve written two songs, attended an open mic, and wrote a fairytale.
Thank you so much for making donations to charity please let me know if you need any written contributions as I think it would be fun to contribute to your first zine!

Ha, wow, this is such a neat idea. Thank you for sharing it and for offering contributions to my zine, I'll keep that in mind. This idea is so counter to what I learned in school about writing (at least from one of my teachers). We were taught to never end a story "and then they woke up and it was all a dream." This teacher probably HATED St. Elsewhere. Beyond that, I get what the teacher meant, don't rely on an "easy out" like that, but I think it also sort of chided being really inventive and fanciful in writing. Oh, Spotify says Dear Nora is like Mates of State. That's promising!

Oh, hey, and the second Dear Nora song on Spotify is from a kick-ass mix my friend made for me years ago. Did not realize that. So glad to be listening to this song again and now have a whole other context for it.

dear nora is not that super-similar to mos, BUT apparently the two are similar enough to warrant a split 7". the former cover neil young's "girl from the north country" and the latter, jackson browne's "these days."

Oooh, that's where their "These Days" cover shows up! Thanks for letting me know. They played it at their show in Philly two days before my birthday this year. It was such an excellent gift. Also, I have no idea how Spotify decides RIYL artists. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes not so much.

Oddly enough, the single most helpful writing tool I've found in the last year is a $13 pair of headphones and Rainymood.com. For some reason it is the perfect balance between white noise (which doesn't help me concentrate) and music (which distracts me). Listening to rain and thunder is the perfect solution.

Thanks for the recommendation. I hadn't seen that site before, but I definitely agree, rain DOES make everything better.

I often re-read two short stories when I feel like listening to interesting writing. They both come from science fiction, not uncoincidentally since I think a lot of science fiction writers were particularly outgoing in their themes and style. 
The first is' "Repent Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman' by Harlan Ellison. It was recently off in a terrible movie with Justin Timberlake, I believe. But the original story is quite good in how it plays with language and its non-linear plot. http://compositionawebb.pbworks.com/f/%255C'Repent,%2BHarlequin!%255C'%2...
The other is a Ray Bradbury short story, "There Will Come Soft Rains" which is a chapter his 'The Martian Chronicles.' I can't find a link to it online but it's a well-told story of the end of the world as told through a computerized house. For a story that has no human characters in it, it is still able to convey a lot of emotion and poignant imagery.

Ooh, thanks for the recomendations for further reading. I really like the idea of conveying emotion even without human characters. I think restrictions like that can inspire creativity and can be revealing/insightful in ways that working with typical characters is not. Look forward to reading these.

I think there's two kinds of tasks: some you need motivation for, and some you need dedication for. Motivation will get you through a weekend, or a week at most, and rewards can give you motivation. But if you want to write a book, dedication's what you need. That said, I do have a page at the start of the ringbinders where I plan books, marked "Litany": it contains the reasons I want to get this book done, and the reasons I think I can do it. I turn to that page and read it to myself when I'm despairing of ever getting it finished.

Writer's block is a curse, and I don't know a good cure for it. You can get through it by writing *something* every day, and not letting yourself throw it away even if it's bad. Writer's block goes away in time anyway, and I don't know whether writing every day cures it any faster. But it's something I should be trying to do anyway.

There was a theory of computer programming back in the eighties that said that every non-trivial program needs "programming in the small" (to write each module) and "programming in the large" (to link the modules together). I think it's the same with writing. What I appreciate in a story is not only voice, not only a finely-chosen phrase, but also a working chassis of carefully-designed plot and characters. Many people think they can write when they've learned one, but only the writing of people who have learned both is consistently worth reading.

And a story that blows me away: "Nothing to be afraid of" by Jan Mark. It's short and simple and packs a great punch, teaching you something you need to know in the world.

Loving the further reading recommendations (and your website provides even more!). I also really appreciate tying this back with programming. It's great to see how these seemingly disconnected disciplines actually share a lot of core facets.

So my friend Joe Meno, who's written a bunch of amazing books, tells a pretty good story about writer's block.
His father was a stonecutter. He'd head to work at 6am every morning, and come home at 6pm every night, exhausted. Never once, in the decades that he did this, when Joe would ask him how his day ones did he respond, "I have stonecutters block--just couldn't do it today."
Writing is work, same as any other. The best way to overcome writers block is to write--shift gears, write something else, write something fun, write something disposable To simply say "it isn't happening" is to set yourself up for ever-greater blockages. Keep a schedule, keeping meeting that schedule, and you'll be amazed how much gets done.
Happy birthday!

I love that. Thank you. I will think of that and "Jude the Obscure" and get super depressed and then I'll have tons to write about! But in all seriousness, I did actually try to put "fuck it, ship it" into action and it worked. Good to know it works for stonecutters too.

When I write authentically from my heart, and from my experiences without concern for how others will interpret it - I write well.  I struggle when I feel as if there is a target audience, or I worry about reaction.

Ooh, anonymous, you are very wise. I have a hunch that this is a major facet of truly distinctive writing. Just confidence (or obliviousness, I guess) that you know what you are doing and you're going to do it and that is all there is to it. Considering your audience in terms of say, framing a blog post, is really important, but when it gets to the point of second-guessing, it's gone too far. I'm bad with the second guessing, so hearing your testimonial to shut that shit up is very encouraging. Thanks!

love this! 
When I've had trouble with creative writing (getting started is always the hardest) I found it's much easier to sit down and write your memories. Just start with whatever comes to mind first and write everything you remember about it. I did this every morning for awhile and it put me in a good mood and I was surprised with how well the stories came together even though I was just mostly rambling. It also got me in the habit of writing every day. 
It's difficult to take on a big creative project when you also have a full time job (this has been a constant struggle for me) but I've heard 90 minutes in the morning can work. 
Another piece of writing advice I really like: "Find out what your character wants most in the world. Focus on the character and plot will follow." That works whether you're writing fiction or writing about yourself. 

This is super helpful as I'm still trying to figure out what my zine will be about and it may involve memory/personal history stuff. Thanks. Ninety minutes sounds like so much time. But I guess approach it like people (who I don't understand) approach going to the gym? I could see that working.
"...what you/your character wants most." Now, there's a prompt!

I remain filled with hope for our future ever since reading Alastair Reynold's House of Suns. So long as we remember love, sacrifice, and forgiveness in our lives and work, we will find ways to save our hopes, stories, and selves.
Can't wait for the zine. Laura sent me.

Thanks for the recommendation. That's a nice summation. Oh, thanks for helping spread the word too. Very cool you came via Laura's tweet. I can't wait to have a physical thing to share with folks. Will let you know when it's ready.

Really -- individual words, their meanings, their origin, their shape.
I just read a great little book by a poet and zine author: "Obsolete -- an alphabet of poems inspired by dead words." Sounds like she's sold the last copy, but here's her website:
I've also gotten a lot from the process of Proprioceptive Writing, explained here:

Oh, that zine sounds awesome, thanks. If I can't find it, I may ask my friend to help me track it down. This proprioceptive writing's website sounds a wee bit on the hippie side of things (just thinking about meditation stresses me out), but if you're recommending it, I'll certainly check it out.

From someone who you've helped with writing this seems well, wrong. But for what it's worth, on those rare occasions where my mind is completely clear, I find it useful to just bang things out as quickly as possible, a stream of consciousness if you like.
Reading about the first fanzines that came out in that fascinating era between 1976 and 1978, it seems that the punks were always in a hurry to get things down, slip things into the photo-copier ready for plying at the next gig. Much of the content then, was just whatever came to mind at that moment. Maybe this is the key to a good zine. Let the subconscious take control, write - don't edit and just see what comes out.
That way at least you can build up content in the smallest amount of time.

Oh, thanks, Mark. I appreciate hearing that you've found my feedback helpful and of course I want to hear what you think! This subconscious idea is really great. I've had the idea to do this zine as a turning 30 goal for...at least a couple of years. It was a way to give myself a deadline I guess, ha. But it also let me keep putting it off. So this is a good reminder to just make it happen. I think a lot of these comments talking about just writing and letting it flow are really great motivation. I've been wanting to write about some topics for a long time, but haven't figured out how to approach them. Guess it's best to just try it and see what happens...

Erika: I think it's a cool personal goal. Congratulations on it!
A few pieces of advice I've been given that I like:
1. If you want to write for volume consistently, just commit to completing a single page a day. If you want to writer for quality, just commit to completing three pages a day and throw out two of them.
2. When you're stuck, just write nonsense until something real comes.
3. Keep a Spark File, in which you just jot down words or phrases or ideas you like and then come back to that document whenever you're stuck or need inspiration or want to combine something with someone else.
(Also, please do a wrap up post of some of your favorite pieces of advice from the comments and elsewhere and then share that link in the Facebook invite for your party!)

Thanks for the suggestions, Chris. And I definitely plan a wrap up post. I have carried around so many notebooks for so long for that "spark file" and I somehow never end up actually writing in them. I don't know why that step has been so difficult. Maybe it's fear about the ideas not being good enough or actually worth writing or what. Honestly, I think Twitter has filled that role a little bit. Maybe the next step is to make the notebook of drafted Tweets (I am so happy to find out that other people draft Tweets and it's not just me) and start there. Hmm...

As a non-writer I find I very rarely suffer from writer's block :) .  You should therefore take everything I'm about to say with a dump-truck full of salt.  I haven't done much in the way of creative writing since high school, but I do have to write lots of things as part of my job and personal life (emails, wiki posts, design documents, etc).  I almost never have writers block with these things.  Some I write faster than others, but most of the time if I'm going slowly it's not because I'm trying to think of what to say but rather how to say it.

I think this is the fundamental cause writer's block: it only rears it's ugly head when you aren't sure what you should be writing about.  When writing an email or wiki post, I have a clear idea of what I want to communicate and the rest is simply the serialization of thoughts to text.  This short piece, for example, has been very easy to write because I have a topic (writer's block), and I've spent the past few weeks putting some thought into what I want to say about it.  If, on the other hand, I were given the task of writing a short story about whatever I wanted, the task would become much more difficult.

If I were writing a creative piece and got stuck, I think my first instinct would be to simply stop trying to write.  Trying to write without a thought to share is like trying to whistle without air in your lungs - you can purse your lips and contract your diaphram all you want, but not much is going to happen until you inhale.  The solution is not to keep trying to empty your brain onto the page, but rather to refill it.  I would therefore do anything but writing, but preferably something menial or boring that will let your mind wander and come up with some new thoughts.  Even going to sleep can help, especially if you're actively trying to come up with ideas as you go to sleep.  I find my brain tends to chew on things I was thinking about in the hours and minutes before I fell asleep, and sometimes it comes up with some interesting things (sleepy brain is much less constrained by the bounds of reality than wakeful brain).

This is starting to get long winded and I think I've made my point, so I'm going to call it quits.  Hopefully someone will find this helpful :).

Wait, Bennet, you do NOT struggle with writing documentation? I think you have found some holy grail there. We will need to talk about this more. Thanks for giving this so much thought and sharing it! I also find it easier to write when I have a specific task, but even then sometimes it's just so. hard. to. get. it. done. Documentation in particular seems like it often becomes a burden, an extra annoying step, and not an integral part of the development process. My boss deemed 2013 The Year of Documentation so I'm going to be spending lots more time thinking about this stuff (and then, you know...writing the documentation).

Is to get up as early as I can -- preferably before the sun is up -- and start drafting when my mind is still only half-awake, and hasn't had time to let any anxiety or perfectionism creep in. If I can get something down on paper, it's much easier for me to go back and edit it.

Oh, that's an interesting suggestion. Thanks for sharing. I will procrastinate waking up as long as I possibly can, but maybe it's time to try another approach.

Cheap quick answer so I can get on the BS line before your party's over! 

Reading other people's writing aloud. And occasionally reading aloud my own. But others' first.

Also, as a reporter-ish person, writing satire for practice. No copy-pasting / fact-checking required.

Glad you made it to the BSL ok even if it was hard to find my house (sorry!). Writing satire for practice, that's really interesting. I've always been way too embarrassed to read my writing aloud. But satire, never really tried that at all. I've really liked the drafting process for blogging where you research as you write and gather your citations, but yeah, sometimes you can just get mired in that. Satire does sound like a neat way to try a more stream of consciousness style for non-fiction. Neat.

I'm reminded of why I love words whenever an etymological connection between two of them suddenly clicks for me. This can be something a simple as noticing that, say, "vomit" and "emetic" come from the same root, or intricate as figuring out the proto-Indo-European root for 'navel', or abstruse as realizing that the word "chair" is ultimately just the word "sit" plus one prefix and one suffix—the complex and varied relationships between words are what I love most about them.

Ha, thank you for sharing this. That is a pretty neat "aha" moment and I will try hard not to read anything into your selection of example words. I feel like this is one of the most interesting things about learning new languages too, or even catching words on signs/ads in other languages, especially non-Romance languages.

 A friend of mine was recently debating with me, arguing that he should be allowed to use slurs for the purpose of comedy. He said that people are too sensitive, slurs are just words.
To which I say, nothing is just words. People live and die over words every day. The law is just words. Holy books are just words. Shakespeare is just words -- hell, it's just dialogue. Go up to a cop and say "Eat shit, pig" and I bet there will be consequences for those words. Action movies (ie, violence movies) may be mainly explosions, but grown-up movies are mostly people talking. It is not hard to say something someone will remember for the rest of their lives -- so if you try to, choose wisely. Talk is very expensive.
Happy 30th Erika!
When I was a little kid, my older brother told me I talked too much. I was trying to process that, and I imagined that we are these creatures and talking is when our antennae broadcast to each other, and that this is but one of the many things we can do with our bodies and that I am overusing it 

Thanks! And thanks for sharing about the talking side of words. I think the emotional impact of words is something that can be really challenging to come to terms with. Obviously, we grow up knowing that power, yelling at classmates or eliciting that "no, it's fine" response from your parent in the tone that you know is SO FAR from fine that you are so ashamed you can barely move. They have power. But for people who are very in their own heads (and privileged to be so) it can be really easy to forget the power words have and to brush off emotional responses because they are too challenging. It's really humbling to have to acknowledge you brought pain to someone via words alone.
Yeah, this is important stuff. Thanks again for raising it.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 12/16/2012 - 17:11

 A friend of mine was recently debating with me, arguing that he should be allowed to use slurs for the purpose of comedy. He said that people are too sensitive, slurs are just words.
To which I say, nothing is just words. People live and die over words every day. The law is just words. Holy books are just words. Shakespeare is just words -- hell, it's just dialogue. Go up to a cop and say "Eat shit, pig" and I bet there will be consequences for those words. Action movies (ie, violence movies) may be mainly explosions, but grown-up movies are mostly people talking. It is not hard to say something someone will remember for the rest of their lives -- so if you try to, choose wisely. Talk is very expensive.

Happy 30th Erika!


I've never once had talker's block, that is, I can always find something to say. When I can't find something to write, I start talking, and then I start typing what I say. I do a lot of editing for other people, and when I read something confusing or wordy, I always say, "tell me what you mean." The writing always gets better for it. I also care a whole lot about punctuation and grammar, but if I focus on those things in a first or even second draft, the technicality holds back the creativity. Any (ok, almost any) jumbly mess can be edited, but the ideas have to get out there first.

Thanks for connecting the talking and the writing. I've traditionally kept them very separate--I write one way, talk another. I think writing more online, and in a very conversational way, has blurred some of that divide a bit. I also struggle with the self editing and fixing grammar in a way that doesn't screw up the flow of stuff. So I appreciate the suggestion to keep that separate. I'll work on self editing next.

I am motivated to write by personal experiences. Sometimes I will take breif notes on interactions, personalities or experiences that I notice and use them in storytelling or include components of my own memories with family and friends. If I get stuck, I walk outside, go to a café, chat with people and create a narrative. Sometimes talking to kids can be really inspiring too! They have such a hilarious outlook on life and are always full of creativity.

All my writing has been on blogs, so that's where I'm coming from here.
My biggest, #1 top suggestion is simple: read (and edit) your work over and over and over -- not just in the editor, but in prview mode.
My best work is re-read probably a few dozen times before I publish, and then another dozen or so afterwards.  I'll come back and re-read it again when I see people talking about it, or when I notice it has been mentioned in an external post, just to understand what conclusions people will draw based on the introductory framing.
As you read you will notice things that sound wrong, or phrases that you use too often.  More importantly, once you get a post to the point that you can enjoy reading it again (rather than cringing) -- especially over time -- then you know you have written something good.
You'll notice things that are flowing slowly;  You'll notice sentences that don't add value, or could be stronger;  You'll identify walls of text that need to be broken up;  You will be able to reference yourself and make more consistant points across the piece.  All in all, your work will wind up five times stronger once you know it like the back of your hand.