I mentioned Rob Carney before when he was gracious enough to share a writing exercise with us a couple months back. Let me expand on what I said there.
Rob Carney is an astounding poet and a professor at Utah Valley University. When Carney’s class was recommended to me, it came with one of the strangest testimonials I’ve heard: That the class didn’t feel like learning but playing. Nevertheless, after the class was done, it was clear that students had improved their craft.
I had the chance to take this poetry class from Carney, to take another class on dystopian fiction, to read his work, and to see him perform in the local slam poetry scene. And now, I’ve also had the chance to interview him. Thanks again, Rob, for agreeing to this.
Now, let’s launch into my questions and his responses.
Rob Blair: For those unacquainted with your work, how would you describe yourself? What style and thematic qualities would you say define your body of work?
Rob Carney: This might be an oddball way to answer, but I’m going to do it anyway. Sometimes I’ve started readings by saying something along the lines of “I’ll start with a poem that tells you a little bit about myself,” and the poem is this:
The Person You Love Is 72.8% Water
I don’t know if I’m going to hell,
but I like toast for breakfast,
and I can eat breakfast
any time of day.
A woman’s slender arms
make me wish I was a painter.
Cats belong in every bookstore. They’ll make the words
seep deeper in your bones.
If God and I were on a rocky beach,
we’d search out perfect skipping stones.
I’d tell Him my favorite miracle:
water into wine.
My favorite mood is Angry. That’s a lie.
My favorite sin is lying. That’s not true,
but it dresses up the story
like a good storm dresses up the sky,
like fire and fiddles take wood and make it speak.
I know, I know—water isn’t wine.
But at night, when someone’s thirsty,
you can bring it, cold as heaven. They can drink.
RB: If someone has never read your work, do you have a recommendation on where they should start?
So you’re struggling with writer’s block. Here’s the good news: You’re not alone. Great writers throughout history have had staring contests with blank pages. Here’s the better news: If you use the right strategies, writer’s block can be overcome. This article will teach you four simple strategies for kicking writer’s block in the teeth.
1. Write garbage.
Writer’s block happens when the complex and sensitive neurological process of creativity gets disrupted, typically by stress and fear. One way to overcome that anxiety is to dive into the work by writing as much garbage as you possibly can.
In other words, get writing in your project, regardless of how awful, useless, or nonsensical that writing is. This is useful even if all you do is spew words onto the page that you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, you will delete later. The point isn’t necessarily to find the right words but to get yourself writing. You’ll be surprised how quickly this breaks down anxiety and gets you to a place where writing feels natural again.
I recently had the chance to watch a video from Stanford’s MediaX program that explored a scientific study on how, why, and which stories impact us. The video itself is rather lengthy and a bit rambly (and uses Comic Sans in its presentation), so I wanted to save you the trouble of viewing the presentation itself and pass along the key takeaways—as well as make some of my own commentary. Let’s get to it!
1: Stories Are Deeply Rooted in Our Species
According to the research gathered and conducted by Kendall Haven and his team, stories are deeply rooted in human neurology and psychology, going back further than 150,000 years. As Haven puts it, “We’re hardwired for stories.” The notion here is that the transmission of knowledge, wisdom, identity, and beliefs was substantially aided by the structure of a story. As an increasingly social group, early homo sapiens were able to make use of story for both social and survival functions.
2: “Storification” Is Pre-Conscious Behavior
When we take in information, it isn’t our conscious mind that transforms that information into a narrative structure. Rather, when knowledge is communicated, the brain transforms it into a story before it ever hits the conscious mind. This “storification” process happens to almost all knowledge that is transmitted to us, and it happens through what Haven describes as a “neural story net.” That neural story net is a sub-region of the brain that helps us make sense of incoming data, and re-structuring fact into narrative seems to be one of its primary functions.
Why do we, as writers, procrastinate so damn much? Why do so many of us depend on caffeine, cigarettes, and other stimulants? And why are alcohol and other mind-altering drugs so often used as creative crutches? These questions don’t have definitive answers, but a look at the neurological element can give us some insights into some of these less-than-ideal patterns.
One of the greatest struggles for any would-be writer is finding the time, space, and — most importantly — motivation to actually write. To be sure, figuring out how to produce creative work consistently has been one of my own challenges. Over the years, I’ve come to a number of effective solutions.
In this article I’m going to make use of two pieces of my experience: what my studies of motivational psychology have taught me in relation to goal-setting and what’s worked well for me thus far. And with a current output of about 20 pages — or 5000 words — per week, things are certainly going well by my standards.
So, as you set your writing resolutions for 2017 and beyond, here is my advice.