Writer's Block Busters: 101 Exercises to Clear the Dead Wood and Make Room for Flights of Fancyby Velina Hasu Houston
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Most writing books are how-to manuals for writing a play or story. Playwright Velina Hasu Houston's new book avoids instruction and instead mentors via writing exercises designed to jump-start the imagination. No matter what your creative writing genre, if you fully invest yourself in these writing exercises, chances are they will either lead you to something that carries your current work to its next phase or take you to entirely new places, providing you with unexpected, fresh material.
Writers, teachers, and actors can benefit from this new book from a twenty-year mentor of playwrights. It can help you wake up your muses, enrich your sensory apparatus, spark a new point of departure for a character or idea, and-clear the deadwood and make room for flights of fancy!
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Read an ExcerptINTRODUCTION
Writer's Block? Rubbish.
You have heard the self-diagnosis ad infinitum: playwrights, screenwriters, prose writers, or poets who think they have writer's block. They say that they are stuck, unable to make progress on their projects because they feel that they have encountered literary quicksand. If you are reading this book, you may be one of those writers who has found yourself at that seeming crisis point. But allow me to put you at ease, to move you beyond myth that can distract your muses: There is no such thing as writer's block.
Believing that writer's block exists and is keeping you from finishing your play, novel, short story, screenplay, or poem is rubbish. It is true that, at times, we writers feel sluggish-deterred by a brilliant summer day or influenza or that what's-it-thingamajig that we have to do right now. Moreover, we are, of course, very human, perhaps even more so than the person next door, so our senses are highly attuned to all the temptations that Mother Nature and our favorite manufacturers have to offer. And there is nothing wrong with following our senses out into the world to investigate life and living, to explore who we are in those contexts, and to consider those with whom we share the world. In fact, they are the wellspring for our imaginations. It is by living and maximizing each opportunity to discover every dimension of life more dynamically that we nourish and provoke our creativity. We live to create-and, for true artists, we create to thrive. We reflect upon and tunnel into the human predicament to mine the resources needed to enrich our imaginations and fill the empty pages. Humanity is our laboratory.When we leave the laboratory and turn to our journals, napkins, or keyboards to use all the stimuli we have absorbed, to let it flow through us and create something-that is the point of perceived creative sluggishness. That is the point at which some complain of writer's block. The coffers of the imagination are full, but the empty page is too daunting. Or so it is said.
The truth is, however, if we truly want to write, we write; and, if we don't, we don't. And won't. Perhaps the latter reality can be viewed as a kind of blockage, the kind that constipates our creativity and makes it hard to concentrate-and certainly to fill the empty page. But let us not think of these things as impediments so enormous that they stop us cold. Let us think of them more as mere stumbling blocks, speed bumps that might get in the way of our literary investigations and goals, but that surely can be surmounted and conquered with a little of the imagination and wherewithal that made us writers in the first place. The idea of being blocked is too finite. It makes it sound as though we need serious medicine just to get through the day, or deep therapy to bear to hold our pens or position our fingers on our keyboards. We have to transform the notion of being blocked to merely needing a bit of help igniting our imaginations. Sometimes, we need a nudge. Just a little prod to trigger the senses and get the proverbial juices flowing.
Creative Writing Cannot Be Taught
(Do You Believe in Ghosts?)
I have been teaching playwriting, adaptation, and screenwriting for over seventeen years. In 1990, I created and founded the Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting program at the University of Southern California School of Theatre; a program that I transformed into the Master of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing in 2004. During those years, I also guest-taught in the Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting program at the University of California at Los Angeles, teaching advanced master classes in screenwriting. Even before my formal university teaching, I often led community workshops in playwriting at sites around the country and in Japan, wherever productions of my plays took me. My professional writing career began in 1982 with an Off-Broadway production and a television writing job. I continue my professional writing career in tandem with my academic position. In these many years, one of the most edifying things I have learned is that creative writing of any kind cannot, in essence, be taught. Either you see ghosts or you don't.
What I mean by that is that individuals either have organic writing ability, voice, vision, powers of observation, and theatricality or they don't. None of those aesthetic gifts can be taught. There is no magic pill, tome, or jackhammer that can inject or pummel those gifts into your mind, soul, or muscle. Of course, a lot of writers today seem to have some kind of magic dusted on the epidermis and get by (commercially) just fine with that, but if you are a genuine literary artist, you know it-and own it-down to the marrow of your bones. Long after all the pop-culture/fast-food theater, film, and television writings are relegated to the last click-on pages of drama/cinematic websites, artists' legacies will continue to resonate-continue to be read, written about, and deconstructed by scholars more than they ever were in the writers' lifetimes. Just consider Euripides, Chikamatsu, Ibsen, Chekhov, or Hansberry.
Now it may seem somewhat peculiar for a writing mentor of twenty-some years to say that creative writing cannot be taught. Rather than being taught-and I'll focus on playwriting for the sake of specificity, but it applies to all genres of creative writing-the art and craft of writing are enriched via mentoring. And, yes, that's a kind of teaching, but not in the vein of teaching, say, the sciences or humanities. "Teaching" playwriting is not like teaching the basic principles of biology or the history of Western civilization (although one might learn a great deal from reading or seeing plays about the principles of biology or about the history of Western civilization).
A mentor can guide the aspiring playwright toward a sincere consciousness of the literature of the field: in the reading of important plays vis-à-vis the nature of the student's aesthetic bent and vision, and in the reading of playwrights whose work may share something of this bent and vision. A mentor also can illuminate the shape of a play, the notions of dramatic structure (traditional and nontraditional), and the notion of taking risks but not going so far that the pile of papers on one's desk no longer remotely resembles a play. A mentor also can guide a student into understanding-and this is germane to shaping-what is important about his or her play: Is it a strong enough protagonist? Is it a challenging enough antagonist? What is the (critical, life-transforming) event of the play? Why is he or she choosing to focus on a certain particular time in the protagonist's life over any other (why now instead of any other time)? Does each scene in the play own conflict, challenges, complications, tensions, and progression, et cetera? Who are the people in the world of the play in terms of origins, desires, history, memories, fears, key experiences? And, above all, why must this play, from the writer's viewpoint, be written? In addition, a mentor can furnish a type of concentration and discipline, for a time.
Writing-to breathe, live, grow, and mature-demands attentiveness, both the investigative meditations of prewriting (those moments when one is working and your loved one interrupts you and says, "Gee, you don't look like you're working") and the magnificent focus of actually writing with pen or keyboard. A mentor can furnish these necessities in the structure of a writer's workshop. A workshop both motivates the student to be prepared with new pages to present and provides a weekly, structured environment in which the focus is entirely on supporting the creation of the play. If the writer is truly meant to be a writer, he or she will absorb these skills and sustain them so that the writer can use them to advance toward mastery of his or her art.
Yes, it is entirely possible that I have forgotten some things as I ruminate upon what can be "taught" with regards to playwriting. Like parenting (I have a son, a daughter, and two stepsons), a large part of writing is based on instincts supported, of course, by whatever natural gifts with which divinity has blessed you. When I mentor my students, the first thing I want to know is why they want to be a playwright. I encourage them to read and to talk about what they read from a writer's point of view. Once they start writing, I want to read and hear what they are writing, both in class and outside class. I want to understand why it is critical to write a particular play. I want to hear their peer considerations of each others' work, too. I want them to learn through service and go out into the community to talk to young people who are interested in writing. I want them to think about the world, to be courageous in what they choose to tackle in their writing, to test the boundaries, to turn over every stone.
Teaching playwriting is never an assembly line. Nothing and no one that comes into my workshop is the least bit the same. There are no similar aesthetic visions, even if they happen to be tackling the same subject. Therefore, my approach to them isn't the same; it can't be. I have to consider their natural, distinct gifts along with what I am genuinely able to provide them with as their mentor and the unique ways that they process that mentoring. One may be a lyrical writer. Another may be a highly conventional writer. Another may be a nontraditionalist who plays with language, form, or both. God bless each and every one of them. For three years, I have the privilege of sharing in their literary journeys, and if I am fortunate, they do not disappear. Those who are in it for the long haul reappear over the years. Some never lose touch. It was and is that way for me with my mentors. Because, at the heart of it, writers are a family in and of themselves-a family of visionaries consumed to the gills with utter lunacy. That is the nature of the beast.
To Own a Boat Like This Costs an Eye from Your Head
In May 2002, I read the current issue of the National Geographic and came upon an article by Erla Zwingle about a riverboat captain and his life on the River Po. That article summed up why I write and the way that I think about the writer's life of the mind. The article described the shifting river bottom that reflected on a sonar screen at which the captain barely glanced. He didn't need to. "This is a river that requires experience," he explained. "First you learn it by eye. If you don't know what you're looking at, all this radar and sonar doesn't mean a thing." He can feel and sense it; he does not need to use technology to come to grips with his life's work.
This spoke to me about the notion of learning to be a playwright and the craft of playwriting. All the mentoring in the world means nothing if the natural instincts aren't flowing in your veins already. Your "eye" guides you, never mind the advent of new technology that allows you to process words faster. None of that technology makes a difference with regard to creative vigor if you don't already have a sense of the terrain of the river, the currents, possible sites for stones, where the snakes are, et cetera. The experience will come as you navigate the river over and over again. With the writing of each new play, you will learn something new. Your perspective and sensory apparatus will become enriched. Suddenly, you understand that being at the computer is not what truly helps you write the play. It is you. It has to be you.
What People are saying about this
Houston's book is an invaluable bag of tools for the writer, urging us to dig more deeply into our imaginations. I would recommend this book to any student of dramatic writing. Bravo! -Janet Neipris, playwright and director of Graduate Studies, Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University Houston neither teaches nor proscribes, she mentors-lovingly, thoughtfully, and passionately. Houston asks questions and shares insights that open and unleash rather than shape and constrain. This book is a gift to writers of all genres."--(Jamil Khoury, founding artistic director, Silk Road Theatre Project, Chicago)
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