Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Jamie Cat Callan: When the Going Gets Rough

Here's a Thanksgiving treat that won't put on a pound and could lift the weight from your literary shoulders now and again! We promise not to tease you any longer about any guest starting this week, and yes, we are posting her a day early so you can enjoy and ponder her response as you hit the road or the kitchen.

Jamie Cat Callan is a writer and writing teacher extraordinaire. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column, to The Missouri Review, to UCLA Magazine. Awards include the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, the Goldwyn Award in Screenwriting, two First Prizes in the Writers Digest Fiction Competition, a Bread Loaf Writing Conference Fellowship, and several residencies. Her March 2009 release entitled French Women Don't Sleep Alone: Pleasurable Secrets to Finding Love will be her second book on love and romance; she is author of the YA novel Just Too Cool, and she is spending time in Los Angeles these days researching a novel based on adventures she had as a script girl for Meg Ryan.

We invited Jamie to take a question of interest to all writers, whether on our first, fifth or fiftieth manuscript, because in Jamie's spare time she is the author of The Writers Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for the "Write" Side of Your Brain, and has taught this right-brain approach not only at Boston's Grub Street, but at Yale University, Wesleyan University, NYU, UCLA, to name a few.

Q: I'm facing a terrible writer's block. Threads head into dead ends I can't get out of and characters don't act or speak the way they should, no matter what I do to force them back toward my outline (which seemed right when I started). What tactics can you suggest to keep things flowing and get back on track?

A) I believe each individual writer possesses a kind of gold--an individual voice and style that is so unique, no one else can replicate it. Sometimes it's hidden in that deep place within that is bound up in love and tears and confusion and joy and secrets. As a writing instructor, I see it as my job to help you find that core--that heart center--where good, strong writing flows. To do this, I use "right brain" technique. I bring games and laughter and even a kind of creative irrationality into the classroom, so that you feel safe to take risks and to jump into that deep pool--where you will find your own gold--your own truth. So when the going gets rough:

1. Leave off the writing each day at a place where you'll be excited to go back. Don't completely "scratch that itch," so that you'll have something to look forward to the next day.

2. Throw scraps of interesting sentences, pictures and even discarded passages from other work in a box next to your desk. When you hit a wall, reach into the box and just go with whatever you get. Use the power of the right side of your brain, that part that's intuitive, nonlinear and slightly wacky, kind of like your third cousin--the one with the sequin eyeglasses and the bright red beehive. It's the opposite of the left brain--that's the more analytical and critical part--perhaps your mother's voice in your head asking you what makes you think you could be a writer.

3. Go for a walk. Actually, Dorothea Brande in her landmark writing book "Becoming a Writer" suggests that any rhymic, repetitive, nonverbal activity will get the juices flowing. When I worked for Meg Ryan and someone asked me to xerox an entire book (a bound book--so it would take hours)--I welcomed it has an opportunity to think and take notes on my own book.

4. Don't ever let the "paint get dry." By that I mean, don't spend too long away from your project. Otherwise, it's harder to re-enter the dream of the narrative.

5. And to continue the metaphor, try "throwing some paint" on the wall. See what sticks. Embrace your wacky-inner-child self. How do I "throw paint on the wall"? First off, I always approach my work as if I'm just going to fool around. I make no demands on myself. If I'm stuck, I like to go out and eavesdrop and use "found dialogue" the way visual artists use found objects to make sculpture. It's amazing how you can get inspired just by standing in line at the CVS prescription line!

6. Hook up with writer friends who will encourage you, give you a deadline, suggest agents, etc. and give you a good boot in the pants, when necessary.

The going is always rough. I think that's just the way it is, and I think that's why we write.


Anonymous said...

Good advice. I might also add, toss out that outline. At least for now. If there's a character not acting right, interview him or her. Why are you acting this way? They just might tell you. I let my characters have conversations with each other or with me when I hit a snag. They come up with the most amazing stuff sometimes. If you know your characters well, something will feel right. If you don't, this is a good way to get to know them.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Tess Gerritsen says much the same thing. According to an interview in Writer, done by the wonderful Hallie Ephron, Gerritsen says the hardest work she does is "flat on my back, just juggling and re-juggling possibilities, trying ideas until I find one that makes the plot work." The characters know best, and if you don't listen to them, you miss the real story, don't you? I love the idea of sitting with a cup of tea and letting them talk it out in my head instead of my trying to reason it for them.


Anonymous said...

She is definitely one of my idols as a writer. Additionally i hope to meet her one day i've seen her on a few talk shows and read everything she has ever written and she sounds like an incredible woman!
writer's block is a big problem for us writers. I usually listen to a song that suits the mood of what im writing or i read a great piece of poetry that inspires me.
Her writing inspires me to be a better writer. I think that's wonderful advice.
Thank you for posting this i really enjoyed this article mostly because you write a killer article and also due to the fact that she is my idol!

Thanks again,

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