Breaking the Block

One thing that really caught me by surprise when I entered the “paid writer” world is often I’ve come face-to-face with a bullying case of writer’s block. I always thought writer’s block was a bit of a cliché, really. Then I learned, quickly I might add, that in college you aren’t producing something every single day. You have weeks before an article is due. You can chew, mull, prob and pull until the putty of your words takes the shape you want.

Even Kurt Vonnegut dealt with writer's block.

Life at a desk job is a bit different. So far, I’ve learned that:

  • Computers aren’t inspiring.
  • The closer your deadline the more your head hurts.
  • Reading your own writing makes you sick.
  • The neurons that travel from your brain to your fingers have died horrible, ghastly deaths.

Face it: writer’s block is a leg cramp for Lance Armstrong or a sore throat for Lady Gaga. It gnaws you up, sucking the marrow and leaving you all meek and doubtful. You need to shake up your routine; find another reason for writing. Creativity doesn’t come from stagnation. Derived from illumination, the only way to break through writer’s block is inspire yourself.

  • Read something you enjoy!
  • Take a pen and a notebook and go for a walk. You’ll be surprised how blinding a computer really is.
  • Have a conversation. Tell someone (or yourself) about the story, in detail. Jot down a few of the things you say and you’ll find that the phrases you create during a conversation are way more engaging.
  • Work on something else. If, like me, you have a plethora of writing, designing and web assignments, just switch over to something different. Give your mind a break.
  • Stream it out. Forget the grammar, punctuation, AP Style… just go for straight to paper. Put your thoughts down, in their chaotic beauty. Let the rambling lead to coherence.
  • Change the scenery. Work in a different part of the office or plug-in some headphones. Do something to alter the environment and refresh your mind.

Nothing, to me, is as frustrating as writer’s block. I can see it wreaking havoc in a well-intentioned story. I gave it the good ol’ college try, but my best just isn’t in it. You can’t, however, hold on to that. You have to accept that you will write a paltry story every once in a while and that’s okay. The world didn’t end. Remember, all pages start out blank.

Page One: A Documentary on ADD

A scene from "Page One," when the names of the Pulitzer Prize winners are called out at The New York Times.
A scene from "Page One," when the names of the Pulitzer Prize winners are called out at The New York Times.

Last night, sitting on my couch, mindlessly munching on cookie dough, I flipped through my newly acquired Netflix live streaming. I’m not a big television watcher, but occasionally I want to soak up some cathode rays like the rest of my hazy-eyed compatriots. Though the pull of “Toddlers & Tiaras” was strong, I ended up making a more (seemingly) mind-enhancing choice: Page One: Inside the New York Times.

I’ll be honest, I started to nod off a bit toward the end. I don’t know what that says about the film or my age, but take that how you will.

The New York Times is, undeniably, a remarkable institution. Since the day it first opened its doors in the mid 1800s, it has pulled in more than 100 Pulitzers, pushed Nixon over the edge with the Pentagon Papers and even had a few scandals of its own (where exactly were those weapons of mass destruction, again?). The documentary was supposed to show how this iconic giant is incorporating new media– Twitter, YouTube, blogging and the Internet in general– into its massive foundation of print journalism. Granted, the film did mention Twitter about half a dozen times, but mostly I learned a lot about David Carr and his coke addiction, as well as how the world will plummet into the ninth circle of Hell if the Times goes under.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the paper. I want to see it survive the online takeover and emerge from its paper cocoon as something timeless, which supports the two most important virtues of journalism:

  • Giving the public unbiased information that they can use to make well-informed decisions about the world around them, and
  • Causing more good than harm.

But that is NOT what the plot summary on Netflix said this documentary was about. I was hoping to discover how this newspaper giant was transitioning into a multimedia giant. I wanted to learn how reporters remain accountable in the age of Twitter. I wanted to see how they meld the worlds between unbiased reporting and opinionated blogging. I wanted to learn how the Times is adapting to the new user interface, which comes along with a new user attention span.

The interviewees talked a lot about the depressing numbers facing print publications during this electronic revolution, but didn’t really talk about innovative ways to keep up. It was interesting, but somewhat alarmist, with no real solution presented. It didn’t really give you an understanding of how the newspaper industry can grow with the digital age, just simply how it struggles.

“Like a shopper at the supermarket without a shopping list, ‘Page One’ careers around the aisles picking up this item and that one, ultimately coming home with three jars of peanut butter and no 2-percent milk,” said Michael Kinsley, in his review of the documentary, oddly enough, in The New York Times.

Profile Blues

In my line of work, I write a lot of profiles. It seems like every time someone writes a check, I write a profile. Profiles can be fun, but they can also be frustrating. I enjoy the creative freedom, but mostly I  enjoy just sitting with a person, getting a feel for his or her character and quirks. A profile should reflect the whole person, warts and all. Often, I am asked to erase some of those warts, which takes a bit of the humanity away from the piece. Sometimes, I am asked to write about a person and, well, it takes a great deal of digging to find a good focus. That’s the trick to profiles, you don’t always have an event to center your piece around. Oh, dig deep enough and you’ll eventually find it, but that luxury isn’t always available on a tight deadline. Here are a few techniques I use to try and add some sauce to a profile, particularly those that need something more potent that salt or pepper:

  • Have a conversation about life, the universe and everything. Don’t just limit your interview questions to “How did you feel when that happened” or “What kind of impact did that have on you?” Ask them about their passions; get them energized about something. You may not get one drop of good material, but you will make your subject more comfortable with you, and that will get them to open up more.
  • Conduct secondary interviews. Talk to their teachers, friends, employers, parents, spouses, children, mechanics, baristas, personal trainers, hair stylists… anyone and everyone you can think of who knows your subject. Secondary interviews can give you great quotes and unexpected insights into your subject.
  • Find a related theme where you can connect their story to your audience’s lives. For example, if you are writing a profile of a master gardener for a home magazine, ask him or her about the toughest plant to grow. If you write for an alumni magazine, ask them which faculty member was their mentor and to describe his or her influence. Ask them about their favorite place on campus. Think about how your subject’s experience can benefit your audience’s lives. Whether they can inspire or provide insight, find that common thread and connect it securely.
  • Get in their habitat. If you are writing a profile for a yoga magazine, go to a class with your subject. If you are writing a profile on an IT guru, spend an afternoon shadowing them at work.

Sometimes a story just doesn’t have the legs you hoped it would, but that doesn’t mean it should be trashed. These are just a few ways that I try to get a profile story to jump off the page. These tips can help you paint a scene, using engaging prose to cover up any lack of content.