Thursday, November 08, 2007

Brainstorming, Barnstorming, and Breaking through the Block

Writer's Block. Like carpal tunnel, another malady of those who make their living with the pen, but worse; a severe constipation of the brain. There are times when the page stares blankly at me, mocking me. But usually my block is more along the lines of I know what I want to say - I can see and hear the entire scene in my head - but I can't find the words to describe it. That sort of resistance is easy to fix: exercise the right brain with rock-and-roll or a sweeping symphony, go for a run through crunchy, ochre-colored leaves, peruse the local Mona Lisas hanging in galleries, or pull out the watercolors and just do it. Myself, I withdraw to making tiny glass beads, little universes of Murano glass twisted and twirled in the heat of my torch, interspersed with slivers and gobs of silver wire and leaf.

But what happens when the ideas simply do not generate? When you, the writer, face a well sucked dried from a drought of inspiration? Brainstorming is one approach. The idea behind the concept is to generate ideas in an environment of suspended judgement. in other words, the right brain pontificates without that left interrupting. In a group situation, the ground rules for brainstorming are simple:

1/ avoid criticizing ideas.
2/ the more the merrier - the emphasis is on quantity, not necessarily quality (sort of like NANOWRIMO, now in full swing).
3/ be free-wheeling. No censoring here, simply spout.
4/ listen to other ideas and jump on their band-wagon.
5/ avoid any discussion of ideas or questions.

Now brainstorming is a Jim-dandy approach for folks who work in groups, but we writers are often a solitary, curmudgeonly bunch. We work... alone. So how to generate ideas whilst sitting holed up in our unheated cabins in the furthest reaches of rural-dom?

My friend Jimmy reminded me of the OBLIQUE STRATEGIES card deck created by Brian Eno, musician and producer extraordinaire, and his friend and collaborator, painter Peter Schmidt. Back in my college days, Dave, a fabu guitar player, turned me on to all things Eno, including introducing me to his OS deck, which he himself used to generate song lyrics. Eno and Schmidt intended the cards to help them get into the creative ways of thinking that they found increasingly difficult to attain. In other words, Oblique Strategies helps to jog the mind to new thoughts and ideas. Voila - creativity!

So what's in a deck? Depends upon what edition - there are five of them. And the format; the 'hard' decks contain words, phrases, and questions, and some editions were illustrated. There are on-line versions as well, using the same texts created by Eno and Schmidt but featuring art by others. The first OS said "Honor thy error as a hidden intention" (What a great philosophy). Other sayings:

State the problem in words as clearly as possible

Try faking it

What to increase? what to reduce?

Only one element of each kind

To get your creative juices flowing, head over to Brain Eno's random OS generator (and check out the very cool site, too).

And Elizabeth Friedman has figured out how to generate random haiku based on OS cards (but this is cheating the creative process, no?)

In other words, a provocative writing prompt. And fun.

How do you generate ideas for your writing and other artistic endeavors?

Hope this keeps your mind in the flow... Peace, Linda


  1. Good morning, Linda.

    I enjoyed your brainstorming entry. Personally, I use a method I found in either WD or The Writer. It's a fairly painless process: randomly select ten words from the dictionary and then let the brain try to fit the words together into a coherent picture. Several of my short stories have been developed using this little trick.

    Thank you for sharing yours. I'll have to check out the site.

    -- Stephen

  2. Hey Stephen- Thanks for dropping in leftbrainwrite. I'll try your technique - I do a similar exercise (using my thesaurus) when trying to write poetry. There, I simply flip open a page and look at the index word on the right header. Gotten some interesting haikus that way. Keep on writing, friend, and peace...

  3. Yes, but where are the cards that have the words to my next book already printed on them?

    Hmmm, this might be part of the problem...

  4. Hey, Sarah, now that would be cool! I think that's called ghsot-writing... sorry, kiddo, the deck can generate the inspiration, but YOU gotta put the feet under it... Peace, Linda