Kill The Troll: Conquering Writer's Block

©Erik Ian Larsen

I'm a fortunate writer. I have rarely struggled with Writer's Block. Yes, that's a proper noun; a monstrous, world-devouring entity that derails novels, consumes confidence, and renders entire conceptual universes insignificant. Writer's Block is an ugly troll, and for many writers, one whose toll is often too high to pay. You want to cross the fucking bridge, but ... troll!

I'm here to tell you that Writer's Block is a mirage. That troll? Nothing more than a puppet, controlled unwittingly by your own stupid brain. Writer's Block doesn't have to win, if you know how to beat it.

Invention is the true killer of Writer's Block. And while it's easy to say, "Hey, just be more inventive!" and sit back in this leather chair smoking multiple cigars at once whilst reading yachting magazines, being inventive takes a lot of practice. But if you can learn to be inventive, to hoard ideas like one of those old ladies on A&E, you can conquer Writer's Block.

But how do you do that? And more importantly, how do you translate that to your stories? The first step is to open your eyes. Open your ears, open your hands and accept ideas from the world around you. Ideas are fucking everywhere. Seriously. Go for a walk and try not to find something you want to incorporate into a story. A person's face, an eavesdropped conversation, a unique setting. It can actually be overwhelming at times, and if you don't have a good system for capturing those ideas, you constantly feel like you're missing out on something, that you're losing opportunities like the distant flickers of unjarred fireflies. Every day I go to Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, I have that fleeting feeling, like there's too much cool shit going on to really appreciate it all. But there are plenty of fireflies in the world. Our culture is inundated with deep mythic ideas, with deep ideologies that translate so delightfully well into stories, and they're splattered around us waiting to be seen. Our brains are primed to not only tell stories, but to collect fragments floating around for them. If you're struggling to come up with ideas, you're just not paying attention; you're not opening yourself up to absorption.

Go buy a small notebook and keep it on you at all times. Make it a notebook scar. You can't get rid of it, you just have to learn to live with its rigid form in your back pocket or purse. Find a smartphone application that allows you to take notes the way you need to take them. I use Astrid, because it allows me to quickly bang out a line or two about what I'm trying to capture without cluttering things with a billion options for what to do with that idea. It's simple, and while there are more complicated and nutrient-rich applications out there for taking notes, it works for me. I can't afford to slow down the capturing process.

The second step to defeating Writer's Block is to learn to think creatively. When presented with a problem, the first solution isn't always the best. Many writers, myself included, are guilty of feeling the heavy footsteps of Writer's Block creeping up on them and choosing the quickest escape from that troll. But that's not always the right choice. In fact, it usually isn't. Trolls live on bridges, after all. Think about it like this: If you were a painter, and you spilled paint on your half-finished work, you could maybe try to clean it up, or even just throw the canvas away and start over, and you might be able to preserve or recreate your original idea. Those are both easy solutions, and turning it into garbage is certainly quick, but the hardest solution -- trying to adapt and change to the problem; to creatively incorporate that problem into a solution -- is much, much harder. And that's where true creativity can shine through. My mom always used to tell me, as a young artist learning to paint and draw and write, "There are no such things as mistakes, only opportunities."

While most of what she says is complete bollocks, that one really stuck with me.

Creativity is invention. They're parallel concepts to me, and when you can take a step back and come up with multiple solutions to a problem, to give yourself options or to even have a collection of options at the ready from copious notes, observation, and organization, you're going to find a good solution to Writer's Block, not just the fastest one. You know the fastest way to get off a bridge?

Be risky, be bold. Look for the strangeness in our world and in your life and document it. Arm yourself with so many weapons you can barely walk without spilling flails and morning stars and space blasters in front of you. Uniqueness will never be punished, but being cliche will, and while the latter may seem like the quickest route away from Writer's Block, it's not sustainable.

Aperture - China, the future of science fiction

In this edition of APERTURE, we find ourselves in the dichotomous, strange, fantastic world of China, mingling with its people, seeing their successes and struggles, experiencing their lives with only a thin pane of glass separating our lives. The Atlantic's In Focus photo galleries are once again the source for these inspiring photographs, and In Focus recently released two breathtaking essays on China, each one filled with stories yet to be written.

When I read about China or see photo essays like the ones below, science fiction comes rushing to the surface of my brain. There is no country in the world, America included, that stirs such futuristic wonder for me. The Big Brother Communist state, the massive population, unprecedented infrastructure, a burgeoning super military, and a speed of life and production unparalleled in the world makes China a primordial soup of storytelling.

Chinese science fiction is still very much an untapped source of material. Part of that has to do with the censorship of the Chinese state; science fiction often deals with projections or metaphorical realities that shine bright fucking spotlights on the horrors of the modern world. But other than Joss Whedon's nod to China's futuristic influence in the language of the "Firefly" series, as well as a handful of Paolo Bacigalupi's short stories in the incomparable "Pump Six and Other Stories" and much of Ken Liu's short fiction, most science fiction stories trend more toward culturally-neutral (by modern Earth standards) space/future focused societies. It all seems a bit short sighted. The reality is that cultures will continue to develop, Earthly cultures, as our species progresses in space, just as they have for thousands of years already (China, Japan, Egypt, etc.). To ignore the prevalence of existing cultures in forward-thinking science fiction isn't really forward thinking at all, is it?

China: Portrait of a People - Shows the breadth of Chinese culture, from the rural, outcast Tibetans to the colorful-haired Fujian hipsters of modern Fuzhou.

China's Toxic Water - The harsh undercurrent of rapid societal growth. The buildings and cities continue to rise, but the runoff from an exploding population still leaves fatal marks on the less-fortunate of Chinese society.

Looks like it's time for some flash fiction.