Sometimes things happen and writers find themselves up against a wall—the words are on the other side but getting past that wall is impossible. Writer’s Block. Everyone has it at some point. What causes it is almost impossible to pin down—it can be a plot point that doesn’t move, a character that has decided to stop talking, an event that comes out of nowhere and just stops everything dead. So, what to do? First things first, set aside that project for a moment. It will wait patiently while you focus on something else. I promise it will wait for you.
Now, let’s dive into an organic writing practice that’s like free-form jazz. A practice session where musicians come together and each take a turn putting together a piece of music. It’s improvised, it’s in the moment, and each relies on the others to move the melodic line forward. Sometimes they go back and find the song, perfecting it and releasing it. Sometimes they don’t. Most importantly, they just let the music flow from piano to drums, guitar to bass, sax to vocals and back again. Each building and weaving the melody together.
So, what does that mean for us as writers? I think there are times when we need this kind of experience as much as those musicians do. It’s a way to challenge ourselves, a way to create something that is completely unexpected—sometimes even out of our comfort zone.
Here is the exercise: find at least one fellow writer—or if you are part of a writing group two or three or more—and decide, very generally, on a story and characters. For the sake of this blog, we will say our story is about a far off world with three suns and ten moons. It’s a place of war for some, extravagance for others. Each person creates a character and gives them a basic personality that all the other writers know—so they can write that character when their point in the musical odyssey comes up. That's the beginning, very rough outline and equally rough character sketches. Once that is done, set a limit on chapter length—between 1,500 and 3,000 words is good.
Now comes the fun, challenging and scary part.
One person starts the story, building in the world (it doesn’t have to be sci fi or fantasy, it can work as well in a historical novel, a romance or anything else depending on participants and inclination). Their character will begin it all, and they can even bring the other characters into the fray. Remember there is a word length and you will be passing the “melodic line” on to the next player. Cliffhangers are fine, but leave a way out—this is collaborative, not competitive.
This can be far more challenging than it seems on the surface. Most writers like to have complete control over their world and their character(s). Leaning back after you’ve written a chapter and waiting for what comes next is hard. Very hard. Especially when the story takes a turn you weren’t expecting—but that is the whole point. It’s a challenge to let yourself just go with the flow of the story in the same way those jazz musicians go with the flow of the music.
I’ve done this several times. In fact, I am always trying to talk someone into doing this with me. I love the it—well, I love it now. At first it was incredibly hard to just let the story happen. I don’t tend to do very hard outlines in stories, but I generally know where they are going. With this kind of exercise, it is impossible to control that “where”. It’s hard, it’s scary, to hand a character you inevitably end up loving over to someone else, but in the end it’s worth it. You can look at the project you were stuck on with new eyes and maybe a path around that wall of Writer’s Block will be visible. And you might just find that in the meantime you (and your fellows) have created a story you all truly love.
I have been a writing all my life and have been published in newspapers, magazines and books. Recently, I have started working with writers helping them to learn to love their writing, and how we, as writers can learn from musicians and their techniques.