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✍️ How to Write Bad Words
or, Breaking Writer’s Block by Writing
Maya Angelou was one of the best and most respected writers of our time. She wrote classics such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that delves into the racism and trauma she experienced growing up. Besides being a poet, memoirist, and writer in several other mediums, Angelou was a vocal civil rights activist.
She also had a straightforward approach to writer’s block: just keep writing.
"What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks, 'The cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.' And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try," said Angelou. "When I'm writing, I write. And then it's as if the muse is convinced that I'm serious and says, 'Okay. Okay. I'll come.'"
This may seem like counterintuitive advice at first – if you can’t write, write. But as we saw in the last post, “Why We Struggle with Writer’s Block”, even though the roots of writer’s block are psychological, the best way to get your creativity back is to be creative.
I don’t have a lot of context for her quote, and I won’t pretend to be an Angelou scholar. But everything I’ve read about her or seen in documentaries says to me that she was the kind of woman who, like many who come from hard-working families, just got on with things. You don’t complain, you don’t take decades off. You sit down and write “cat on a mat not a rat” until the pump is primed and the words start flowing again.
But this approach is deceptively difficult. That’s because it’s easy to say you’ll write a string of bad words until your Muse shows up. After a few minutes though, it can get wearing – never mind after Angelou’s two weeks. Worse, you can actually be more susceptible to fears and doubts creeping in.
Bad Words Can Be Good for You
Like many things in these pages, writing badly can be easier said than done. You can quickly slip into that same negative feedback you’re trying to avoid: my writing is no good. I’ll never compare to [insert name of favourite writer here]. What’s the use of trying? So we need to be aware of that and plan for it. Otherwise, we can get more demotivated, uninspired, and disillusioned than when we started.
That’s why I think first on the list is:
Get in a Good Mindset.
Read Angelou’s quote again above. “What I do is write. It might be awful stuff. But I try.” So realizing that what you are writing is crap from the start may prevent you from getting disheartened. The real accomplishment is in the trying. One writer friend of mine wrote really, really bad poetry when things weren’t going well – he filled a whole notebook and maybe more. This might be helpful for you too: if you make a game out of trying to write the worst poetry in the universe, then you can’t lose. Either it will be bad, and you’ve succeeded, or it will be good, and you’ve succeeded at breaking your writer’s block. Congrats!
Be Ready to Write Something Completely Different.
I don’t know about you, but reading Angelou’s cat/mat/rat reminded me of Dr. Seuss. Now, he might not have the writing style that you typically shoot for. But if you find yourself headed down that or any other rabbit hole, keep writing. Exploring new ways to write can be invigorating in itself. One of the best poems I wrote is one in which I was trying to emulate the style of e.e. cummings. Also not a style I usually go for (I don’t really write much poetry in any case), but concentrating on the mechanics of writing in his style somehow freed up my creative mind to do its own thing. Sometimes, that’s all your creative mind needs: to be left alone to its own devices.
Pick Any Stupid Topic and Start Writing.
If you want to stick to prose, one good way to “write nothing” is to write about something you already know about. This could be a historical account of Caesar, how to plant rhododendrons, or your thoughts on a piece of news you read this morning. If you’re remembering back to something you’ve already read, try to write it word for word from memory.
Try a Writing Prompt.
There are literally thousands of writing prompts on the Internet. Even if you’ve shunned them in the past, now might be a great time to try it out anyway, just as a way to get the juices flowing again. One allows you to generate random words, and you can try to write something from there. Another (probably several) feed you the first line, and you write from there. Like the e.e. cummings trick above, this forces your logical mind to focus on the parameters of the exercise so that your creative mind can be left alone to play.
Up the Stakes.
Squibler has what it calls The Most Dangerous Writing App. Essentially, it is a blank page with either a prompt or no prompt, and you have to just keep writing. If you stop, the words start to blur, reminding you to keep going. If you stop for too long, it erases everything you wrote and you have to start again. Make it to five minutes, and you can save your work. It’s a surprisingly effective way to keep your fingers moving, even if what’s coming out is garbage!
Write It and Rip It.
After scheduling this post, I watched Rebel in the Rye, a fictionalized movie about JD Salinger. In it, he seeks out a yogi to still his mind. It’s so bad, he can’t write. One day he has a breakthrough – he finally writes a page. But it’s garbage, he says, so he ripped it up.
“Did you enjoy it?” the Yogi asks.
“No – ripping it up.”
After a moment, Salinger replies, “Yes. Yes I did.”
The yogi smiled.
A montage follows of Salinger writing and ripping until one moment when he looks at the page. He carefully puts it down next to the typewriter, smooths it out, and inserts a new, fresh leaf.
Ladies and Gentlemen, As Promised, Graham Greene
This post took a left turn in later drafts, so the promise in my last post that Graham Greene would figure into this post got put to the wayside when I found Angelou’s quotes. If you’d like to pull over at that lay-by for a moment… here’s the quote from him from the New Yorker article:
“I was working one day for a poetry competition and had written one line—‘Beauty makes crime noble’—when I was interrupted by a criticism flung at me from behind by T.S. Eliot. ‘What does that mean? How can crime be noble?’ He had, I noticed, grown a moustache.”
How much more earth-shattering could this be? Imagine Shakespeare tut-tutting over your shoulder as you wrote a sonnet. It doesn’t take Freud to read into that dream. As we discussed in “In GOAT Wars, Every Writer Loses”, we all do it from time to time, unhealthy as it is. But the faster you can ignore all that and get on with it, the faster your creativity will come back.
Key Takeaway: Although it’s counterintuitive, one of the best ways to overcome writer’s block is to write – even if it’s garbage. For Angelou, it means proving to your Muse that you’re ready, and convincing your Muse to get on board, too. Be prepared for bad words. But if you approach it the right way, those bad words can become a badge of honour as you prime the pump and work your way back to your ol’ creative self.
Over to You – Can You Write Bad Words?
What do you do when you can’t write? Do you try to write anyway? What are the results? Let us know in the comments!
I leave you with a video on Maya Angelou’s take on the creative process in writing, below.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon! (And now we know why…!)
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