Wromper Wroom for Writers' Block
by Wendy Wheeler
Copyright (c) 1991 Wendy Wheeler
All Rights Reserved
The posters were up everywhere.
"Wromper Wroom for Writers' Block," they said. "Fun & Hi-jinx! Presented by the Austin Writers' League Science Fiction/Fantasy Study Group. Saturday at 1:00 pm." No one attending the ArmadilloCon science fiction/fantasy convention could miss them.
At the appointed hour, somewhere between 25-35 people (a good-sized crowd!) filled the small ballroom and waited expectantly. As coordinator of the study group, I had a brief initial role. First, I gave some background: a little about the League, a little about the three-year history (now over ten years!) of the study group. A blanket invitation to our open meetings on the second/ fourth Tuesdays of the month. I held up a sample of The Austin Writer, of our study group's own newsletter, and of The Slug-Zine, our critique magazine. Then I said, "Let me introduce the two women who'll lead the Wromper Wroom."
I told them how Jennifer Evans wrote the "Writer's Insider" column for the AWL for many years. How during that time she suffered through eight years of writers' block, which was finally conquered through therapy and rigorous self-examination. How since then she'd written four short stories and a science fiction novelette.
Chris Kelly, I told them, is an award-winning writer of short story fiction. Chris also wrote and sold three screenplays. Plus, the editor of a major publishing house asked to read her science fiction novel. "Chris assures us she, too, is thoroughly familiar with writers' block," I said. With that, I sat down, ready to be surprised like the rest of the audience.
"First," Chris and Jennifer said, "let's get a feel for the demographics of the room. We're going to do something called a line sort." Chris stood at one side of the room and Jennifer at the other. The first question was, "How many ArmadilloCons have you been to?" Those who'd attended all ten conventions were to stand with Jennifer. Those who were attending their first one that weekend were to stand with Chris. The rest of us were to line ourselves up somewhere in between.
The audience just sat there for a stunned moment. We weren't used to this. Sitting passively while experts pontificated at us from their podiums, now that we were used to. And here they want us to do something? They want us to move around? We rose wonderingly up from our chairs and positioned ourselves meekly in what turned out to be a lumpy sort of diamond--a thick cluster in the middle that tapered out on either end of the line.
"Now look around," Chris and Jennifer said. "See how you compare to the other people in the room." A moment passed as we checked out the others. "Now the next question is, how much have you written? Those who've written ten stories or more stand with Jennifer, whose who've not written at all stand with Chris." This time, the scrambling and reforming was more energetic. The few folks who stood with me almost at Jennifer's side watched smugly as our less-prolific Wromper Wroom members sorted themselves out.
Next question, "Do you write to teach or do you write for money?" Now we laughed and the jostling grew rowdier. People landed at their self-defined spots truculently, as if daring anyone to disagree with them. "What part of a story is most important, the beginning, the middle or the end?" At this one, brows furrowed and the line sort was slower to form. "Which part of the story is hardest for you to write, the beginning, the middle or the end?" Rueful laughter as people assessed themselves and found their spots. After a few more pithy questions, we had truly gauged ourselves and our fellows.
Then Jennifer and Chris invited us to return to our seats.
"OK, now think of your favorite story idea," said Chris. The audience shrugged and looked around, then someone noticed Jennifer and pointed. Jennifer had her finger to her chin and was looking pensive. "And think of the most important part of that story," continued Chris. At this, we watched as Jennifer nodded and began to set up a table and chair on which to write. "Now write the perfect sentence," said Chris. "It has to be perfect."
Jennifer, pen in hand, bent over her page. She bit her lip a long while.
"...Has to be perfect," Chris said.
Jennifer made a mark, then crumpled her page and got a fresh one.
"Is the checkbook balanced?" asked Chris. "You really ought to see how much money is in there."
Jennifer sighed and rubbed her forehead.
"You're hungry, aren't you?" said Chris. "You probably better eat something. Keep your strength up." She started whistling and doodling on a large flip chart at the side of the room. Jennifer put a hand to her ear as if to shut Chris out.
Finally Jennifer brightened and read aloud as she wrote: "Yolanda awoke on the day she was to wed..."
"The editor of Omni hates characters whose names begin with Y," said Chris.
Jennifer looked at her in consternation. "Mary awoke on the day she was to wed...?" Chris made a face and shook her head. "Mary awoke on her wedding day...?" "On the day of her marriage, Mary woke up in bed...?" "Mary was sleeping and woke up, remembering it was her wedding day...?"
Chris just looked disgusted and said, "This isn't going anywhere. You've got errands to do. Nobody's gonna publish this anyway." Chris gestured to the audience, and we caught on.
"Put it away 'til you've done more research!" someone cried.
"You'll never make money writing!" called someone else.
"You need to stop and clean this filthy house!"
"Get a real job!"
"Oh, just watch some TV!"
Now Jennifer was laughing. "OK, OK," she said. "I get the point. Enough!" We laughed, too, but caught our breath as the deceit of those excuses hit us like a gut punch. "Do I ever do that? No, not me, not all the time..."
So then they explained how we get blocked by putting too much pressure on ourselves, by unreal expectations. Rather than writing "the perfect thing", write anything. You have to write that first thing before you can write the next. And then write for your own delight. Forget about other people and their judgments. Write for fun and because you find it interesting to write. One way to make it interesting is to write about what you're interested in.
"What are y'all interested in?" called Jennifer as Chris stood before a blank page of the flip chart, marker in hand. We tossed words and phrases to the front: Alien languages. Space-faring vehicles. Death and resurrection. Time travel. Expanded mental powers. Finally we had a list of ten, each one of them a forty-carat goldmine. Then three of the phrases were chosen at random. "Combine two or all three of these phrases and then list what ideas come to you," Chris told us. "Just have fun with it; go as far as you want." We all scribbled madly, snickering and guffawing and gasping with surprise. This was fun!
"Now take one of your ideas and write for five minutes. Write a vignette, or a quick outline, or character development. Whatever most appeals to you." At this point, the energy and intensity in the room were almost palpable. Not a single person stared into space, or lolled in their seat sighing. We were all filling pages with words, a sense of mounting excitement building as our stories took shape. And when time was called after five minutes, we groaned as one person in frustration.
"Well, were you doing it?" asked Chris. "Were you writing? You were, weren't you? That's how you unblock yourself. Keep it fun. Keep it interesting."
"How did it feel to be writing?" Jennifer asked. "That's one of the ways I got over my avoidance. I'd debrief myself at the end of each writing session. I'd jot down how long I wrote, what time it was, what it felt like, my attitude at the beginning, during and at the end. I read these later and realized that, all-in-all, it was an enjoyable experience and one I'd like to repeat."
"That's one way to work with yourself," said Chris. "For me, that would be focusing too much on the act. I think sitting down to write is like taking a dive off the high board. Don't think too much about it, just do it. Just do it."
"That's easy for you to say!" cried Jennifer. Again, we all laughed. "That wouldn't have meant a thing to me. Find the whatever works best for you. Whatever it takes to get those words out!" She looked at her watch. "Uh-oh."
The hour was up; the next panel was standing by. The Wromper Wroom had ended too soon for me. I've told several folks about it since then, about the fun, the free 'n easy feeling. But more than that.
I'm looking forward to the next wromp.