I have a new short story up at Danforth Review called "The Job Interview: A Murder".
Today in my series on poetry prompts and exercises, I'm featuring writer Kathryn Mockler. She teaches creative writing, poetry, and screenwriting at Western University, and runs private workshops through her new online writing school Mockler’s Writing Workshop. She has had six short films produced and is the author of the poetry books The Purpose Pitch(Mansfield Press), The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books) and Onion Man (Tightrope Books). Currently, she is the Toronto Editor of Joyland and Publisher/Founder of The Rusty Toque.
What do you do when you’re stuck, when the writing is not coming readily, or maybe not at all? Or perhaps you only have a limited block of time in which to write and you want to dive in but you aren’t sure where to begin? What do you do to get started?
When I first started writing, I used to get really stressed out if I couldn’t think of anything to write. I would beat myself up and fret and go blank. It was horrible. But over the years, I have learned that those moments, which seem like they are not productive because I’m not actually writing anything, are just part of the process. I’d like to say the fear goes away, but it doesn’t. Writing anything new or anything I am stuck on always makes me feel like I’m jumping off a cliff. I’ve just learned how to cope with it better.
I’m in a situation right now where my husband, David Poolman, and I are collaborating on a book. I’m writing poems and little fictions and he’s doing the artwork. The deadline is in a couple of months for an art opening. I would be lying if I said this didn’t make me a little tense. But rather than freak out like I used to, I will try following some of these strategies:
a) Daily freewriting or journaling: When I’m feeling blocked, I write for a set period of time (ideally in the morning) where I don’t think about what I’m writing, and I don’t criticize it. I just write for 15 to 30-minute blocks. This is not meant to produce good work but rather to clear my mind. Often in the clearing of my mind, I get ideas but not always. Sometimes I just vent or rant. This process always makes me more productive later in the day.
b) Reading: Before I set down to write a poem or story, I read poetry or short fiction. I don’t necessarily read the kind of work that I am writing, but I read something that I think will get me excited about writing.
c) Collaborating: Working with a friend can help get ideas flowing. This past summer, poet and novelist, Gary Barwin and I did a back and forth collaboration where we used titles and/or words or phrases from each other’s poems to write new poems. Sometimes the poems connected and sometimes they didn’t, but it was a great way to generate work. Having the pressure of someone waiting for me to write my poem, helps me get over a block because it’s not just about me anymore.
d) Prompts: See next question below.
e) Meditation: If I meditate, I find that I can get myself into a writing zone especially when I’m feeling edgy or unproductive. It can help me focus and get rid of negative thoughts. So much of the writing process (for me anyway) has to do with managing both negative self-criticism and ego. If I didn’t have the ego, it wouldn’t matter to me whether I produced something good or not, and I likely wouldn’t be so critical. Meditation gets me out of this loop and helps me just focus on the writing without evaluating it. I use a free app called Stop, Breathe & Think.
f) Napping: Napping is key to my writing process and getting unblocked. When I first started writing I noticed that when I sat down to write, I always felt sleepy. I used to think I was lazy, but then I discovered that giving into the sleepy feeling rather than fighting it, helps my writing process. If I’m stuck on something, I’ll let myself have a 20-minute snooze. I bring my notebook to the bed or couch with me, and I think about what I’m struggling with. Inevitability while I’m in this half-asleep, half-awake state, ideas start to form.
g) Experimental Techniques: In addition to writing narrative poetry and fiction, I’m also interested in experimental writing. Generating work from found texts, constraints, transcription, rearrangement, erasure, redaction, etc. can produce interesting works, but also these techniques can serve as starting points for all of my projects. If I’m feeling resistant to writing and I’m working on a story, I might play around with some Google searches or try to write something using a found text before I begin. There is something about experimental techniques that get my brain going. It might have something to do with the fact that the content is often external and the writer’s role in the process is that of editor rather than content generator which can take the pressure off.
h) Crossword Puzzles: I’m terrible at crossword puzzles, but it doesn’t matter. Just mulling over the clue, exercises my brain which is always good for a productive writing session.
Read More on Open Book
I'm thrilled to be hosting the Write Now! Speaker Series which is both a university class and a public reading series at Western University in London, Ontario.
Each week we invite a writer to read their work and answer questions about their process!
Cecily Nicholson is the author of Triage (2011) and From the Poplars (2014), winner of the 2015 Dorothy Livesay prize for poetry, both with Talonbooks. She is administrator of the artist-run centre, Gallery Gachet and has worked since 2000 in the downtown eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver. Her work, both creative and social, is often in collaboration with artists and educators. She facilitates the Surrey Teacher’s Association, Teachers Writing Group and is appointed to the Ethics Research Board for Emily Carr University. She has held residencies at: Thompson Rivers University, University of British Columbia Okanagan, University of Northern BC, the University of Windsor and Queens University.
Margaret Christakos is a widely known Canadian poet, fiction writer and writing mentor. She has published nine collections of poetry about the body, memory, relationship, social hope and public speech— including Multitudes (Coach House, 2013), Welling (Scrivener, 2010, a Globe100 book), What Stirs (Coach House, 2008, a Lowther Memorial Award nominee), Sooner (Coach House, 2005, a Lowther nominee), and Excessive Love Prostheses (Coach House, 2002, winner of a ReLit Award) — as well as a Trillium-nominated novel, Charisma (Pedlar, 2000). She has taught creative writing in association with University of Toronto, the Guelph-Humber MFA in Creative Writing program, and OCAD University. A new book of creative non-fiction, Her Paraphernalia: On Motherlines, Sex/Blood/Loss & Selfies, was published in Spring 2016 by BookThug. She is Writer in Residence this year at the University of Western Ontario and the LPL. Originally from Sudbury, Ontario, she lives in Toronto with her three young-adult children.
Victoria Weibe is the author of numerous poems and three novels. Wiebe has been published in Occasus, Teen Ink and Creative Communications. She served as president of the Creative Writing Club and editor-in-chief of Nom de Plume literary journal for 2014-2015 and is the 2016-2017 Student Writer-in-Residence.
Monica Kidd is a writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Her most recent book is a collection of poetry, called The Year of Our Beautiful Exile (Gaspereau Press, 2015). She has won many awards for her journalism and essays, and writes with a “painterly eye.” She lives in Calgary, where she works as a family physician and tends to her young family.
Renuka Jeyapalan is a Toronto-based writer/director and a graduate of the Canadian Film Centre’s Director’s Lab. Her short film Big Girl premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival where it was awarded the Best Short Film Award. Since then, Big Girl has screened at over thirty-five film festivals around the world—including the Berlin International Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival and the San Francisco International Film Festival—and was nominated for a 2007 Genie Award for Best Live Action Short Film. In 2010, Renuka was awarded the Kodak New Vision Mentorship Award by Women in Film and Television-Toronto and was mentored by director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Thirteen). In 2013, Renuka wrote and directed the short film Arranged for TMN, Movie Central, and the Harold Greenberg Fund. She has recently directed web content for CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries, episodes of the kids TV show Playdate for Sinking Ship Entertainment and has completed her third short film, A Bicycle Lesson. Currently, she is developing her feature film projects: How to go to a Wedding Alone and Sex with the Perfect Stranger. Renuka has an Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry from the University of Toronto.
Fred Wah, Order of Canada, was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan in 1939 but grew up in the Kootenays in southeast British Columbia. He has published since the early 1960s and is a former Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Recent books are Diamond Grill, a biofiction (NeWest Press, 1996); Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity, a collection of essays (NeWest, 2000); and two collections of poetry, Sentenced to Light (Talonbooks, 2008) and is a door (Talonbooks, 2009). In 2015 Talonbooks published Scree: The Collected Earlier Poems, 1962-1991.
Don McKay has published numerous books of poetry and several books of essays. The poetry has been recognized with a number of awards, including two Governor General’s Awards and the Griffin Poetry Prize. His most recent book of essays,The Shell of the Tortoise, received the Winterset Prize for Excellence in Newfoundland and Labrador Writing for 2011.Paradoxides, his most recent book of poems, winner of the E.J. Pratt Prize for Poetry, includes meditations on geology and deep time, while pursuing ongoing obsessions with birds and tools. Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems was published by icehouse poetry, an imprint of Goose Lane Editions, in 2014.Don McKay lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Daniel MacIvor is a playwright/actor/director who is originally from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and divides his time between Halifax and Toronto. He has written numerous award-winning theatre productions including See Bob Run, Communion, Marion Bridge and His Greatness and with Daniel Brooks created the solo shows House, Here Lies Henry, Monster, Cul-de-sac and This Is What Happens Next. Daniel received the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama for his collection of plays I Still Love You and he was awarded the Siminovitch Prize for Theatre. He is also the recipient of the New York Obie Award and a GLAAD Award. Most recently he wrote the screenplay for Bruce McDonald’s “Weirdos” that had its world premiere this year at TIFF. He is currently touring the solo show Who Killed Spalding Gray? and is working on the libretto for Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company. In development is a new touring show The Myth of Authenticity for reWork Productions.
Kate Taylor is an award-winning novelist and an arts columnist at The Globe and Mail. Her debut novel, Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, was a national bestseller, winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Canada-Caribbean region), the City of Toronto Book Award and the Canadian Jewish Book Award. Her second novel, A Man in Uniform, was shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association's Evergreen Award. She lives in Toronto with her husband and son.
Armand Garnet Ruffo is a writer and scholar who draws on his Ojibway heritage for his work. Born in Chapleau, northern Ontario, his roots extend to the Sagamok Ojibway First Nation and the Chapleau Fox Lake Cree First Nation. He is recognized as one of the earliest contributors to both contemporary Indigenous literature and Indigenous literary criticism in Canada. In 2016 he co-edited Introduction to Indigenous Literary Criticism (Broadview Press). In 2015 he published The Thunderbird Poems, based on the paintings of the acclaimed Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau (Harbour), and that same year his creative biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird (Douglas & McIntyre) was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award. He is the Queen’s National Scholar in Indigenous Literature at Queen’s University, Kingston.
Ian Williams is the author of Personals, shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award; Not Anyone's Anything, winner of the 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best first collection of short fiction in Canada; andYou Know Who You Are, a finalist for the ReLit Prize for poetry. He was named as one of ten Canadian writers to watch by CBC. Visit www.ianwilliams.ca.
Evan Munday is the author and illustrator of the acclaimed series of novels for young adults, The Dead Kid Detective Agency (ECW Press). The first two books in the series were both nominated for the Silver Birch Award. The third, Loyalist to a Fault, got a thumbs-up from his mother. He was the publicist at Toronto-based literary press, Coach House Books, for eight years, currently works as the interim director for The Word on The Street Toronto, and once tied for second place in a Gilmore Girls trivia night.
Writing tips, prompts, and resources.