Not everything needs to be a matter of life and death, but death is such an enormous part of life that we can’t long avoid it in our writing. You might want to use this worksheet as part of your shadow work, for worldbuilding, or for personal reflection.
Every day I receive emails from writers bemoaning the fact that they’re stuck, they have “writer’s block“, they’ve lost interest in their current work in progress and have started a new project – on which, if they only knew it, they are about to get just as stuck…
Sometimes they give me all of the details of their story world or their “real” world (or both) and expect me to solve the problem for them!
Are you writing a story where a character realises that the power was inside them all along? Why are you looking for answers elsewhere?
If you’re looking for other writers to solve your problems (especially an amateur like myself), you’re missing out on so much fun. How many shifts in perspective, how many wild epiphanies, how many life-changing lessons are passing you by as you try to rid yourself of a problem that is your greatest gift…
Writing is a process of gaining clarity.
As you write, you are putting your thoughts in order, sifting, weighing, choosing, rearranging… From the level of the meta-story down to the use of a single letter, you’re working to refine and clarify your message. Often you realise that what was clear and simple in your mind becomes a mess when you try to put it down on paper to share it with others (or with your future self). This might be because…
Your thoughts weren’t as well-defined as you thought they were, especially as you descend into deeper detail.
You have difficulty translating the boundless pre-verbal, often strongly visual goings-on of your mind into the limited vocabulary and syntax of a natural language.
These are beautiful problems to have. They’re the problems that have fuelled writing and storytelling for millennia. They’re the stuff of art.
Do you truly believe that a writer’s work is only the putting down of words?
Of course not. No writer has completed a work without finding problems, creating problems, and solving problems. And the bigger the problems they attempt (and perhaps succeed) in tackling, the more we tend to admire them.
To try to devolve your writing problems onto another is to deny yourself the most essential part of your craft.
To try to avoid solving problems instead of grappling with them eagerly is to deny yourself the insights that will not only make you a better writer, but that will make you a better person.
To shun problem solving is to reject the gifts of your unconscious, to turn a cold shoulder to your muse, and to stifle your creative instincts.
Let’s say your pencil is a magic wand.
You wave it and say the magic word and voilà, there is your novel, written, proofed, printed and bound.
You wave it again and there is the second novel in the series.
And the third.
And the fourth.
Is that really what you want? Because if it is, then all you need do is hire a ghostwriter!
I’m not suggesting that you don’t have the power to create novels out of thin air – of course you do! But perhaps you don’t want to miss out on the fun of creating them…
Remember that you created your problem.
In your “real” world life, it can be difficult to accept responsibility for having created a problem, but when you’re dealing with a problem in your story, it’s fairly easy to agree to the fact that the problem is of your own making – after all, you set the parameters of the story world; the problems simply weren’t there before you arrived.
Perhaps that’s why we enjoy stories in the first place – they allow us a virtual space, safe from the vicissitudes of reality, where we can have fun creating and solving problems. But it’s important to remember that we do create our problems, and that we create them in order to further a story.
Remember why you created your problem.
It’s possible to get so engrossed in solving a problem that we forget why we were trying to solve it in the first place. Before you try any of the strategies that follow, be sure that you’ve chosen a problem that will actually benefit you by its solution.
1. The problem you’re facing.
2. How this problem emerged.
3. What the solution will allow you to do.
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of your particular problem, and you are excited to tackle it. Here are a few strategies I recommend…
1. Build Trust
It all begins with trust.
Trust that you are capable of solving the problems you take on.
Trust that the problems themselves are capable of being solved.
Trust that the solution will present itself to you.
Trust that the solution has always been there.
Trust that you have always known the solution.
Trust that the solution is what you want it to be.
Trust that you are going after the right solution for you.
A journalling prompt: “I am capable of solving this problem because…”
2. Ask Better Questions
If you ask better questions, you get better answers!
Often simply changing “why?” to “how?” will help you get out of a rut, but there are many ways of improving your questions:
Switch the subject, object or verb. For example, instead of asking, “how does Theseus defeat the evil overlord?” try, “how does a bull defeat the evil overlord?” or “how does Theseus defeat Theseus?” or “how does Theseus cook for the evil overlord?” Ridiculous, but with the potential to produce results!
Add in extra clauses. e.g. “how does Theseus defeat the evil overlord with only a ball of string, while reading a cookery book, in a small mountain village, with a storm approaching?”
Choose better or more descriptive words. e.g. “how does Theseus negate the power of the person who is trying to build his personal empire?”
Specify a time-frame. e.g. “what can Theseus do to defeat the evil overlord in the next two days?”
Write your current problem-question at the top of the page and invent at least 25 permutations of it.
3. Make the problem harder
Not all problems are worthy of your attention. Many of them are too simple or boring for your conscious mind to focus on, or for your unconscious mind to get a purchase on. Sometimes what really stimulates you to come up with an answer is to challenge yourself to a harder problem. Take the problem of Theseus above… How does he defeat the evil overlord with only a ball of string, while reading a cookery book, in a small mountain village, with a storm approaching?
Pick the hardest question from the previous exercise and make it (quantifiably) five times harder.
4. Use your writing to problem-solve
I can’t tell you how many times writers have written to me about their problems, and I’ve written detailed responses back, only to be told in the next missive, “never mind, I figured it out.”
The simple act of writing about your problem helps you gain greater clarity and you often realise that the problem contained the solution all along. But you don’t have to press “send” to reach your epiphany. You can…
Write a letter to yourself, your muse, your character, or your reader.
At first glance, assumptions might seem a strange choice for a writing worksheet – but you know the assaying…
Here are a few ways that uncovering hidden assumptions can help you in your writing, and in your life…
In your writing
Use reader assumptions to generate suspense. For example, if you make the reader assume that outside help is impossible for a character, you can make them worry when the character gets in trouble.
Use assumptions about the story world to hide clues. Mystery writers do this all the time! Describe a clue in such a way that the reader assumes it’s simply part of the background. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter is the classic example of this trick.
Use assumptions about genre and characters to create a plot twist.Plot twists work by leading the reader to assume a certain way of thinking, and then thwarting this expectation. The big plot twists that readers most admire are always (to the best of my knowledge) a result of mistaken identity and of bending genre conventions. For example, think of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Fight Club.
Use assumptions about form to experiment with style and story. One of the most interesting characteristics of literary or experimental fiction is that they push the boundaries of form. Examples abound, but The House of Leaves is an extreme example that springs to mind.
Use assumptions about writing and authorship to engage in your story. The authorial voice in particular is a fun tool to surprise the reader. For example, what does the reader expect to remain constant and consistent in the writer? How can you pull the rug from under their feet?
In your life
Find assumptions that are holding you back from fun experiences. Assumptions often turn into limitations. I still remember the day I realised that one didn’t need to be born musical, or to have studied an instrument from a young age, or to have qualifications, or even to have any experience or aptitude with music, in order to enjoy making sounds. A stupid assumption that, once removed, led to a huge epiphany.
Let’s assume we’re wrong. The idea of an assumption does seem to connote a false belief. We assume things about people all day, partly because our brains function by making predictions. But often we attribute thoughts, feelings and even actions to people, and later find out that we have erred. It can be useful to uncover these assumptions, especially if they form a pattern, and to re-evaluate them. Are we too quick to assume? Why do we err in our assumptions? Could we defer or disregard our assumptions? Could we, instead, assume the best of people?
Assumptions aren’t just unwritten beliefs. “To assume” also means “to take on.” What roles or characteristics have you assumed without realising?
During the month of July I wrote the first draft of my law of attraction novel, Alemmia. I’m using “law of attraction” as a blanket term. What really attracts me is exploring reality creation – an inexhaustible subject! Alemmia is a beautiful Mediterranean island full of roses and magic, and the series will follow Lucia as she visits on her summer holidays and grows to learn how she can have whatever she wants.
So many beautiful, private signs found me during the composition of this novel that I’m more than eager to begin edits (and the “manifestation travel guide” that will accompany the books)! Be sure to sign up as a beta reader if you would like to be the first to read this story. ;)
I’ve mentioned before how the Apple word of the day screensaver is always bringing me messages. During the new moon I was catching up on Leeor Alexandra’s livestream, paused to write about the new moon, looked up and saw floating across my screen, the word, “manifestation”. The time? 11:11.
I was also lucky enough to be in the path of the longest lunar eclipse of the century. There is something very symbolic about seeing our collective shadow, I think.
I finally got around to reading Jung’s article on synchronicity. It makes a few interesting claims in trying to explain this phenomenon scientifically. To the best of my understanding:
1 | The problem of statistics Statistics deal with an average world that ignores the exceptions and aberrations. According to Jung, these “outliers” need to be studied for proof of acausal relationships. The fact that this domain disappears as larger and larger numbers are involved seems noteworthy to me. We operate under the belief that scientific studies are more correct the greater number of cases they study. The margin for “error” is diminished. But this also means that what holds true for the statistical “whole” does not hold true when applied to the “real world” individual, which keeps the rule from being universal. Shouldn’t the scientific truth hold for the specific as well as for the general?
The statistically significant statement only concerns regularly occurring events, and if considered as axiomatic, it simply abolishes all exceptions to the rule. It produces a merely average picture of natural events, but not a true picture of the world as it is. Yet the exceptions—and my results are exceptions and most improbable ones at that— are just as important as the rules. Statistics would not even make sense without the exceptions. There is no rule that is true under all circumstances, for this is the real and not a statistical world. Because the statistical method shows only the average aspects, it creates an artificial and predominantly conceptual picture of reality. That is why we need a complementary principle for a complete description and explanation of nature.
Imitating the way a writer writes is a delightfully private way of learning from them. So is stealing. But sometimes learning about the life of a writer you admire can also help you navigate some of the challenges of your chosen profession.