October 22: Battle Writer’s Block by Journaling Day

On this date in 1804 and 1837 two famous writers, one British and one American, waged their own personal battles with writer’s block by writing in their journals.

The first was the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).  Writing in his journal the day after his thirty-second birthday, Coleridge expressed his exasperation at being unable to produce the kind of great poetry he had written in his mid-twenties:  “So Completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruites of a month. –O Sorrow and Shame . . . . I have done nothing!”  Although Coleridge was writing in his journal, he never again managed to write anything like his great narrative poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” which had been published six years earlier(1).

The second writer was the American Henry David Thoreau.  After graduating from college at Harvard in 1837, Thoreau returned to his home town of Concord, Massachusetts.  There he met and was mentored by essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson who encourage the fledgling writer to keep a journal in order to record his thoughts and to develop his craft.  

On this date Henry opened his first journal and began writing.  He started by recording the questions that Emerson had first asked him:

‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.

Thoreau’s journals gave him a place to develop his ideas and to avoid writer’s block.  In the course of 24 years he produced over two million words in 39 notebooks.  As explained by Odell Shepard, editor of Thoreau’s journals, writing this way helped Thoreau in a number of ways:

It sharpened his observation and deepened his thought.  By preserving the memory of his best hours — those that had “a certain individuality and separate existence, aye, personality” –it enabled him to survey long stretches of earlier experience and thus to estimate his development or decline.

No doubt the journaling habit gave Thoreau the kind of confidence in his own ideas that lead to his two great works, the book Walden and the essay “Civil Disobedience.”

One interesting note is that the social networking messaging service Twitter used Emerson’s question as its prompt when the online service began in 2006.  Each tweet composed was prompted by the question “What are you doing?” In 2009 Twitter changed its prompt to the more succinct “What’s happening?” (3).

Today’s Challenge:  Six-Sided Solution
What are at least six of your go-to writing ideas when combating writer’s block?  A great way to defeat writer’s block is to turn your negative thoughts into positive thoughts.  Your task, therefore, is to construct an actual Writer’s Block that, instead of causing writers to stumble, will inspire and motivate them to write.  First, brainstorm as many writing ideas as you can, anything that might spark ideas and inspire someone to write.  Then, organize your ideas into six categories, one for each side of the Writer’s Block.  Finally, construct your block out of paper, wood, or some other material.  Write your categories and ideas on each side of your block, adding artwork, diagrams, graphics, pictures, etc. to make it visually appealing.  In constructing your own Writer’s Block you’ll be doing something that all great writers do, you’ll be transforming an abstract idea into a concrete one.  Use your Writer’s Block to spark ideas as you begin your daily journaling habit. (Common Core Writing 4 – Process)

Quotation of the Day:  A hammer made of deadlines is the surest tool for crushing writer’s block. -Ryan Lilly

 

1-http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/06/14/blocked

2-The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals (Edited by Odell Shepard).  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

3-http://mashable.com/2009/11/19/twitter-whats-happening/

 

August 5:  Brainstorming Day

Today is the birthday of Alex F. Osborn the father of brainstorming. Born in New York, New York in 1886, he pursued a career in journalism but eventually found himself working in business, first in sales and then in advertising.

In 1938 the advertising company that he founded (Batten, Barton,Durstine, and Osborn) began using an organized method of generating ideas. Although Osborn is credited with coining the word for this technique, brainstorming, he never took full credit for the word; instead, he acknowledged his colleagues who along with Osborn used their brains to attack or storm a problem. Osborn also credited religious leaders in the East, saying that that Hindu teachers in India used a similar technique for more than 400 years. In India it was called Prai-Barshana: Prai for “outside yourself” and Barshana for “question.”

Regardless of where the word came from, brainstorming is a vital technique for generating ideas in business, government, and especially for writing.

Typically brainstorming sessions work best in small groups, so that individuals can join forces and build on the ideas of others in the group. The goal is to create a list of ideas that has flexibility and fluency. Fluency means the number of ideas generated, and flexibility means how different the ideas are from each other and how different they are from what most people think up.

In order to create a list of ideas that has flexibility and fluency, follow these rules:

  1. Defer judgment. Don’t edit, eliminate, or hold back any ideas. Criticism kills participation, and often an idea that looks bad at first turns out to be a good one in the long run. Osborn used the following analogy to illustrate the need to put criticism aside when brainstorming:

If you try to get hot and cold water out of the same faucet at the same time, you will get only tepid water. And if you try to criticize and create at the same time, you can’t turn on either the cold enough criticism or the hot enough ideas. So let’s stick solely to ideas-lets cut out all criticism during this session.

  1. Go for quantity of ideas. The more ideas, the greater the likelihood that some of those ideas will be good. A good analogy for this is a professional photographer who takes hundreds of pictures, knowing that only a very small percentage of those pictures will be worth keeping.
  1. Encourage wild, exaggerated ideas. Free from the criticism and logic of the left brain, the right side of the brain, the creative side, will have a higher likelihood of creating something new. Imagine how absurd the initial idea of selling bottled water must have been twenty years ago? Why would people pay for water when they can get it free from the tap? Alex Osborn believed in the power of the human imagination to generate new ideas that can change our lives for the better. His 1953 book Applied Imagination is a pioneering work in the field of creativity. In this book he outlines techniques like brainstorming that help us to enter into the creative mindset and stay there for a longer period of time.

Today’s Challenge: The Forecast Calls for Brainstorming
What is the best way to generate new ideas, how can it be done most efficiently, and what are pitfalls to avoid?  Brainstorming is an important prewriting technique for writers. The more time you spend brainstorming, the higher the chances that you will find something that is really worth writing about. Below are 10 questions for brainstorming. Select one question, and get a small group together or practice on your own. Use the rules for brainstorming to generate a large list of ideas that has both fluency and flexibility.

  1. What are some ways we might improve the #2 pencil?
  1. What would be the best opening scene for a suspense film?
  1. In the opening sentences of a novel, the main character takes off his shoes and socks and ties the two sock into a knot. Why is he doing this?
  1. If we divided blogs into three or more different categories, what might those three categories be?
  1. What are the similarities and differences between cats and dogs?
  1. What are some examples of stupid things that otherwise intelligent people sometimes do by mistake?
  1. What are the three most important steps in studying for a test?
  1. What will you see on the Internet five year from now that you don’t see today?
  1. Imagine that next year, 8-track tapes make a big comeback. Why might this happen?
  1. What are the most important qualities of an effective leader?

Quote of the Day: It’s the miner’s headlamp, not the eureka flash, that drives reliable innovation. The process of innovation is the sweaty work of digging through tons of information to find a few golden nuggets — mainly unlikely knowledge combinations. -T George Harris

 

1 – Gurule, Jason. “Alex F. Osborn.” The seminar on Theories of Persuasive Communication and Consumer Decision-Making for Dr. John Leckenby at the University of Texas at Austin.