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The Memoirs Mindhack.

I have to take a break for a day or two. My subconscious is telling me it’s tired, in the usual way: It pouts and refuses to produce. Fatigue can cause similar symptoms, which is why I go to bed so early that my friends laugh at me. But I’ve been quite well-rested in the last week or ten days, and yet getting started has sometimes been a struggle.

Writer’s block is serious business. So I decided to hack myself.

Half of the struggle against writer’s block is just getting yourself to write something. What you’re writing is less important than engaging the gears and backing off on the clutch. This is not news to me or anyone; I heard it from Ted Sturgeon himself, at the Clarion workshop in 1973. His suggestion went so far as to suggest typing a story out of the newspaper, just to be typing something. I’ve tried this a time or two, and it’s not especially effective. (I’ve sometimes wondered if what Ted Sturgeon called “writer’s block” was actually clinical depression.) During my recent months with Ten Gentle Opportunities, I’ve tried another mindhack against writer’s block, with terrific success: Work on your memoirs.

Most people don’t understand what this means. A lot of badly written books about annoying people (culminating in that consummate literary fraud, A Million Little Pieces) have turned the public off entirely to the idea of memoirs. Make no mistake: Memoirs don’t have to be published to be useful. They don’t even have to be finished. (I suspect my own may never be.) I’m writing my memoirs as an exercise in remembering, to get the facts and impressions about my life down in written form before the memories decay, as memories clearly do. I don’t expect to publish them, though I may allow friends to read them. In a sense, I’m backing myself up to disk.

What I’ve discovered, almost by accident, is this: After typing a few hundred words of my own story, my subconscious wakes up and stops pouting. I then open Ten Gentle Opportunities and I’m off at a trot. It works almost every time. It works better than absolutely everything else I’ve ever tried, and having been writing for almost fifty years, I’ve tried a lot.


I have some theories:

  • We all like talking about ourselves. The material is always interesting and thus the writing is a lot more fun. If there’s no one around to annoy, there’s no harm in it.
  • There’s less work involved. We already know the story and don’t have to make up a plot. The universe is familiar, and to a great extent documented online. I was able to find a certain Chicago-area manhole cover on Google Street View after thinking I may have imagined it. (Don’t ask.)
  • Our life story is, after all, a story. Things happen. Characters suffer, learn, and grow. Funny situations rise above the disorder. Remarkable people bump into us, and we’re never the same. (“Hi. I’m Grace Hopper. Have a nanosecond.”) Change happens, and change is a helluva teacher. Telling our own story engages the same gears as telling stories we make up. And the challenge, after all, may be no more than getting into first gear.

Someone in my inner circle asked me if the writing had been painful. That’s a hard question. Writing can be painful, and some kinds of writing must be painful, if the idea is to allow a reader to empathize with someone’s pain. Writing about being dumped by three girlfriends (maybe four, depending on how you define “girlfriend”) was in fact surprisingly healing. I thought about the events from their perspectives, and in one case realized that a girl had taught me something crucial that I refused to face for almost 45 years. Wherever she is (and she may not even be alive) I leaned back in my chair, told her she was forgiven, and wished her nothing but the best.

On the other hand, I have not yet begun telling the story of my father’s hideous illness and death. Once I head into that, all bets are off.

So if you’re a writer and you get stuck, take a walk around the block. In this business, the blood’s gotta pump. If when you get back you still can’t get the engine to turn over on that YA paranormal sparkly robots vs. zombies epic, open a new document, pick a scene in your own plot, and tell the story.

Zoom! Off you go.

Just don’t forget to click back to the robots.


  1. Tom R. says:

    It sounds like you have found a tool that works for you and you might find some of those memoirs of value in the future for many other reasons.

    Many years ago I read Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck. It is a collection of letters he wrote to his editor and friend each day before beginning that day’s work on the novel. It made very interesting reading in its own right. Perhaps your memoirs might find a similar use!

  2. anon says:

    Hunter Thompson used to type pages and pages of Hemingway, just to get the feel of the words.

    (Or it may have been Fitzgerald — same idea.)

    1. I actually used to do this for precisely that reason: To get a sense for how my favorite authors did what they did. Words look different on a typewriter. (Fewer and fewer recall how or why this was so.) I wanted to see how a Keith Laumer chapter looked on typewriter paper, so that I could imitate his success in my own stories. I did that in high school, long before I ever took a fiction course, and it worked remarkably well. I really didn’t have any other way back then to learn how to write good SF beyond imitating authors I considered good.

      As it turns out, I have a knack for pastiche–that is, imitating another author’s style. Whether the knack was cause or effect is something I’ve never been able to figure out.

      Of course, this has nothing to do with breaking writer’s block, but thanks for bringing it up just the same.

  3. Rich Dailey says:

    For those of us writing memoirs, we refer to this as “distracting story idea overload”.

  4. When I was studying writing lo these many years ago, free writing was all the rage as a ‘warm up exercise’. Certainly free writing that isn’t as brain-exhausting as creating new work would help.

    Also, stories are built from real life (ours or other people’s). Pushing back into our own lives in show-don’t-tell mode is probably a good thing. The only catch is that the past is a fun place to visit, but you can’t live there.


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