Priming the Pump

Sometimes you have to prime the pump

Sometimes you have to prime the pump

I think every writer has sometimes felt a little overwhelmed by a blank page, whether it’s a page in a notebook, a sheet rolled into an old-fashioned typewriter’s carriage, or the glaring blankness of a newly-opened computer file.

Blank pages represent possibilities.  A new page is clean, fresh, and perfect. Once we sit down and begin to put our thoughts upon the page, however, its perfection is marred. The brilliant possibilities the page once possessed are diminished, becoming nothing more than dull words strung together in boring sentences.

The page taunts us. We grow more tense. We wrack our brains — and yes, I’m using wrack rather than rack.  I learned the expression from my grandfather who explained that “to wrack” means “to punish”. That’s what we do. At least, that’s what I do when my prose falls short of my expectations. I berate myself and my feeble brain. I punish my gray matter by insisting it work harder, think faster.

Of course, that doesn’t work.

A better approach, I’ve learned, is to stop punishing and allow my brain to have a little fun each morning before I begin writing.  It’s a process often referred to as “priming the pump.”  The expression comes from the act of pouring a bit of water into a well — thereby pushing out any air — so that it can begin pumping water.

Priming the creative well works in a similar fashion. If we pour a few thoughts in, we can force out the stilted, awkward, nervous writing that so often results when we face a blank page. Then, we can relax and allow our best writing to gush out of the well.

In other words, take a few minutes each morning to play around with your writing. Don’t sit down and immediately launch into the next chapter of your masterpiece-in-progress.  Grab a silly word prompt — you’ll find dozens of websites that offer them — and write two or three fun paragraphs. Or sit down and do a journal entry. Or — one of my favorite methods — put on a piece of classical music, listen, and write what the music makes you feel.

These little exercises aren’t intended to be great prose. You don’t need to worry about whether or your writing makes sense, whether or not your grammar and punctuation is perfect, or whether or not your ideas are good ones. In priming the pump, all ideas are good. The purpose is to loosen up your brain, allow your muse to come out to play, and limber up all of your writing muscles.

You don’t need to spend much time at it, and you don’t need to write a lot.  Two or three paragraphs can often be all you need to get the creative juices flowing.

Solitude

Solitude

 

I just read a very disturbing definition of solitude.

It is said to be: a state of seclusion or isolation, a lack of contact with people. It may stem from bad relationships, loss of loved one, deliberate choice, infectious disease, mental disorders, neurological disorders or circumstances of employment or situation.” 

Are you kidding me? Well, I should know better than to check Wikipedia for a definition, so the fault is mine. 

In reading a definition like this, it would seem that solitude is something to be avoided at all costs, that it’s a sign of something not-quite-right in our heads or our hearts.

In truth, solitude — in my opinion, at least — is a very necessary part of life, and our ability to appreciate quiet moments alone is a sign of emotional well-being.

“Language … has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” ― Paul TillichThe Eternal Now

I once knew a young man who couldn’t stand solitude. He called himself a “real people person” and had to have almost constant human contact.  George and I were neighbors — way back in the days when I was single, living alone, and thoroughly enjoying it.  I rented one side of a duplex, George rented the other, and never have two so totally different personalities ever existed side-by-side.

I cherished my solitude, loved peace and quiet, and could happily go days without seeing another soul. Of course, with George next door, I rarely had that opportunity. He was always knocking on my door, just needing somebody to talk to.  Even though he might have a dozen friends coming over that evening, he couldn’t bear the thought of spending even an hour or two alone.  Much to my relief, George soon found a roommate, and eventually he found a girlfriend. I hope he also found happiness.

I felt sorry for George and always thought it sad that he had such a desperate need to be around other people at all times. Of course, I’m sure he felt sorry for me, as well. From his perspective, I must surely have been miserable.

Solitude can be taken to extremes, of course, and I know that all too well. I do have a tendency to shut myself away from the rest of the world. I can easily get lost inside my own head, and sometimes it takes a bit of prodding to get me out and about. But I know it’s for my own good. Solitude is important, but it must be balanced with healthy interactions and active participation in life.

I’m occasionally surprised, though, by how many people there are who, like George, seem to think solitude is a fate worse than death.  It’s true that prolonged isolation is considered one of the worst forms of punishment we humans can endure, but it’s also true that solitude is a key factor in creative development.

Solitude brings opportunities for reflection. It provides a time and a place for mulling things over, for daydreaming, for imagining, for discovering new ideas.

Writers, especially, need solitude. We can’t hear the voices in our head while other people are talking. We can’t close our eyes and envision new worlds while we’re being bombarded with noise and stimuli from a dozen different directions.

If you’re looking to enhance your creativity, or if you’re “stuck” on a writing project or feel that the creative well has run a bit dry, maybe it’s time for a little solitude.

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For more creative inspiration, explore these links. Who knows what creative connections you’ll make.

Please Excuse Johnny

The internet is good for many things. Of course, it’s maybe not so good for other things, and some things it probably shouldn’t be used for at all. Seriously, I don’t think sites like “How to Be a Brain Surgeon in 10 Easy Lessons” should be trusted, but that’s just personal opinion.

A note for the humor-challenged. Yes, I’m joking. No, “How to Be A Brain Surgeon in 10 Easy Lessons” doesn’t really exist. Yes, I “googled” it. I did find “Cutting Edge Brain Surgery” but, no, I didn’t go there.

At its worst, the internet can be a dangerous place with instructions on how to make things no law-abiding individual should even be curious about, and of course, there’s all that schmuck out there, as a friend calls it. OK, yeah, I have a friend who loves his schmuck, but that’s his problem, not mine, and I’ve never been one to advocate censorship.

Still, the internet is a valuable tool for a writer. It can provide a lot of good information in a matter of seconds, and no way would I ever want to go back to those days when research meant driving miles into town, thumbing through the library’s card catalog, and then discovering that every book I needed was either (a) already checked out, (b) missing and presumed lost, or (c) no longer in the library system.

Don’t get me wrong. I love libraries. I’ve donated books to libraries. I encourage everyone to get — and use — a library card. Still, for finding facts fast, I’ll take the internet any day.

For all its faults and follies — or maybe because of those faults and follies — the internet is ideal for one other thing: entertainment. This makes it an excellent resource for procrastinating writers. Under the guise of doing research, a writer can spend hours browsing websites and finding all sorts of useless, but amusing, information.

Like these excuses from parents to teachers:

  • My son is under a doctor’s care and shouldn’t take PE today. Please execute him.
  • Amy did not do her homework last night because we went out to a party and did not get home until late. If she is tired, please let her sleep during recess time.
  • Please excuse Lisa for being absent. She was sick, so I had her shot.
  • Please excuse Johnny from being absent January 28, 29, 30, 31, 32 and also 33.
  • It was my fault Mike did not do his math homework last night. His pencil broke, and we do not have a pencil sharpener at home.
  • Please excuse Roland from PE for a few days. Yesterday he fell out of a tree and misplaced his hip.
  • Please excuse Wayne for being out yesterday. He had the fuel.
  • John has been absent from school because he had two teeth taken out of his face.
  • Tommy wasn’t in school yesterday because he thought it was Saturday.
  • Ralph was absent yesterday because he had a sore trout.
  • Jerry was at his grandmother’s yesterday, and she did not bring him to school because Jerry couldn’t remember where the school was.
  • Please excuse my daughter’s absence. She had her periodicals.
  • Please excuse Jennifer for missing school yesterday. We forgot to get the Sunday paper off the porch and when we found it Monday, we thought it was Sunday.

And my favorite of all:

  • Please excuse my son. He will be out next week slaughtering goats for his manhood ritual. Thank you!

But, wait! There’s more! Call now, and we’ll double your order.

Funny2 – School Excuses.

It seems appropriate to talk about kids and schools right now because it is that time of year. You’re busy packing lunches, gathering up books, supervising homework, or maybe you’re even homeschooling.  If you are, I applaud you. Just do a good job of it, will you? Few things in life are more important than a good education. Please, make sure Johnny does know how to read, all right?

But, I digress. The truth is, I’m not really here to talk about kids and school, so let’s cut to the chase, as they say, and take a look at the excuses we make. The excuses for not writing, you know. All those good reasons why we just can’t take time to do it today.

Most of our all-grown-up, adult reasons for not writing involve time and other responsibilities. We never have enough of the former and always have too many of the latter.

Dear Muse, please forgive me for not writing yesterday. I had five loads of laundry to do, three meals — including home-made lasagna — to cook, the grass had to be cut before the neighbors started complaining, and on the way to the store I ran out of gas. 

Hey, it happens. Sometimes life gets busy, and we get worn out, plumb tuckered, exhausted, beat, and frazzled. We run out of steam or out of gas. Take your pick.

All joking aside, sometimes things do happen. There are legitimate reasons why we must occasionally miss a day or two of writing. Most of the time, though, our good excuses are, well, only excuses. The trick is knowing the difference.

The next time you’re absent from your writing desk, try this. Sit down and scribble an excuse to take with you when you go back. Is it the real deal? Or was it just that the dog ate your homework?

The dog ate my homework! Really, he did!

The Hardest Part of Being a Writer

“What’s the hardest part of being a writer?” someone asked me recently.

I didn’t need to even stop to think about it. My answer was immediate.

“The chair.”

Writing isn’t easy in a hard-backed chair, but I learned a lot from mine.

When I first began writing for publication, I had a dreadful, heavy, wooden chair. Solid. Unmovable. It didn’t roll around the room. It didn’t lean, tilt, or offer even the slightest comfort. Sitting in that chair required a great deal of endurance.

I no longer have that chair, but I learned a lot about writing from it.

  • I learned that it’s easy to make excuses and avoid sitting down, but I learned, too, that nothing gets accomplished that way.
  • I learned patience. I learned persistence.
  • I learned that writer’s block exists only in our heads. We can always write something if we’ll just sit down and do it.
  • I learned that a solid foundation will always support us. In life. In writing. In whatever we do.
  • I learned that pillows can always bring a bit of comfort.

Actually, I’m joking about the last one. I never used a pillow while sitting in that chair. I didn’t need to, because after a while, I got accustomed to the feel of the hard wooden back and seat. As I sat writing, getting lost in my stories, I reached a point where I no longer gave a thought to comfort.  So caught up was I in the lives of my characters, I no longer felt my own body.

At one time, I sat in that chair for twelve hours straight, with only the occasional “necessary” break. How did I do it? I just did. Why did I do it? Because I love writing, and doing what we love is always worth a little discomfort.

I soon began to notice one interesting phenomenon. Each morning when I said “All right, it’s time to write,” I would sit down, and then immediately get up again.  It was sort of like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of the bell. Sit down. Get up. Immediately.

I worried a bit. Was I really not wanting to write? Was I looking for a way to avoid it? Nope. When I took a closer look and realized why I got up from the chair, it made sense.

  • I got up to attend to any “necessary” business.
  • I got up to grab a bite to eat.
  • I got up to fix a cup of tea.
  • I got up to take care of any pressing chores on my to-do list.
  • I got up to see that everything was settled around me.

I got up, knowing that once I returned to that miserable, hard-backed chair, I wouldn’t be getting up again for a long, long time. Once assured that I could write without interruption, I sat down, and I stayed there.

Everyone who’s ever said “I want to be a writer” has heard those words of wisdom: Sit down in the chair…and then, stay there.

Maybe in some ways it is the hardest part of being a writer, but there are lots of lovely pillows to grab. So pick a pretty one, make yourself comfortable, and get busy.