Writer’s block is something that every writer deals with. Despite the ideas swirling around in our heads, sometimes we just have trouble putting pen to paper and seeing those ideas through. There are many reasons this can be the case, and many different ways to snap out of it.
One of those ways is to simply be curious. If it seems simple, that’s because it is. Most writers are curious by nature, but by taking on big ideas, we can forget about the types of questions that got us interested in being writers in the first place: Who? What? Where? Why? How?
faculty member Alma College Master of Fine Arts in Creative WritingDhonielle Clayton is a New York Times-bestselling author of “The Belles” series and former teacher. She’s used to cultivating curiosity for her own work and in others, and has some advice to share with us on how they can do it for ourselves.
Sophfronia Scott: Today we are talking about your working with students and I’m wondering: Is there something that, as a teacher, you find you’re always telling your writing students?
Dhonielle Clayton: The biggest thing that my writing students hear from me is to be curious, to follow little things down rabbit holes, because you never know what you’re going to find at the end of it. That means reading widely, reading things outside of the genre or the area that you write in, also following those sort of little story seeds just to see where they end up.
I think curiosity is the piece that has made me have a lot of stories. Curiosity makes you continually search for truth and search for something that’s exciting. And I think that can show up in your writing. A reader can see when a writer is very curious or excited about a topic that they want to dive into. So, that’s something you’ll hear from me as a writing instructor: Be curious.
I ask a lot of questions: How would you follow that path to see where it leads? There’s something in this scene here, how about you look this up? Why don’t you check this out as a mentor text, did you know about it?
SS: I would think that curiosity opens up so much opportunity that it would help someone who might feel stuck, someone who’s in writer’s block.
DC: Absolutely. I think that when you aren’t curious is when you are in writer’s block. You are in a stalemate with yourself, and you have to fill your well up with things that you enjoy.
I think because I write about the things that I’m curious about and the things that make me angry, the intersection of those two things lead to my stories. So, I always push writers to dig deep. Find the thing that you’re curious about or just frustrated with and investigate. Go down that rabbit hole and see what’s there. See what you can use, see what you can mine and channel into your own work.
SS: Yes, being curious helps me to push the boundaries and yet I have to remind myself to do that.
I’m working on a new novel — I write historical fiction — and it occurred to me that I may be trying to stick too close to history. I’m looking at books and shows like “Lovecraft” and thinking about how history can be different and have fantastic elements like in Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.”
I realize I can really push a boundary here by asking myself, “What if?” I start with asking that question and see how far it can take me.
DC: It’s a good question, because I think that we as writers are programmed to walk the line and to walk a particular line that is safe. I ask questions to push you off the line just to see what you find. You can always go back to the line. But why not see what happens?
See what you uncover by stopping and going into that wood just for a little bit. Then come back to the road. It’s never wasted time to go off the trail for a while. I don’t believe in wasted words, but I do believe in remaining curious and seeing how unexpected things can be found when you maintain that sort of curiosity.
The Alma College Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing offers the opportunity to enter an artistic community in which you will read deeply, study and hone your writing craft, and participate in energetic discussions that will help you see your poems, stories, essays, and memoirs in the context of current issues and events. Learn more at alma.edu/mfa.