Ice Breaking for Writers

You’d think after twenty years of various kinds of teaching, I’d have inured myself to ice-breaking activities at the starts of classes and meetings, but no, I still don’t like them.

There is a slug-like creature deep inside me who would rather lurk at the edges of a gathering and judge the people there instead of participating. That creature, too, curls and twitches when exposed to all of the ordinary ways that people get to know each other.

For me, an icebreaker would be, “Who here has ever experienced something science can’t explain?” THAT is how you get to know people, going straight to their crack-pottery.

Yet I know that they’re a necessary evil, and the true reason I don’t like them is the same reason that the slug would rather ooze: entropy is easier.

So it is with returning to writing day after day, another endeavor that requires icebreaking. For me, there’s a huge mental or emotional barrier before getting back into creative work, but knowing that doesn’t make it easier to get through.

What’s nice – though not required – from a writing session for me is absorption: getting back inside the thing so that I can look back out through its eyes again, able to intuit what feels right to do next. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow, but George Saunders has a metaphor that makes better sense to me: an eye doctor flipping through the lenses to feel which is better for the total vision.

Getting to that state is difficult, but I’ve come up with a few tricks:

  • Open a file, read a little of what I wrote before, and tinker with a few things that don’t look or sound right to me.
  • Ask myself a question in writing about the work in progress (sometimes as simple as “What the fuck is going on?”) and then answering also in writing.
  • Open a new document and paste in the parts of the work in progress that I am certain I want to keep, leaving the iffy ones in the old version.
  • Write a photograph I don’t have, describing a place or a person or a feeling from my past that hasn’t been otherwise recorded.
  • Write a Postcard Story based on some image I find (though I seldom have energy to write the original thing once I finish one).
  • Type out a passage from a work I admire in a similar voice or point of view (first person, third person) to get a feel again for how prose flows. Sometimes I’ll type in a passage from my own work.

All of these are on-ramps to getting back into my work, and there are countless passages in my journals where I leave them half-finished to go back into the story that has suddenly returned to me.

This is where I’m supposed to say that writing isn’t always fun or easy, but I’d guess that even plodding ahead is a kind of icebreaking, albeit slow and painful. And with so few pleasures to be had from the publishing of writing, why shouldn’t you make creating it as enjoyable as possible?

My best work has come from “tinkering,” the word that best describes the low-pressure experimentation that’s required for me to create.

I build stories the same way that Roy Neary built his model of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one smudge of mashed potatoes at a time.