How This Memory Trick Can Help With Writer's Block

If you’ve ever tried to write anything more than a few sentences long, you know the feeling/thought process I am about to share.

I need to write this thing, you say to yourself. I know it's about this thing. I know it's got to be so long. I feel so good about this. It will be the best thing ever.

Then you sit wherever you write things and open your computer, notebook, whiteboard… and the blankness stares back at you. And even though you’ve got oodles of notes and a sort of structure in your head...'s just all so …


Where do I start?

At the moment, I am writing a play about women who accidentally murder a man and have to hide his body. I’d written a few bits of scene, I kind of knew the characters, and I generally felt like I had a grasp on it. I mean, I’d written the death scene, for god's sake – the pivotal scene!!! And yet, for days and days, I put off continuing to work on it. I decided to include it in my master’s assignment to give me a deadline and force me to work; I decided I would send it to the Women’s Playwrighting Prize, I told an industry friend who I respect about it, and asked her to put some dates in for a rehearsed reading. But the more I added these deadlines, the more I felt like I had failed, that it wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t write a thing. Sometimes a deadline helps lift you out of the “I can’t write this” – a deadline can be enough. But what about when it’s not? What about when the deadline is looming, and you still can’t write?

I have spoken before about some ways to get over the dreaded writer’s block. But today, I want to talk about something I tried recently that let me focus on my work and helped me get started. I used a memory trick called ‘chunking’.

Chunking utilises the idea that it is easier to remember things in groups of three, for instance. If you have a grocery list with nine items, let’s say:

Milk, bread, Onion rings, fizzy pop, orange juice, bagels, peas, cake, pizza

Then the first thing you do is split them into three groups of three.

Milk, fizzy pop, orange juice

Bread, bagels, cake

Pizza, onion rings, peas

You then title each set – drinks, bakery, frozen - and those are the three things you remember going into the supermarket. You know each title has three products attached to it, and so it becomes much easier to recall. At least that’s the idea.

So with the chunking, you put together things in categories of alikeness. So how does this help with writing, I hear you ask?

I’m glad you asked. In the scenario I described above, the problem stems from actually being overprepared. Colin Powell once talked about how he can decide with 30% of the data, but not with over 80% - worrying from a guy who could send Nukes? Perhaps. But I don't necessarily think he's wrong. That’s because our brains become saturated and overwhelmed and can’t begin to sort out all the information we’ve acquired. So one solution would be not to do all your research up front, but if you already have, this is where chunking comes in. Chunking is a way of looking at all the information you have and breaking it into more manageable pieces.

So with my hide the body play, that is precisely what I did. I started with characters. I wrote a list of all the characters I might need or hoped to use. I put brief bios of what made them unique and the relationships they had with other characters. I then chunked some plot points; guy poisoned, the doctor announces him dead, dressing him as a hobo etc. And I’ll be honest, and it was at this point that the scenes started appearing in my head. I was able to stop listing and start writing. The fear and overwhelm of all the information had been broken down, and my brain was able to start doing what it was trained for… writing scenes.

Have you tried chunking before? Do you think it would help with your writing? Let me know in the comments.

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