These games are offered as solutions for two kinds of problems. One is writer’s block. Let’s be done with the waiting for ‘inspiration’. Let’s just get to work. All one has to overcome is one’s resistance to labor. The other problem is the opposite: our facility with writing, but always writing the same thing. Let’s be done with our habits of thought! These cures are not miracle cures. One still needs a room of one’s own. None of them are original. They are all based on classic avant-garde gambits. The wager is that the avant-gardes invented nothing, but merely discovered certain parameters to the labor of writing. They are playful parameters. The labor of writing, when it forgets its objective for a while, can become playful for a while, and in becoming playful, productive.
Arthur RIMBAUD / DERRANGMENT OF THE SENSES.
Go wild, cut loose. Be done with middle class life for a while. Don’t work. Fuck the wrong people. Get high. At the very least, get high.
Comte de LAUTRÉAMONT / DETOURNÉMENT
Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it. Take a passage, say from a writer about play. Copy it, but correct it. Ideas can improve. Copy another passage, and improve it. Erase the false idea within the copied text, and insert the corrected one.
Ray ROUSSEL / HOW I HAVE WRITTEN SEVERALLY
Take a word from a text to hand that has homophones: like sight / cite / site. Or some puns: site / sighed. Write a story or nonfiction passage that uses these terms as their narrative devices or conceptual architecture, but withhold the original homophones or puns.
Hugo BALL / RANDOMNESS ENTERS THE LANGUAGE
Take a text, maybe one you like. Cut it up into little pieces. Put the pieces in a bag. Draw the pieces out one at a time. Arrange them however you want. You can select words from the pieces or rearrange them to forma actual sentences, so long as the first choice is random.
Bob DESNOS / THE REVERIE
Read some texts. Choose carefully. Something you want in your unconscious. Find a quiet, dimly lit place. Don’t fall asleep, just half asleep. A state of reverie. In that state, dream of words, maybe the words you read earlier. Write whatever comes to you. Or speak them and record them.
André BRETON / THE EXQUISITE CORPSE
You probably know this classic, so here’s a twist. Its best with three players. Take some texts, maybe about play, or surrealism. Cut out a sentence, place it face down. Tell the others just the last word. The next player cuts out a sentence, revealing only the last word, and so on, until you have a paragraph, or a page.
Harry MATTHEWS / TWENTY LINES
Based on a remark by Stendhal, ‘twenty lines a day, genius or not’. Only in the age of the word processor, let’s speed up! Can you write twenty lines in twenty minutes? How about ten? The key is ‘genius or not’. Concentrate on making quota, think of nothing else.
George PEREC / OULIPIAN CONTRAINTS
Make it easy by making it hard! Write a paragraph without using the letter ‘e’. Oh, you managed it! Now write another. Take a sentence from a book about play. Change every noun with the one in the dictionary five entries later. Write a sentence with three words, followed by one with five, one with seven, one with nine, then go back to three, then write every sentence with odd numbers of words only. Or: make up your own constraints.
Gertrude STEIN / WORK IS WORKING
Write a sentence claiming X. Write a sentence refuting X. Write a sentence reconciling X and not-X. Write a sentence refuting the reconciliation. Write a sentence claiming X.
Sam BECKETT / LESS IS LESS
Take a paragraph. Theory writing is a good start. Replace every word with the simplest one you can. Replace words with Norman or Latinate roots with Saxon ones. And not too many. And no dependent clauses.
William BURROUGHS / THE CUT UP
Take some pages, of your writing or someone else’s. Cut the pages into four rectangles. Rearrange the rectangles. Write what you find as (more or less) consistent sentences. If not satisfied with the result, print out these new pages, cut them up and try again….
George BRECHT / ALEATORY FLUXUS
Take a pair of dice. Make each side of the dice correspond to a decision. Roll the dice, write your fate. The sides can correspond to anything. Topics to write about, flavors or argument, texts to détourn. Places in a text to cut-up. Games can be metagames. The metagame might as well be a game of chance. But unlike dada chance, this chance can have a little more structure.
Julia KRISTEVA / ABJECTION OBJECTION
Take a sentence, identify the object and subject of the sentence. Find the third term – the abject – which is excluded by the split between object / subject, but which somehow messes with the difference.
Guy DEBORD / DETOURNÉMENT REDUX
Ideas improve. The improving of ideas can improve. Take not just one but several texts from which to copy. Combine and juxtapose. Détournement may have sub-rules. Maybe the reversal of the sense of a copied sentence is not the only kind of détournement. Maybe copying both major and minor texts together might be productive, and the minor ones might contribute a particular flavor.
Kathy ACKER / PLAGIARISE YOURSELF
Write in the first person, or through a character as if that character could be you. Find some other texts written in the same first or third person. Mix in these fictional texts with your autobiographical texts. Create a self that is neither self or other. (I is another).
Sharon MESMER / FLARF
Take some texts, maybe about play. Select some words from the text. The stranger the better. Use combinations of those search terms to mine google for strange texts, things you would not otherwise know existed. Select the most interesting and use as your raw material. Any other game rules can now be applied to this material.
Ken GOLDSMITH / CONCEPTUAL WRITING
Writing could just be a practice of turning into strings of letters whatever happens. Write a sentence about each of the objects around you that includes its color and texture. Copy out the text of everything around you that has writing on it. Write down everything you overhear everyone saying around you. Maybe limit that to everything you hear or see that contains the words ‘game’ or ‘play.’
John KINSELLA / SPEED FACTORY
For two or more players. Player 1 writes exactly 300 words. Player two writes the next 300. A bit like exquisite corpse, but you can see all the past text, and instead there is a time limit. If Player 2 does not finish within the time limit, skip to next player. It is especially fun to end your 300 words in the middle of a sentence.
McKenzie WARK / WRITING METAGAMES
Make up your own rules! Combine rules from one or more game, in combination or sequence. Invent new ones. Play off the affordances of your environment or devices. But remember: process is all; intention is nothing; and product just is what it is.
Originally presented at the Games as Inquiry event at the Gray Center at the University of Chicago.
Do you have other games you have come across, or invented? Please share!
20 thoughts on “How to Beat Writer’s Block”
Nice. I read this as I have been struggling with preparing a presentation on the art of Jan Sawka for a symposium Robeson Gallery of Rutgers University, concerning a retrospective show on his work at the Gallery Aferro in Newark. This is a tough assignment for me. I generally use a variety of these games. As a regular matter, I follow Matthews, Stein and Becket, especially Matthews. Perhaps I will try a bit of Acker and Debord today.
And as far as sharing new games, I think there are no new games, just interesting new combinations of old ones. Gabrielle Tarde has been on my mind.
Oh, could there be a Tarde game? How would that work?
Imitate, imitate, imitate: invent. The fundamental thesis of his sociology, explaining continuity and social change. Also not bad in explaining how to beat writer’s block.
brilliant! i always thought that there are already too many good ideas outside there, so that mixing them up through some creative games is the only task left to us..
Yes, the world is too full of new things, insisting on their uniqueness as a kind of property.
Maybe it was always the only task. Before the romantics, imitation was the dominant understanding of literary creation.
Very inspirational! Another strategy, perhaps change our normative understandings of ‘work’ and ‘play’. Note how Watts uses the term “game of life”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ei9iLjNpFmA
Thanks for that!
Your Kathy Acker’s solution (plagiarise yourself, plagiarise other people) suggests she must have had writer’s block her entire career.
In a way she did. In the interview with Lotringer in Hannibal Lector, My Father she talks about this.
I’d also recommend the video from DM Daye https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOFYTgSbPSI it gives 10 ideas to help you get the other side of writers block too.
Cage’s mesostics? Reading / writing through a text. Perhaps just a variant or crossbreed from those listed above.
Rimbaud was definitely a great poet. For writing poetry in english or french, http://www.brainstormpro.com is very helpful.