Cracking the Writer’s Block 3: Playing Balderdash

Sometimes our writing is stuck because we don’t know where to start. For some of us, we need to know where we are going to end up before we can begin. And if we don’t, the ink has run out, our pencil is down to a nub, our muse is silent, and the battery to our laptop has died.

It can be hard to just start writing and see what happens. Yet I often find that the act of beginning to write stimulates further ideas and clarifies my thinking. I didn’t think I had anything to say, but by starting blind, suddenly I can see. I don’t worry about where to begin. What I’m putting down is likely something that will end up in the middle, or even get deleted. But it primes my pump, gets my juices going and stimulates all manner of clich├ęs, and occasionally some fresh prose. If I know that it doesn’t have to be perfect at the beginning, I have greater freedom. Later I can reorganize and rewrite.

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fun exercise that can give you good practice at writing from a standing start is the game Balderdash, otherwise known as Dictionary. One person gives everyone else playing an unusual word. Each person then creates an imaginary definition with the intent of fooling the rest of the players into believing it is the real definition. The person handing out the word also writes down the real definition, collects what everyone has written and reads them to the group. Everyone then votes on which they think is correct.

Playing the game trains you to just start writing and see where it goes. For example, I was once given the word burgonet. So I started writing, “In fencing,” because the word seemed vaguely French and somehow I associate fencing with France. Then what? After a moment, I continued, “a movement in which . . .” knowing that now I was going to have to come up with some kind of tactic that could fit a fencing match. So I thought a second and concluded, “one feigns a retreat as a prelude to an attack.” It took me all of thirty seconds. I didn’t evaluate or second guess myself as I went along. I just wrote.

In the end I thought it might fool a couple people. The actual definition was, “A 16th-century army helmet with a retractable visor.” But by just starting somewhere, even though I had no idea where I was going, I could move forward.

Another Balderdash variation involves obscure movie titles for which players are to come up with a bogus plot summary. Consider Blond Crazy. Start with something slightly offbeat like, “A Golden Retriever . . .” But what does the dog do in the movie? “. . . falls for an Irish Setter . . .” Now we need conflict or drama. “. . . and will do anything to attract her attention. . .” And for a wrap-up? An old stand-by is just fine. “Hilarity ensues.”

What is this 1931 James Cagney movie (in which he utters the famous line, “You dirty, double-crossin’ rat”) actually about? In this romantic comedy, a bellboy enlists a maid to help him con people out of their money.

Want to get started? Here’s a few words to try out on your own. Don’t take more than one minute for each:

padashan
icekhana
swallet

The game is a lot more fun in a group when players may come up with riotous definitions. As a bonus, it gives you practice at putting words down on paper before you have any idea of where they are going. Just what you need to crack your writer’s block.

Next Installment:
Cracking the Writer’s Block 4: Life Issues

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

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