Overcoming Writer’s Block

Most of us have been there. We know how it is: We have arranged a time to write. The house is quiet. No one is asking anything of us. We have a cup of freshly-brewed coffee nearby and fresh legal pad with a fine-tipped pen. We are ready to write!

We sit down, computer fired up and open to a blank page, but nothing comes. Or worse, ideas come, but each one of them falls flat as they hit the page. Our writing feels lifeless and dead. Maybe we should just answer some emails instead, until we feel inspired? Or vacuum the living room. Or make a grilled cheese sandwich. A grilled cheese sandwich sounds delicious. We can add tomatoes and basil and some of that crusty bread with a little olive oil. With this thought, we close our computer and head to the kitchen, another writing opportunity lost.

Writer’s block. A cliche (“I’m blocked….”), yet all too common. There are, however,  remedies.  Below are some thoughts on the causes of writer’s block, as well as worked for me to move past it:

You are out of practice. I have found the the more I write, the more I want to write. If I go on a vacation during which I don’t open a laptop for a week or more, writing becomes much more difficult to begin again once the break is over. The same thing happens when exercising—if I take a few days off with no walking or running, getting off my butt becomes more and more difficult and soon, a walk around the neighborhood becomes equivalent to a half-marathon in my mind. So, your writer’s block may simply mean that you need to begin making writing a habit in your life, even if you don’t feel like writing.

Dorthea Brande writes about something similar in her book Becoming a Writer. If you are really blocked, try Brande’s idea of training yourself to write. She recommends pure free-writing upon waking, every single day, even before you have had your first cup of coffee. The idea is to catch your brain before it fully has a chance to wake up, when your mind is still fluttering around in the depths of the unconscious. Brande recommends taking 10-15 minutes and just write anything that comes to mind in that time. Then, put the writing away and don’t read it. Then, begin your day. After a few weeks, you may read what you wrote and, predictably, most of what you wrote will be crap. This is fine. The point is rather to begin writing and mine your unconscious.

You will ultimately find some nugget of thought you didn’t even know you had, which you can highlight and keep for later. Just doing this will train you to write and generate some ideas for future stories. Continue to do this for another few weeks and then, choose another time for writing, but this time, a bit later in the day. Look at your agenda for the day and choose thirty-minutes or an hour and again, do the same free-writing, only this time, you will be fully awake. Brande says to make a commitment to write at this time, “even if you have to climb over the heads of your friends” to do so. The point here, though, is to write every day, even if it is just journaling.

You (feel as if you) lack ideas. Following quickly at the heels of being out of practice is feeling as if you have no ideas worth writing about. Yet this is nonsense. Notice how I wrote “you feel” you have no ideas and not that you actually do not have ideas? You have plenty to write about. In addition to journaling and accessing your unconscious as mentioned above, try keeping a small notebook with you at all times. Yes, an actual notebook with an actual pen–I like to choose one that I can fit in my bag or purse. I know, I love technology as much as the next person.  For productivity, I love also using apps like Evernote and Scrivener on my phone or iPad, but there is just something motivating about having a notebook with the sole purpose of jotting down random thoughts, over heard discussion, observations, and actual story ideas. When it occurs to you, jot it down (but not when you are driving!) and then every so often, go back and read what you wrote. Not every idea will be valuable, but so what? Some ideas will not come to fruition for a few years, but if you write them down with a pencil or pen, you are more likely to remember them and be able to connect each to another idea in such a way that inspires you. Essentially, it’s all about the patterns you see. One story about the local grocery store manager moving to Russia to teach a master chess class may be interesting, but not enough to base a story on. However, a few months later, you might overhear a conversation or something may happen in your personal life to mix with the chess tale and electricity will strike. The very act of writing things down will prepare you to listen and observe and gather those gems for future inspiration.

You talked too much about your project. The cardinal rule for avoiding writers block is this: Never, ever, no-never run your mouth about an embryonic story! Never. I know, I know, you enjoy stories, which is why you started writing in the first place. Your brain craves stories, but while you might realize the difference between writing a story and verbally telling a friend about that story, your brain does not distinguish the difference. If someone asks you, “So, what is your story about?” and you tell them, your brain will then feel as if it has already told the story and now, satiated, wants to move on and tell something different. When you sit down in front of the computer to write, your brain will balk and whine and resist continuing because it has already told this story and why are you boring it with making it tell the same thing again? Now you’ve done it—you are blocked. You will now not be able to write this story at all, at least not anytime soon. So, trust me on this, resist the urge to talk about your embryonic writing project with other people. Wait until that first draft is written before you share anything with anyone. If someone asks what you are working on, just tell them,”I can’t talk about it until I get a first draft down.” Fellow writers will understand this answer and others will simply go on being mystified by you, which is nothing new anyway.

You are bored or disenchanted. Sometimes, we get in a rut and become disenchanted with what we are writing, which can happen for many reasons. We have all heard the phrase, “If you are bored writing it, your reader will be bored reading it,” and this is a phrase to write by.

Some of the many reasons for being disenchanted or bored with your writing might be that you already shared too much about a project (see the previous paragraph) and now your brain is bored. Or maybe what you are writing is not ringing true or has a false sense to it. You may have started down the wrong path with the plot or a character is behaving in a way that he wouldn’t if you were being true to her and your mind recognizes this falseness and resists. Or maybe the story needs to go in a different direction or address some crucial reality, but is failing to do that, so again, your brain resists. These are just a few ideas—you will have to discover for yourself what ails you—but there are some tricks to escaping the morass of disenchantment.

The first cure is to go for a long walk. Stephen King mentions this trick in On Writing and it works very well because walks clear your mind, give you time to think, and also offer you a fresh perspective of the world. Walking forces you to see the world differently (houses, trees, buildings, cars, people, and wildlife, all look very different up close as opposed to driving past them) while simultaneously allowing your mind to wander the way it needs to wander. If you are blocked due to boredom or disenchantment or confusion, you can hardly do better than taking a nice, long walk. Or, you might try what my dad likes to do and “take a new way home.” When I was a young child, my dad would drive down new streets and we’d ask him where he was going? His response? “In life, you have to take a new way home. Otherwise, you get bored.” I have done this all my life, especially when I feel myself getting in a rut and I can personally attest to not only new roads, but short day trips to the beach, a new town, or a new part of a big city where you’ve never been before. On occasion, you can walk somewhere new, too and do both a and b at the same time. Lastly, c) ask yourself, “What crucial truth does my story address?” Sometimes a lack direction or a lack of clarity causes the boredom or disenchantment, so exploring where you are going wrong can help alleviate your writer’s block. Even if you don’t know exactly what crucial truth your story addresses–or if there is more than one–focusing your thoughts in this direction can help bring back the critical direction you need.

You are emotionally upset. Maybe you have something else going on in your life that is preventing you from having fun or enjoying passion with your writing. This one is a bit obvious, but it has to be said because after all, it is difficult to write with enjoyment if your personal life is in turmoil. In this case, you may need to take a small break from your main project, but still continue to write in the form of journaling. Journaling can be a tremendous help as a mental health tool and I highly recommend journaling even if you feel great. Of course, depending on what is going on in your life, you might also consider seeking the help of a therapist, as well as eating healthy food and getting plenty of exercise and rest. I know, I sound like a mother, but there it is.

You are being a perfectionist. Okay, this is a big one. As a fellow perfectionist, I am here to tell you that perfectionism can stifle your writing and everything else as well. As a young child, I wrote because I enjoyed writing—nothing more. It wasn’t until I began submitting my work in writing workshops in college when the monster of perfectionism reared its ugly head. I remember my time in undergraduate writing seminars so well. I’d submit my fledging short story with its wandering plot and half-developed characters while a roomful of wannabe Kerouacs in leather jackets judged aplenty. It wasn’t long before I hit the writer’s block big time. Nothing I wrote was decent, I told myself—why was I even bothering? Grad school seminars were less obnoxious, but that sense of inferiority never really went away until recently. I apparently had to live a long time in order to learn that no one knows the answers, least of all people whose job it is to judge your writing. While it is great to strive for improvement, perfectionism can keep you from writing at all.

The cure for perfectionism, is to give yourself new permission to play, to make mistakes, and to produce crap, if it comes to that (although I’ll bet it isn’t even crap anyway. Perfectionists tend to judge themselves far too harshly). Anne Lamott writes of her own technique for living with perfectionism in her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” where she describes the importance of allowing imperfection to enter as part of her writing process. I do something similar. For years, I felt that writing was SERIOUS and IMPORTANT and I had to do it WELL and these thoughts paralyzed me. Long gone were the relaxing afternoons spent in my room as a young teen, scribbling away in notebook after notebook and tapping along in an archaic word processing program, writing story after story, simply because it was fun to do and part of who I am as a person. I had to go through a large part of my life—including living through things that actually ARE serious, far more serious than any writing—to put all of this into perspective. Yes, I take my writing seriously as a craft and try to improve every day, but if there isn’t some element of fun, you won’t want to do it. So, go ahead and agree that everything you write doesn’t have to be perfect. PLENTY of people write crappy things and are published every day, so stop being hard on yourself. Do what you have to do. I personally have to take drastic steps on occasion, including telling myself over and over that it is fine to not be perfect, or despite the fact that I have at my disposal a couple of decent computers, writing software, and an iPad, I must handwrite the first draft of a difficult story on yellow legal pads, in PENCIL, just so I can make myself understand that it is “just a first draft” or “even a pre-first draft.” I don’t always do this, but I do resort to whatever I have to in order to get started writing again. You do what you have to do to fight the perfectionist bug.

This is of course not an exhaustive list of reasons (and some cures) for the dreaded writer’s block, but it’s a start. Do you have a cause and a solution you’d like to add? I’d love to hear from you!

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Writer’s Block”

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