15: The Exciting Truth About “Writer’s Block”

I have a secret. Ok, I guess it’s not really a secret because I am not the only person who knows it, so let’s just call it a rare truth. Brace yourself. Are you ready? Here it is:

There’s no such thing as Writer’s Block. It’s a myth. It doesn’t exist.

We artists have a unique privilege that other occupations don’t have. We get to claim (dare I say hide behind?) the excuse of “blocks” when things get difficult. Why is it that we never hear anyone complain about having Farmer’s Block or Golfer’s Block? What about Father’s Block, or Daughter’s Block? It’s because our occupations — and especially our identities — are inherently independent of our failures and success. A physician doesn’t forgo treating a patient or performing surgery because he has “Doctor’s Block”. I may neglect to load the dishwasher or take out the trash sometimes, but my wife is unlikely to be convinced if I claim to have “Husband’s Block”.

In the case of a mythical “Golfer’s Block”, a nasty hook or slice or a failure to sink a 20 foot putt could be attributed to an “off day” or lack of practice.  A “blocked” surgeon is typically just tired or puzzled by a mysterious ailment. And my “Husband’s Block”, more often than not, is due to my own insensitivity, bad memory, or selfishness.

Don’t get me wrong; I get it. Sometimes the words don’t come; characters that previously seemed to write themselves suddenly start to give us the silent treatment. After all, “Writer’s Block” is a whole lot shorter than having to say: “I am struggling with content or format for my current project and fear that this impediment will be permanent and carry over to any and all other creative endeavors I pursue.” But isn’t that what we really mean? I am much more willing to get behind a term like “content struggle” than I am the idea of “writer’s block”. I think it’s merely an unfortunate (though evocative) label for the common experience of feeling inadequate to produce our desired content as well as we wish to.

I’ve been told in the past, “Unless both of your arms are broken, you can write something. And even if they are, you can hold a pencil in your teeth and type.” At the time, this hyperbolic advice was intended to encourage me to distinguish between the physical act of “writing” and the more complex process of “content production”. The act of “writing” is literally the act of putting words, any words, on paper or screen. If we think any time our fingers hit the keyboard or our ink meets the page, we have to effortlessly produce perfect prose or poetry, we psych ourselves out and only nothing happens.

Perhaps you are offended by my cavalier attitude toward the real psychological turmoil associated with struggling to produce. I have expressed this opinion on the subject in other writing forums, and been roundly condemned by some of our peers and passionately supported by others. On such occasions, I have been accused of belittling and disrespecting my fellow scribblers, but let me reassure you that I mean no disrespect (or belittling either). I have great empathy with people who doubt their capacity or emotional preparation to adequately express what is in their hearts, due to the events of everyday life, because I have been there, too.

So, what do I do when the words won’t come, or the compulsion to be brilliant right out of the gate paralyzes my creative process? Here are a few of the techniques that I’ve used as an occasionally non-writing Writer:

1)    I Change My Hat

First of all, I do a checkup from the neck up. Maybe I’m being too much of a perfectionist, and I need to take off the Editor Hat I’m unconsciously wearing and give myself permission to wear my Crappy Writing Hat. It can be immensely freeing to allow my work to be temporarily awful.

2)    I Tidy My Time and My Tabletop

Sometimes I just need to get my act together. Disorganization, and allowing lesser priorities to take precedence, has “blocked” me more often than I like to confess. When I have a bajillion distractions, it’s easy to rationalize not writing, because I convince myself that I have to “get ready to start thinking about beginning” to work on my current projects. Case in point: it’s been over a month since my last Truthspeaking Writing Tips post. Why is that? In part, it’s because of the piles of loose paper on my desktop, the books on my disheveled shelves, and the dishes in the sink. (Besides, my Netflix episode queue isn’t going to watch itself.) If I handle such distractions at the appropriate time, I have fewer distractions when it’s time to write.

3)    I Get My Priorities Straight

Conquering literary obstacles sometimes involves hacking through thickets of some pretty thin things. Clutter and “busy work” like filing those random papers, alphabetizing my disorderly bookshelves, and loading the dishwasher (again) all vie for my attention. Such tasks do need doing, so they make me feel like I’m being productive, but such seemingly urgent distractions are less important to my writing life than more “postpone-able” tasks such as planning for upcoming deadlines or reaching a daily word-count goal. That’s what I mean by “handling such distractions at the appropriate time”. Which tasks do I actually have to do right this minute, and which one can I actually do later? What tasks probably won’t get done later if they don’t get done first? I know that if I’m not vigilant, other tasks and activities can pre-empt my writing and another day goes by without content. What comes first on my daily schedule might change from one day to the next (I can’t avoid the kitchen sink forever), but making writing a priority helps to keep it at or near the top of the list and helps to ensure that other tasks are managed in ways that allow content creation to occur more regularly. Figuring out what’s most important at any point in time, and giving those things greater priority, goes a long way toward real progress.

4)    I Keep My Appointment With The Muse

A friend of mine has been trying to establish a habit of working out several times a week, and he has found that it’s much harder to duck a commitment to be at the gym when he knows there is someone there waiting for him. He has established a routine of exercises and even dedicated specific clothes to be used only for working out. Just putting on those shorts and that t-shirt, and starting that specific series of stretches and weights gets his mind and body engaged, even if he isn’t in the mood when he starts. The same principles apply when we set up our individual writing practice. Having a routine and a regular scheduled appointment with the muse of inspiration encourages “her” to be there waiting when we arrive, and helps to keep the words flowing when we put pen to paper. Some writers I follow on social media, only drink coffee or tea *when they write*, and do not allow themselves to take their first sip of the day (from a special mug, of course), until they are seated in front of an open document on the computer. I don’t drink coffee, but I do have a massive hot chocolate mug, several writing-related t-shirts, and the alarm on my phone is set to go off at 4:30 am.

5)    I Minimize The Tabs On My Mental Browser

Have you ever tried to remember something, or to answer a simple question, and you just know the answer is on the inside of your eyelids — if you could just focus hard enough? If you’re like me, you probably only found the answer after you *stopped* looking for it, right? Once my conscious brain lets go of a problem, I am frequently surprised by how often the solution finds its own way out of my mental maze. Some days a “Writer’s Block” is just an invitation to relax and let my brain run the troublesome plot-point or character on a minimized tab of my mental browser. 

6)    I Seek Similar Stories

Writing experts and theorists tell us there is only a limited number of essential plots that all stories follow. How many there are depends on who you ask, but I have often seen a way through my conundrums by reading or viewing the stories of other artists, and noticing the ways in which they are similar to the structures of my own stories. A narrative arc, plot twist, or inspired series of beats has frequently presented itself as I read similar stories, scan pertinent poems, or watch familiar films. (See? My Netflix binges have a purpose — or at least a plausible excuse).

7)    I Look Outside My Cultural Backyard

Speaking of which, I have a number of partial projects and semi-stories that I have commenced by noticing that the plot structures and characters of foreign stories and films are often different from those of my own nation’s artists. It can be profitable to become familiar with the myths and archetypes of other cultures, and borrow from them effectively. For example, the love triangles we are familiar with typically involve a character who has two equally desirable suitors; but such love triangles in Korean dramas often employ a “second male lead” who is actually more worthy of the female protagonist’s affections than the lead male (who is often a jerk that she reforms), but the nice guy still loses her to him. In recent stories, we see a similar pattern in the “Team Jacob” versus “Team Edward” disputes among readers of the Twilight saga, or a flipped version in the pairing of brilliant female lead Hermione Granger with second-fiddle Ron Weasley instead of male lead Harry Potter. Using atypical elements from unfamiliar sources gives me a fresh perspective and great seeds for future fiction.

8)    I Go Through The Motions and Hope For The Best

Some “blocked” days, it’s all I can do to merely prime the pump. Just as I cannot edit and improve a blank page, the water of inspiration often doesn’t come until I twist that rusty tap on a dry water line and hope for the best. When I do, I usually hear a distant banging in the pipes as the far off literary liquid makes its slow way to my bucket. Opening the tap, by following a random writing prompt or brainstorming bullet points for a story, may eventually bring water. Often, that first flow is smelly and cloudy with rust and mineral deposits, but that’s okay — the water is flowing now, and the first bucket usually gets chucked out in the edit anyway.

9)    I Start Digging Elsewhere

If my plot pipes are not forthcoming in providing literary irrigation, and I hit a dry spot in the story, sometimes I need to dig other wells. My notebooks are full of thousands of snippets and scraps, scratched from the soil of promising sources. These test drillings are explorations of ideas, and side quests on the way to continued storytelling. Sometimes they draw from the same authorial aquifer and eventually become part of the same larger story, but other times I am digging on new projects.

Another form of “digging elsewhere” includes literally changing my location. Sometimes, my brain can only produce what my seat can endure. After sitting for hours in my office, in a chair I bought from Wal-Mart, at a desk that is a fraction too high to type in total comfort, my creativity begins to suffer. Moving outdoors, relocating to a local library or café, or even just setting up shop on the couch in the living room, can do wonders for opening the sluice gates of whatever is damming up the flow of words.

10)                    I Pivot In A New Direction

When you compete in a sport, the defense on the other team is supposed to be intent on preventing your progress; they block you from moving forward. In such situations your objective is to beat the blockers and get past them. This can be done in any number of ways, but all of them involve a shift or change of direction — a pivot to a new way of moving forward. For example, in the sport of Judo a competitor succeeds by redirecting the pressure and resistance of their opponent in ways that allow them to literally throw them over their shoulder. Some of these skills redirect the force of a block in a harmless direction, others sidestep an attack and use its momentum to push off at a new angle, and others just meet the pressure head-on. When I get stuck on how to move a plot forward, I can pivot to focus on character development or worldbuilding exercises. If I can’t find the words to express what I am feeling for one poem, I can channel that frustration into writing a different one while I get back into the zone.

11)                    I Change Sports

Speaking of athletes, they have a great way of keeping their skills sharp and their performance at its peak — they cross-train. For example, Runners swim laps, Gymnasts lift weights, Football players do yoga, and Swimmers ride bikes. Doing so keeps things fresh and helps them to develop in areas that benefit their primary sport. Wrestlers improve their endurance, Martial Artists stay loose and flexible, and Golfers maintain core strength to lengthen their drives. Both aerobic and muscular conditioning can be improved. In a previous post, I described the running “game” of doing a fartlek — mixing things up on a run, in order to keep them interesting and challenging. In terms of getting through a writing slump, it’s been effective for me to:

  • Turn off my laptop and write by hand for a while, or compose using my phone.
  • Switch to writing in bullet points instead of crafting complete sentences.
  • Challenge myself to write a style of poem or story I haven’t done before.
  • Talk through my struggles out loud, to someone else or a recording app on my phone.
  • Tell the story to myself on a recorder, or voice-type it into the document.
  • Listen to motivating or applicable playlists, and write scenes that match the music.

As I “cross-train”, my writing muscles gain greater strength and flexibility, my long-distance endurance increases, and I find I have fewer “Writer’s Block” brain cramps.

12)                    I Just Give Up (For Now)

And finally, some days I honestly just collapse under the burdens I bear until I can recover the strength to try again. But, even those off days are not days off. Despite such “Writer’s Block”, I am still a writer. Being “blocked” is not the same as being beaten. Even on days when I can’t face the page or move my mouse, rest and recovery is a legitimate part of the process. Even if all I can do is schedule future writing sessions in my planner, or scribble: “Note to self: buy more notebooks!” on my shopping list, that act of moving my pen might provide the momentum to write a few words more.

Over, Around, Under, or Through? (Holding The Line Works Too.)

These are just a few ways to face the natural fear of failure that we all experience. Seek for others that work for you. When the dreaded specter of your content struggle, authorial anxiety, poetic paralysis — or whatever you call it — looms up from the shadows of your mind and tries to convince you that you’re blocked, you have a choice to make: are you going to go over, around, under, or through the blockage? Even if all you can do sometimes is dig in and hold on, do so as the resilient writer and creator you are.

Sothliche!

WRGilmour

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