Overcoming Writer's Block
How To Write Your Way Out of Writer's Block
Take it easy, but take it.
—Old Hippie Proverb
I’m in the middle of writer’s block this very moment, so, what the hell— I will write about overcoming writer’s block here. Self-indulgent? — Certainly! But along the way I will share some tricks for getting oneself out of feeling creatively blocked—that will be useful to just about anybody except children. Little kids are naturally imaginative—because creativity is our natural state. As grown-ups we learn to over think and forget to play. We think we can think our way out of a block, but the truth is if you are not allowing yourself to have fun you are doing it wrong.
Writers block has been thoroughly investigated in fiction. The all-time classic example is Jack Nicholson as the blocked caretaker of The Overlook Hotel filling hundreds of pages with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Weirdly, Jack was on to something: the very act of sitting down and getting your body ready to write that is at least half the battle. Even if you don’t create something worthwhile today, the act of sitting down being ready is important, if you keep showing up eventually inspiration will meet you there. The creative act is like fishing, the key is mainly just showing up with your tools, whether they are a rod and tackle or a laptop or whatever. Once you are at the water’s edge the main thing needed for success is patience.
I’m not saying patience is easy. Being patient and focused for a long period of time is one of the hardest things in the world. And it gets harder as we invent new distractions, that train us to be impatient. But patience it is also fairly simple. Let us draw a few distinctions—creating is not necessarily easy. Should it feel fun, and relaxed, and playful? Hell yes! But these things are not quite the same thing as easy. Force is exactly what turns off the muse. You do not use your imagination so much as attend to your imagination. Relaxed but alert: that is when the muse (Greek for magic inspiration fairy) will show up and do your work for you.
Patience is the raw material of writing, it is the fuel of creativity. These days we are short on patience (relaxed awareness) so we have become bad at daydreaming. Writing creatively is a sort of pro-longed daydream, that you take notes on. When I say I have been fighting writer’s block, I could just as well call it Daydreamer’s block. Most of us are fantastic daydreamers when we are children, as we become adults, we can become stuck in the logical side of things, by force of habit. Being logical means not accepting our imagination as it is, but trying to shape it into what “should be”. When we do that, it is impossible to surprise or delight ourselves, and then of course it becomes impossible to surprise or delight others.
Now I want to follow one of the best pieces of advice against getting writer’s block, which is essentially quit while your ahead. Hemingway said it simply: “Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day.” In the name of stopping while it’s good—I’ll wrap up with 3 tips for overcoming writer’s block.
One: Like stage fright, or microphone shyness, writer’s block is something that is mainly a problem at the beginning of a writing session. Once you get moving, past the blank page it tends to fade in the rear-view mirror. Because of this the fastest cure for writer’s block is simply to launch forth boldly.
Two: accept annoyances and setbacks. Today’s writers block, in my case was instigated by my neighbor using a power saw all morning. Today for me it was the next-door neighbor, sawing boards with a table saw, which is his favorite past time. Every time I sat down to the blank page the sawing started up. Eventually I realized my only choice was to grit my teeth and write through the sawing, or do time for manslaughter. Once I accepted the fact of the sawing, and got to work writing this essay, the annoying whine of the saw never went away (I can hear it now) but it became less annoying as I began to focus more on writing and less on any distraction. You may not have a power-sawing neighbor, but there will always be something to take the place of an excuse. Accept whatever it is for today and write anyhow. By accept I mean, observe without judgement. Whatever is going on around you, inside you, or in the world at large, you must be able to acknowledge but then keep moving. (Of course, this is also a wonderful attitude for enjoying life as well.)
Three: It’s okay to write garbage at first. Really that is the whole enchilada in one tortilla right there. Give yourself permission to write fluff, drivel, junk for a paragraph or two . . . once you get rolling you will revise. (This is also why some of the best short story editing advice is to just throw the first page in the wastebasket and start on page 2.) Giving yourself permission to write a sucky first draft is the heart of pretty much every book about writing, so I’ll be brief: it’s okay to write something that’s just okay for your rough draft: you’re going to go back over it and revise it, so don’t put too much pressure on that first draft. Relax. Play. Then redraft it over and over until you’re happy with it—but keep the relax vibe going. Rinse, repeat. This yin yang paradox of good writing is that it is simply about switching hats back and forth between the creator and the editor. The more you do it the easier it gets. Writer’s block happens when writers get stuck wearing the revising hat and forget to take it off and have fun.
And finally, remember— all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy—recharge your battery, give yourself plenty of time to ferment your creative juices, by doing other stuff: relax, read a book, go for a walk, maybe even take up fishing.
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