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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Writer's Block: Five Sure-Fire Ways to Smash the Block

Ahh, writer's block, the great mythical specter that haunts every writer's dreams, and turns beautiful gilded story ideas to festering, poisonous mush. Writer's block has been around as long as there have been writers, and it has stymied many a literary vision. As with other ubiquitous calamities, like the common cold, there are nearly as many cures for writer's block as there are books starring teenage vampires.

As a reader of, and subscriber to, about 4 million writing blogs, magazines, and newspapers I have heard just about everything imaginable when it comes to "smashing the block", and yet, strangely, nearly every solution is targeted at the symptom and not the root cause of the blockage.

In my estimation writer's block is really just a function of Fear. Just what exactly the writer fears is not the same for everyone, but the existence of the fear is universal. Personally, I constantly fear that I will spend hours and hours on something that turns out to be crap*. Since I have limited time to write and about a decade worth of material rolling around in my head, it is, I suppose, a relatively justifiable fear that I will waste what precious time I have. The ironic thing about this fear is that rather than helping me better sort out what is good writing and what is bad, the fear really just makes me second-guess everything and write even more slowly than normal.

The good news about fear, and thus writer's block, is that it is all in your head, and thus the means of smashing the block is also all in your head. Since writers on the whole are a pretty thoughtful bunch we are particularly susceptible to psyching ourselves out, but the key to breaking writer's block is to find a way of stepping outside yourself, and your story, for long enough to get a grip on the fear, and find your footing again.

The following are a few simple measures that I have found to work. Try 'em out and see which ones work best for you.

1. Drink Alcohol
I don't care what any of those lily-livered writing guides and magazines say, there's a reason why writers have such a long-standing tradition of being drunks. It's because the same principle that makes it really easy to talk to strangers when your wasted makes it really easy to undo whatever mental knots you've tied yourself into when writing. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that you keep whatever crap your drunken mind comes up with but I guarantee you that a couple cans of Guinness will help those words start flowing. Now, because of the inherent danger in using an addictive substance to help you be creative, I definitely don't suggest this as a primary measure**, but during those times when you are really stuck and you have a free weekend, see what a couple bottles of merlot, you, your computer, and all those mental rooms full of personal demons can come up with. What you find might just surprise you.

2. Get some exercise
In the last three years I have found that almost nothing helps clear my head of useless rubble quiet like going for a good jog. Not only will the exercise help the blood flow to your brain but it will also eliminate some of the tension that accompanies writer's block, and you might even come up with some interesting ideas along the way. There is nothing more exhilarating than knowing you have not only broken through blockage that has hampered your creativity for days but you've also burned a few calories at the same time.

3. Read
I am a firm believer in the maxim that great writers are great readers, so anyone who strives to be a successful writer should be reading a ton anyway, but when writer's block strikes that's a perfect time to take a break and pick up a good book, especially if it pertains to the subject you're writing about. Inspiration can strike at the strangest of times, and I can't tell you how many times I've had really good ideas plop into my head when I was reading someone else's work. You can sort of think of it this way: if writer's block is like a clenching of the mental fist, then reading allows the fist to loosen and ideas to flow through your mental fingers. Even if you don't get any new ideas, at least you have added to your arsenal of knowledge by studying someone else.

4. Talk to someone
Writers need a kindred spirit to talk to about their writing. Writing can be such a lonely job that without another person to bounce ideas off of it can be easy to get lost in the forest of your imagination. Several positive things can come from talking to someone else about your writing: by talking out loud about your blockage you may realize that the solution has been staring you in the face all along, your confidant may see something you aren't able to, and additionally by talking about your story you might just get excited about it again. I would suggest, whether you are in the throes of writer's block or not, to find someone to talk to about your writing. They don't need to be another writer but they need to be someone who will be honest with you and will handle your nascent story and your fragile ego with the tender care they deserve.

5. For God's sake write something!
This is probably the best, and most mature, advice I can offer. When you find yourself up against the invisible wall with a story you're writing, write something else. Words are like water in that once you get the flow started it's hard to turn it off, and you'll be surprised how much you have to say once you just start writing. Start a blog, write about your day, start another of the millions of stories you have inside of you, write anything, but just write something. This of course doesn't work as well if you are up against a deadline, but if the only deadline is the one you've imposed on yourself, then relax for a moment, set the story you're working on aside and indulge in the glorious beginning of another. Stories aren't like lovers; it's perfectly all right to date more than one at a time. They don't mind. Hell, you might even discover a few tricks along the way.

So, there you go, five sure-fire ways to breaking through writer’s block. If after trying all five you find you still can’t put pen to paper perhaps you could try one of these three options presented courtesy of McSweeney’s John Warner.


*I have this almost paranoid fear that I will die before finishing all of the stories, novels, and screenplays I have rattling around in me. This paranoia leads me to sometimes point my wife to the pile of papers on my book shelf and the file on my computer desktop marked "Pulitzer Prize" and say, "O, if I die before I finish all this, will you make sure it gets published? You can work the 'literary-genius-dead-before-anyone-realized-he-was-a-genius angle'."
**Natch, if you don't like alcohol, are a recovering alcoholic or suspect you are on the brink of becoming one, or are too young to legally use alcohol I am in no way suggesting you follow this first method.

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