I saw this quote on the Advice to Writers website:
Writer’s block is a load of nonsense—I’ve always been a bit suspicious of it. It’s more likely to be a symptom of depression or maybe they’ve just got nothing interesting to say. ~ Alexander McCall Smith
I don’t think that is true for all writers. The block is real for many writers. Generally, it is not an issue for me. In fact, a friend asked me this past week what I do when I hit writer’s block. She is a poet but goes through long periods of not writing at all. I write all the time. I write too much. I write too much online which I shouldn’t consider less noble, but I do when compared to working on poems or articles to send out to journals and publishers.
I think one cure for writer’s block is writing. Even in my earliest teaching days, I would tell my students who were blocked when writing in class journals to just write. Write about being blocked. Write a line from something we were reading in class and go from there.
Back in the 19th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described an “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. That is another kind of block and I’ll admit to hitting that form at times. Coleridge also claimed that French writers created this idea that all writers have to suffer to write. I know I saw this idea quoted somewhere but I could find the source today: You don’t have to suffer for your art. Making it through high school is quite enough suffering. Having taught middle school for a number of years, I’d say you’re ready to be an artist before high school for some people.
Looking at my drafts for this site, I saw that I had bookmarked an article by Jennifer Lachs about writer’s block, so I decided to look at it again read it and write today about not being able to write. She quotes playwright Paul Rudnick who says:
“Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”
Do you have to write? Unless you’re on deadline, no one has to write. That friend who asked me about writer’s block is someone who works best under some pressure. She likes writing workshops that require you to produce and read your poems to the group.
A dictionary definition of writer’s block might be “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Is it psychological?
In the book Fire Up Your Writing Brain, author Susan Reynolds turns to neuroscience to turn on the brain’s creativity for writers in particular.
Reynolds actually claims that it is a psychological condition is a myth. (Others disagree) She feels the brain can be used to generate that creative spark and defeat the procrastination that we call a block. Her approach includes some self-study about the type of writer you are and then developing writing models.
Reynold and I are believers in neuroplasticity. She says you can hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity.
Of course, the block can also be a full creative block that goes wider than just writing. It is important to recognize why you get blocked. Is it fear of failure or rejection? Are you such a perfectionist that you can’t get started? Certainly, many of us are our own toughest critics.
Despite my friend’s preference for deadline pressure, if you really have to write because it is your work or you have a deadline to meet, that pressure can also block people.
This brings me to solutions. They are as numerous as causes. You will find online and in books strategies and block breakers. Here’s a very partial list.
Do some exercise. Take a walk. Do something aerobic.
Do something completely different from the task at hand for a bit. That sounds like procrastination, but switching tasks just for a short time might reset your brain. Get up from the desk and make a cup of tea. Try drawing something. Einstein famously would pick up his violin and play some Mozart when he hit a creative wall.
Combine solutions. Take the dog and yourself for a walk. It combines exercise and a change of scenery which might even newly inspire you.
Cook something, rake some leaves, sew, knit, sculpt, do some woodworking, paint a wall or a still life, chop some firewood.
I found it interesting that some research shows that doing something with your hands when you are blocked in your brain is effective.
Free-writing can be a block breaker. Writing without rules, about whatever pops into your head can let the imagination free. It may not produce a finished product but that is not the point.
I’m not good at getting rid of distractions, but that is highly recommended. You may not be diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder but when you’re writing on a screen having email, social media, and notifications there with you is definitely distracting. Now that 24-hour news, TV and movies are on your phone all that can take you away from your writing. Notifications play on our fear of missing out (FOMO) on something important.
The most Romantic (capital R) and the almost mythical solution is to “get away” from it all. I’ve had that fantasy inside me since I was a teenager reading Walden. I’ve written about that cabin out in the woods for a writing place, but I recognize that I might still just be sitting there unable to write and happily distracted by rabbits and a nearby river or pond. I wrote that you should not need a cabin in the woods to write, which should be obvious, but the dream persists.
I am a big user of notebooks and more recently notes on my phone. I have a lot of one-line poetry ideas (there are 133 there now) and I always have a few blog posts in draft mode that I started and have left to simmer.
Maybe it is a time-of-day, circadian rhythms that is an issue for you. Are you more productive at certain times? I write best in the morning and at night. Afternoons – not so great. But if I am banging up against that block in the morning, I might do other things and come back to writing after lunch.
Binge writing is not recommended. Smaller sessions are better. John Updike, who was very productive, treated his writing like a regular job. he went to an office and didn’t let himself out for lunch until he had produced a certain amount of writing. It might be a poem, a few pages in the novel or even answering mail.
Poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every morning when he woke and before breakfast. How did he do it? He admitted that he lowered his standards. He didn’t expect every morning poem to be great – or even be a poem. It was a case of progress, not perfection. Perfectionism is a block builder. I followed that philosophy when I did my poem-a-day project 365 times in 2014.
Confesssion: I went back to the draft of this post because I was at a loss for what to write for today. I don’t have a deadline, but I do try to posts at least two times every weekend. When I have a “lost weekend” it bothers me. Then, I write about the lost weekend. Write. Just write.