Writer’s block is an affliction that affects almost all writers at some point. I say “almost all” because I have to allow for some cyborgs from outer space posing as writers who never have writer’s block. For us humanoid writers, it just so happens that sometimes the words don’t flow. The ideas don’t come, panic sets in. And then paralysis.
Writer’s block can be debilitating and some writers can take a really long time to get back up on the horse after falling off. Ralph Ellison, whose novel Invisible Man made him not only an overnight literary genius but also a hero, is one of the most famous cases of writer’s block. Publishers and critics waited for decades for his second novel to come. It finally did, in 1999, published posthumously five years after his death.
Harper Lee’s story is much the same. After publishing To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, she finally birthed her second novel this year in 2015. Some writers have prolific careers and then suddenly stop cold. Truman Capote’s last novel, In Cold Blood, was the one that made him most famous and, arguably, the one that ended his career. Sometimes, a work is so famous that the writer becomes intimidated by the task of trying to top it. And then, writing becomes not only difficult but impossible.
So, if these literary giants were defeated by writer’s block, what possible hope do the rest of us have? Well, it can be that you have even more hope than they did. Because chances are you haven’t reached your peak or written your masterpiece yet. That’s actually the good news. Let’s get you writing again, so that you have the chance to reach your top.
Jerrold Mundis has a great method for beginning writers. You can read his book or listen to his audio tapes which are sold on his site www.unblock.org. Mundis’ method encourages first a healthy dose of self-esteem and a can-do attitude about writing. Silencing the inner critic and believing that you can write are the first steps to getting over writer’s block. He also warns writers not to focus on the end result, on book deals and movie contracts, but to concentrate on the writing itself, making the goals small and doable. Looking too much at the big picture will inhibit your ability to focus on the small tasks of putting one word after the other.
His recommended method is freewriting, with no editing or revising allowed during writing sessions. And he also champions the idea of quitting while you’re ahead, i.e. not going past time or word count goals for the day but saving whatever might have spilled over for your next session. Hemingway also recommended doing this. It makes you thirsty for your next writing session to see where that thought process you started will end up.
Don’t Fight It
College professor John Perry made waves recently with his book The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing. The genius of his advice lies in the same wisdom as those martial artists who use the enemy’s energy against them by not reacting. Don’t resist it. The more you resist, the worse it becomes and the harder it is to get over it. He urges people to make lists of tasks starting with the least important and building to the most important. Knocking the less important tasks off the list make you feel productive and builds your confidence so that by the time you get to the important one, you feel more prepared to take it on.
You can apply the same to writing. Instead of working on your book, for example, work on an essay or a journal entry or a poem. Build yourself up to the intimidating tasks by knocking off some writing assignments that hold less emotional weight for you.
Just Focus On the Work
Most writers are pretty good at inflicting terror on themselves. They get caught up in thoughts like “How will I be able to market this?” or “How will I be able to look my mother in the eye after publishing this book with sex scenes in it?” Don’t try to write someone else’s book. Don’t try to write a book that your mother would approve of. Don’t think about what publishers will say. Just write what’s inside of you. That’s the only concern you should have for a good long until you have something that’s developed enough to show to someone. Then let an agent or publisher tell you their thoughts.
If you get caught up in preemptive worries about the finished product, you may never get to that final stage. Shut those thoughts down and every time they come up, recognize them, breathe, and get back to writing. Remind yourself that this is your job, not worrying about other people’s opinions or the future criticisms of your work. Tape a note above your desk reminding you of this. Type it at the top of every page if you must until it sinks in. Your art is yours, your words are yours.
Get Comfortable With Routine
All of the professional writers I know follow some sort of routine. And there are scores of interviews with famous writers about their writing process that all go pretty much along the same lines: write every day. Some may, argued that writer’s block is more of an existential crisis than anything else. Like most artists, writers write because at some point they had a taste of the thunderbolt of inspiration and they wanted more of it.
Most days aren’t inspired days. So what do you do in the meantime? The only way to get on with writing when the inspiration isn’t there is to humbly accept the fact that writing, like being a chef, a plumber, a construction worker or a teacher, is work. You’ll have good days and bad days, but that you must show up to work. So, create your routine. Designate your working time, punch your time card and write.