Thursday, August 21, 2008

Five Tips for Unlocking Writer's Block

Every writer knows the feeling. You've put it in four-wheel drive, and your tires are still spinning. Mud flips through the air, coating your windshield, and oozes down your side mirror. You groan. It didn't look that deep. or that muddy. or that messy. But here you are -- out of cell range, close to midnight, all alone. What do you do?

1. Read the hilarious but empathetic chapter on writer's block in Anne Lamott's must-have book Bird by Bird. She begins with: There are few experiences as depressing as that anxious barren state known as writer's block, where you sit staring at your blank page like a cadaver, feeling your mind congeal, feeling your talent run down your leg and into your sock. At least you don't feel quite so alone.

2. Go for a walk. This sounds asinine, and it might not work for you. But I've found that extra oxygen to the brain can work wonders. I have a five-mile loop, myself, and by the time I've finished, I'm ready to roll. I don't always remember every brilliant line or detail that I cleverly crafted, but I've had the chance to reassure myself that I haven't lost it, this precious golem I keep on a string.

3. Listen to a podcast. Not any podcast, of course, but one that inspires the writer in you. My favorite are from Odyssey: the Fantasy Writing Workshop. (If you have money, time, and writing talent, apply for their 6-week writing workshop. It looks phenomenal.) They have such writing greats as Patricia A. McKillip, Rodman Philbrick, and Jeff VanderMeer doing their guest lecturing, as well as editors like Gardner Dozois.

4. If you're really stuck, consider taking a true breather and pick up Christopher Vogel's The Writer's Journey. When you need to hit reset, take time out and re-evaluate, step back and look at the big picture, this book can help remind you of the epic structures of storytelling. This doesn't mean you're betraying your craft or concocting a cookie-cutter novel. It just means that you acknowledge a greater theme that ties humanity together and you're interested in universal truths.

5. Slog through it. Sometimes the only way to conquer Writer's Block is to bulldoze your way through it. Keep typing. Keep writing. Keep your fingers moving. Force yourself to sit there and slog your way through it. Yes, it's painful. Yes, it's dirty. And, yes, you'll end up deleting most of it later on down the line. But, sometimes, it's the only way.

Sometimes you are the only one who can rescue you. You have to get out the shovel and the sandbags, and dig your way out, sprinkling down a layer of traction as you go. You'll be sweaty and muddy, but oh so exultant when your tires finally wrench free. Go forth and conquer.


Ken Kiser said...

I must say, That I don't believe in writers bock as some kind of mysterious external ailment.

Writers block is due to LACK:

Lack of planning, lack of commitment, lack of direction, lack of self-confidence ect.

When I sit down and experience a block, it tells me that I'm falling off on my preparations and that I've been neglecting my skill set.

I don't believe there is a magic pill to cure writers block... I believe the key lies in becoming a better writer.

Nils said...

Writer's block is usually a sign of stress. I am guessing - it is for me. So for me the magic solution is:

Take a vacation.

Alex Moore said...

@ken: lol. good points, and i agree to a certain point. in my own life, i notice that writer's block mostly hovers when i'm trying to start a new project that i'm not completely certain about. on the other hand, i do know that everyone has a different rhythm & who am i to naysay them? you, sir, are a master at self-discipline, for which you should be commended.

@nils: hmmm...also a good point. it's difficult to get the creative juices flowing when you're stressed to the max. any good vacation spots you'd like to share?!:)

Anonymous said...

Well said, and I love the metaphor of the bogged car! Some good advice there.

My writer's block usually hits when I'm tired. I know from experience that the only way to get through ti (for me) is to freewrite - just put down whatever comes into my head until the gears start turning again. But everyone has a different strategy that works for them.

Diane Gallant said...

I think you're right about "slogging through it." I find that for me, anything else is just procrastination, and only serves to compound the problem. And boy - do I llooovve to procrastinate.

Anonymous said...

Julia Cameron (the Right to Write) suggests that Writer's Block is more of a case of emptiness. She'd probably take your stuck car analogy and make it out of gas. Her solution: regularly replenishing "the well." In my experience, this makes some sense. However - I've noticed that the times I am just slogging through, and nothing flows, and I'm sure I'm writing total trash, a lot of it turns out to be very good.

Alex Moore said...

@notenoughwords: isn't it amazing what you can unlock by simply freewriting? as a teacher i continually try to coax forth students' knowledge (that they may not even know they have) through writing.

@diane: ditto. :)

@uppington: True. & even if it's not something that's picture perfect, i find that with a little revision or face-lifting it turns out pretty decent.

So, ultimately, the secret is to keep working while on vacation surrounded by writely determination...