Writer’s Block is a phrase that seems to come up wherever aspiring writers congregate, whether online or IRL. Either they worry they have it (because words don’t magically flow like water from their fingertips when they sit down to write), or they worry about its inevitable appearance (because although things may be going fine at the moment, apparently it afflicts all writers at one time or another).
So here’s a thought: instead of considering it something to fear, consider it something to, well… not exactly look forward to, but listen to. Like heeding a caution sign on a twisty road or taking advice from a wise friend.
My operating theory is that what we call “writer’s block” is our subconscious trying to tell us something. And the corollary is that we might benefit from paying attention to it instead of trying to brute-force our way through it.
For me at least, the inability to really sink my teeth into a writing project is usually code for “I haven’t thought about it quite enough yet.” I rarely get the long-term feeling of “I’m totally empty and have no idea what to write” (and when I do, it’s almost always the universe telling me to take a break) but more often I’ll get stuck on a specific story issue, whether plot or character-related.
I’ve come to believe this is my creative mind trying to tell me—as directly as it can—that I need to cogitate a little more about the story before committing words to paper.
I try not to sit down to write until I have at least a vague clue as to where I’m going because—for me—the least productive place to come up with new ideas is sitting on my butt staring at a blank screen. I’d rather mow the lawn or wash the dishes or stand in the shower. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think the real writing happens away from the keyboard, and I also believe the subconscious does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to creativity. So if I’m stuck on a plot point, I’ll go for a run (or any other activity that takes just a minimal amount of attention). The slight attention requirement of running or walking or whatever seems to distract the conscious mind just enough to let the subconscious come out and play. Then during the run I’ll sort of mull over the scene in question, playing it in my head like a movie. Each time I play the clip I change it a little, and sooner or later an idea will pop into my mind. And if it’s a good idea, I get that “aha!” feeling. If not, I keep playing the film clip until I do. (Or until the lawn is mowed or the run is over, in which case I let it go for the time being.) Then, assuming I have an inspiring little idea that gets me past the sticking point, I’m ready to sit down and begin writing. And of course, once you have enough of an idea to start a scene, your mind generally comes up with other ideas to extend or complete the scene.
Another part of the solution to what people call “writer’s block” may be as simple as writing regularly. It’s an over-used phrase but there’s some truth in the simple concept of “ass in chair.” Like most skills, if you exercise it regularly you not only get better at it—in terms of craft—but you also get more efficient at it. And you develop confidence that if you start the tiny little scene you have in mind, you’ll likely come up with more. (I can’t count the times I’ve sat down to write with only a sliver of an idea in mind—thinking I’ll probably run out of creative steam in ten minutes—and I end up going for several pages. The trick is just capturing that initial spark, then putting in the work.)
A related aspect of this is simply habit. Some authors advocate writing at the same time and place every day, in an effort to condition your mind to be creative on schedule. This has all the earmarks of a good idea—by all means, give it a try if it fits your workflow. That level of specificity doesn’t work for me, but the overall concept does. I find that if I work on my story in some fashion every day (or for some value of “every day” approximating “most days of the week”) then, everything else being equal, the writing comes easier than when I let it sit for several days on a regular basis. And “working on” doesn’t have to mean original-drafting exclusively. It can mean researching and making notes, or outlining the next few chapters, or maybe going back and editing what I wrote in my last few sessions. (And of course, it can mean simply writing.) The point is, touching base with your book daily—in some fashion—will keep the story in your mind. And this is one of the keys to keeping your subconscious engaged.
I also find it helps to have a sense of overall direction. I’m not a detailed outliner, but I like a few signposts along the way, and I like to have at least a rough idea as to how things might end. (A provisional ending, if you will. I might change it when I get there but for now I just want something to drive toward.) Using a road trip as an analogy, I don’t need a detailed route mapped out, with every little meal stop and gas station and motel already decided on… please. But I like broad ideas, on the order of: “I’m starting on the East Coast—let’s say New York—and heading to the West Coast. I think I’ll swing down through the South instead of the Mid-West because I prefer the warmer weather and the BBQ… maybe Atlanta, maybe Birmingham, maybe New Orleans… not sure yet. But I know I want to drive through the Southwest, then on to the coast. Final destination is either L.A. or San Francisco… I’ll know more when I get closer.” That’s pretty much all I need, and I’m ready to go. Enough to keep me moving along, but not so much that I can’t take a detour if it looks promising.
We all have different working methodologies and I’m not saying, “Simply do this, and all will be well.” You have to find what works for you. But how you cast things within your own mind can have a big impact on how they affect you, so consider re-casting your perception of what’s commonly called “writer’s block,” maybe to the point of not applying that phrase to yourself in any sort of regular setting.
Imagine you’re building a shed in your backyard. You decide on the basic size and shape… maybe you pour a footing. Then before you continue you get some cool ideas about how you want to configure the walls… maybe you want more windows? A friend stops by and says, “What’s wrong? I thought you were building a shed. Why aren’t you pounding nails already?” Would you say, “I don’t know. I think maybe I have…” (poignant pause) “…builder’s block.”? No, you’d say, “I am building a shed. I just need to decide a few more things before I start pounding nails.”
So maybe you don’t have writer’s block after all. Maybe you just need to decide a few more things before you start pounding the keys. Which isn’t an excuse for TV and bon-bons—you still need to maintain forward momentum. So if you need to make a few more decisions before you start (or return to) initial drafting, that’s fine. Don’t over-think it. Just stay in touch with your story—and give your subconscious fuel—as regularly as possible, and you’ll get there.
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