It’s often said that getting started is the hardest part of becoming a writer, but what happens after that? When you’re halfway through your masterpiece and stall, or, worse, when you’re halfway through your career and stall, what do you do?
First, let’s look at what Writer’s Block is, and what causes it.
writ·er’s block (rī’tərz)
n. A usually temporary psychological inability to begin or continue work on a piece of writing.
It’s widely acknowledged that the most common cause of the dreaded block is subconscious realisation that a problem exists within the current work. A plot hole, a character fault, a weakness somewhere that your subconscious has picked up on but which your conscious mind has yet to spot. A less common cause, but just as damaging, is a lack of interest in the writing. Some authors need to completely engage with their work to be able to do it, and if you’re struggling to write a non-fiction article about bedding plants when your real interest is in digital photography, you could be in for an uphill struggle.
Whatever the cause, the net result is that you’ve stopped writing, and you want to start again. And, like erectile dysfunction, the more you worry about it, the longer it’ll be a problem. This leads us neatly into solution #1:
#1: Stop worrying.
Relax. You’ll write again. Maybe not right away, but you will. Deadline looming? Don’t worry about it. If you can’t write, you won’t hit the deadline anyway, so worrying about the deadline is a moot point.
#2: Go do something else.
It can take a long time for the subconscious to bother telling the conscious what exactly’s going on, and this happens best when your conscious mind isn’t trying to slam the subconscious’ nuts in a drawer while interrogating it. Take a nice walk, go for a drive, do the shopping, watch a film, pick bogeys out of your nose. Whatever you can do to let your mind relax and wander.
#3: Feed your brain.
Your writing draws on every little thing you’ve ever given your brain to mull over, from a cat you saw the other week skipping along the street to a website you saw four years ago about Space travel, from the news you watched half an hour ago to the books you read as a child. Every experience, every word, is a resource that you dip into whenever you write, and if you don’t take time to top up the well, it’ll run dry. Read other books. Skim a dictionary for new words. Learn another language or culture. Watch films you wouldn’t normally watch. Read magazines you wouldn’t normally read. Go to places you’ve never been before (even if that means just going into a clothes shop you normally avoid). Give your brain new experiences and words to slosh around in the well. Do this constantly, rather than only in times of emergency, and you’ll find Writer’s Block comes around far less often than it used to.
#4: Feed yourself.
Your brain uses the majority of the energy that you get through every day, and requires more oxygen than any other organ. It’s the prime destination for every resource you consume or intake, and if you’re low on nutrients or liquid, it’s your brain that suffers. Keep yourself fed and watered (dehydration is the enemy of wakefulness) to a sufficient level, and move about now and then to get the blood pumping (up to your brain, where it can do the most good). You’ll do yourself no favours if you sit at the keyboard twelve hours a day barely moving, never eating, and drinking a can of coke a day.
#5: Write something else.
If what’s stopping you is that article on bedding plants, start a new document and write about something that interests you. Write about what writer’s block is like. Write about what you can see outside of your window. Write a long, sensuous description of that coffee mug beside your monitor. Flip the dictionary open, pick a random word, and use it – either write about it or write using it. Write down your most shameful memory from childhood. Write down the one thing you wish you could have told your Father / Mother / Sister / Uncle before s/he died, and why you never did. Write down how you felt the first time you achieved something important to you (passing an exam, reaching level 70 on World of Warcraft, giving birth, writing your very first story). Write about your favourite smell, or the flavour you loathe the most. You get the idea.
#6: Join a writing group.
Writing groups are a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. They will think up challenges you yourself might never have conceived of. They will give you feedback you may never have spotted. They will provide you with a regular schedule to adhere to without all the stress of actually calling it a “deadline”. And nothing boosts your courage and confidence quite like hearing those magic words “I really liked that”. If you can’t find one in person, there are plenty of online or postal writing groups. If you write in a particular genre, join a club that encompasses that genre and may either have writing groups or be amenable to you starting one. If you can read this blog, you can use Google.
#7: Identify the problem.
If your brain flips at the very idea of trying to identify a problem with your writing that’s stopping you from progressing, the likelihood is that there’s a problem with your writing that’s stopping you from progressing. Perverse, but true. If you’re stuck on a novel, the point at which you’re stuck could prove a vital clue: Are you floundering because you can’t figure out what your protagonist needs to do next? Then it’s likely you haven’t fleshed his personality out well enough or, if you are writing something that is plot-based, you’ve not completely laid your plot out in a logical, hole-free manner yet. Are you stuck because a little voice is telling you what you just wrote is nonsense? Then leave it a few days then go back and re-read everything, right from the start; It’s possible that what you just wrote contradicts something tiny that was laid out right at the beginning of Chapter Two. Perhaps you’re struggling with perfectionism. Just accept that, as a first draft, of course it’s not going to be excellent.
#8: Change tactics.
Do you normally start writing without any idea of where you’re going or what’s going to happen? Take a break to try plotting out the rest of your article or story with bullet points or on 3×5 cards. Do you normally set off with a very clear roadmap? Try freeforming it for a while. Do you normally write for an hour a day in the mornings? Try the evenings, or for a solid four-hour stint at the weekend. Do you have (or have access to) children? Tell them the story so far (minus any sexy bits and swearies) and ask them what they think should happen next. Try writing the solution they suggest. Do you usually reward yourself for doing your day’s writing? Give yourself your reward first, then earn it afterwards.
Break your routine, change your tactics, assault your work a different way.
#9: Is something else the problem?
Sometimes writer’s block isn’t caused by a writing problem. You may be depressed, stressed, feeling guilty about something, distracted by other concerns. Don’t be surprised if you can’t write during a period of illness, while a loved one is dying, after your divorce, during a period of layoffs at the day job, while your ex is sending you threatening texts, or after losing an arm. Don’t worry that you’ll never write again, because it’ll come back to you as naturally as the rest of your life will. Worrying about writing is an avoidance tactic to save yourself from addressing the real problem, be it accepting that you are depressed and need to seek help, or getting through denial about a terminal illness and moving on to coping. Refer to #1: Stop worrying. If worrying about writing is being used as a crutch to prevent another psychological issue from being addressed, you will not be able to write until the other issue does get resolved, because they will become associated.
That’s all there is to it. By far the easiest to follow is #3, and doing so will keep most of the others at bay. Go out at the weekends, take holidays as and when possible, go have fun in your life, and always seek to learn new things. If you can do that, you may find that writer’s block is something you’ll never actually experience.