Writer’s block is a phrase I won’t use in relation to my writing practise. It sounds too much like a disease that I’m at risk of ‘catching’. There are times when the words don’t flow, but like any condition, prevention is the best cure.
Think first, write later
Joyce Carol Oates urges writers to ‘think first…writing prematurely is a mistake.’ Lydia Davis says ‘I go to the page when I already have a thought…very quickly it’s not blank.’ And Jonathan Franzen claims, ‘the blank page in the mind has to be filled before you have the courage to face the actual blank page.’
Think about what it is you want to say before you start writing. I know for me, not doing this is the primary cause that prevents me starting or progressing a writing project. Before I begin I always ask myself: What do I want this story to say? What are the themes and issues I want it to address? Who are the stakeholders? If I get stuck, I go back to my answers and remind myself of the story’s purpose.
Loss of flow
Flow is the state of being totally immersed in and energised by the story you’re working on. It’s what wakes you in the middle of the night with ideas that have to be jotted down. It’s what stops you catching up with friends or makes you forget to pick the kids up from school. It’s the best period of a writing project. It’s when you believe you can do it.
Except flow can be broken. The imagination can go into hibernation, forced there by school holidays, work commitments or illness. It can also be broken by over-analysis or a crisis of faith. Margaret Atwood says we should think about flow as we would skiing: ‘If you’re skiing downhill and stop in the middle to think how am I doing this, you’ll fall over.’
Lack of confidence
Whether published or emerging, anyone can experience the torment of a lack of confidence. The unpublished author knows they need to write something that stands out in a crowded marketplace. The published author knows they must write something as good as or, ideally, better than what they’ve already written. Often when we sit down to write so does the inner critic.
Procrastination presents itself as those activities that push writing down the scale of priorities. They include email, social media, cleaning, cooking, gardening, exercise, family responsibilities and fatigue, or inessential research, not settling on a theme, character or plot.
Procrastination is a defence mechanism. It allows us to avoid the terror of other people reading our work. It protects us from criticism. It keeps us safe from failure. It stops us addressing why we aren’t getting on with our writing. It’s just another word for fear or lack of self-belief. I’m not saying these feelings aren’t real – they are and I experience them often. But the key is to not let them dictate our ability to write. Instead, find ways to shut down the cycle of negativity.
Now let’s look at a first aid kit of strategies to remedy writer’s block.
Stop while the going’s good
This worked for Ernest Hemingway and it also works for me. Before I finish up a writing session, I bullet point a few key words and ideas for the next scene before I close the file. When I next open it, these thoughts are waiting for me, which alleviates the fear of facing a blank page.
Keep a dream journal
No one need see what you write about your dreams. There’s no need to check facts and it doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it. It can be a ludicrous dream or a dangerous one, something completely unrelated to anything you might be currently writing. It frees the mind to imagine something new and reminds us we can be creative.
Interview your characters
If my characters become flat or their purpose stalls, I interview them. I make a list of tough questions: Who would you kill if you had to? What lies have you told your partner? If you had to choose a favourite child which would it be and why? This technique reveals things about my characters I hadn’t previously considered.
Writing is a nonlinear process
I rarely know the ending of a writing project or many of the scenes that will take me there. But I consider this as one of the joys of writing – even as the creator I can be surprised. Don’t think of not being able to write a certain chapter or scene as writer’s block but as it not being the right time for that section to present itself. Instead, work on a different scene.
Be honest with yourself
David Mitchell says you need to ask: ‘Why can’t you push on with this scene? What are you trying to hold back?’ He says we need to be more honest. Work that won’t progress could be a warning, so approach it with a problem-solving attitude. Is the story headed in the right direction? Revisit your themes. Has the character become static? Give them a challenge or crisis. Interview them. Has the plot stalled? Take it in an unexpected direction. Introduce a new setting or character with an opposing goal.
Hilary Mantel recommends you leave your desk if you get stuck. She says ‘Open a gap for [the words], create a space. Be patient.’ Exercise, cook, meditate or take a bath. This gives space for the subconscious to do its work. Ideas will continue to simmer on the back-burner.
And in contradiction…keep writing
If you have more than one project on the go, re-find your joy of writing by switching to the one that excites you the most.
Speak to other writers whose opinion you value and trust. Bounce ideas off them. Often they will ask the right questions to help you unlock answers.
Read writing that you admire, writing you aspire to, writing that inspires you. Read to remind yourself why you write.
Give yourself a deadline
This could be for a competition or a commitment to a writing friend that you will give them some of your work to read, even if just a page.
Set writing goals
Anne Lamott encourages her students to write three-hundred words of anything during periods of creative ‘emptiness’ to help them start ‘filling up again.’ Equally, you can choose to write for a period of time – ten minutes, half an hour. Write anything – choose a topic, a memory or stream of consciousness. The thing is to write without pressure or purpose.
As David Mitchell says, ‘A blank page is also a door.’ Don’t be afraid of it. Open it. Find out what’s inside. It is a space that must be filled. And if one door doesn’t give you access then look in your first aid kit for ways to open another.
This article first appeared in WQ Magazine (print and online) Issue 257, June-August 2017