One of the questions I get asked most often during my book events is, “How do you deal with writer’s block?”
My answer usually is, “There’s no such thing.”
What I don’t usually add is: that’s not entirely true.
It’s true that I don’t believe anything short of paralysis or mental disability can actually stop us from writing. But then we know that. Writer’s block is not a physical inability to write. It’s a mental block. Still, I have found that acknowledging that we’re not actually blocked is the first step to getting past it. There’s no big, burly thug standing between us and our laptops. It’s just our minds, bigger and burlier than any thug could ever be.
But we can take them.
The thought first occurred to me, that block is imaginary, when I caught myself writing a 1,000 word blog post on a day I was “blocked” from working on my novel. Day after day, I write posts on my blog with absolutely no hesitation. The other day I caught myself writing a Facebook reply to a fellow writer in “writer trouble” that was about half the word count I’d set myself for my work-in-progress for the day. I hadn’t opened the novel, but I’d written a blog post and various lengthy things, including the Facebook post, which added up to more words than I had set as my daily writing goal.
Was I blocked? No. The difference between the posts and the novel points to a clue about where block comes from. My blog posts are sometimes silly, about things like the deer that eat my flowers and whatever baffling thing someone did to me on the road. Although I publish them publically, I see them almost as a kind of diary, riffing, enjoying words, not caring whether they are scintillating or insightful. Sometimes, when I’m done, I’m proud of them. Usually I forget them immediately.
Novels are different. They Matter with a capital M. We have great hopes for them. We imagine how sublime they could be, how rollicking, how clever, how very much like the books that have inspired and moved us. We all come to writing first having been readers, so we want to emulate our idols, create books like the ones that changed us.
Man, that’s a heavy load to carry.
So here are five little ways I’ve helped myself with block. I hope they help you as well.
1. Write other stuff. I mentioned this above: giving myself credit for every set of words I string together helps me remember I still have the mental ability to write. I’m just not writing the thing I tell myself I should be writing. That helps unpack it into something a bit more manageable.
2. Stop telling yourself how great your book could be. As much fun as it is to fantasize about its success, you’re actually helping to pile on the burden. Today, while it’s still a work in progress, tell yourself that you’re going to write 1,000 words on it, or 400 or 5. Whatever the goal. Not 1,000 of the most beautiful words every created in literature. Just any 1,000 words, anywhere in the story.
3. If you can’t possibly bring yourself to do that, write a letter to your main character, explaining why you can’t. Explain what you don’t understand about her journey, what you are afraid she’d say if she saw what you were doing to her story. See if you can imagine what her response might be. Anything that keeps you in her world.
4. Stop trying to use negativity to bring yourself to the page. “I stink,” “Real writers don’t want Real Housewives when they’re supposed to be writing,” and “I am a fraud,” are not inspiration for great work. They are a recipe for curling up under the covers and weeping. Don’t do it to yourself. It’s not going to motivate you in any consistent fashion.
5. Outline. This is a controversial suggestion, because many writers are avowed “pantsers,” who like to see where a story takes them rather than write an outline. (I am one of those writers). However, if the story isn’t getting written, it may be time to try something new. If pantsing is working, by all means pants. If every time you think of opening the document that contains your novel you get an ache in your guts, it may just be that you don’t know where to go next. I notice that most of my writing aversion happens after a major plot point has occurred and I feel I’m floundering or I’m not sure where to go next. A quick outline, something as simple as a beat sheet, can sometimes help move you along.
Bonus: 6. Write out of sequence. Related to tip # 5, if you’re not writing because you don’t know how to go on, then go on to something else. Perhaps there is a scene which you have fully imagined in your mind, but you haven’t let yourself write it because it doesn’t happen until the last 20 pages. Go ahead and write it. Perfection and writing in sequence can be a breeding ground for what we call writer’s block.
That’s it! There is no such thing as writer’s block… except maybe there is, a little bit. Okay, a lot a bit. But it’s all in how you approach the problem. Happy writing!
This post originally appeared in UncommonYA. Click here to read more of my pieces there.