Saturday, January 5, 2013

What is Writer's Block? #2

A month ago in "What is Writer's Block, Anyway?" I suggested that 'writer's block' is a catch-all term for a variety of issues that stop us from writing, and that the first step in fixing it is to figure out exactly what's wrong.

Thanks to Bill Watterson/Universal Press Syndicate

The way I see it, these issues usually fall into one of two categories: either there's a problem with what we're writing, or there's something interfering with our creativity.

Until last month it never occurred to me to use the term 'writer's block' to describe a problem with something I was writing. I call that 'writing myself into a corner'. But of course it doesn't matter what you call it; it matters what you do about it. More about this kind of writer's block in a later post.

Then there are those times when there's nothing wrong with the story, or the story doesn't exist yet, and I try to write and get nothing. I push myself to write anyway and end up with a page of flat cliche that's almost painful to read.

Or there's what happened yesterday. I set out to update this blog and didn't have a clue what to write. All I could think of was insignificant jabber even I wouldn't want to read. How about a post about the snow in the back yard? Or would you like to know that these cats have soft fur? It was that ridiculous. Fortunately, I had a short story to post.

As I write this, I'm struggling with another creative challenge: I seem to have misplaced my vocabulary. I'm told that when I was three I asked, "Mama, do I have a vocabulary?" She assured me I did, but I seem to keep losing it. Every paragraph or so, I struggle to come up with a word. I know it's there and I almost have it, but it stays out of reach.

I can't give you the solution. Unfortunately, I'm not a famous veteran writer who can say, 'Follow these five steps and you're guaranteed to free up your creative potential.' I suspect nobody like that exists anyway; we're all individuals, after all. But here are some of the things I do, that seem to help:

  • Walk away. This may be the hardest one for me. Sometimes I'm just trying too hard, for too long, and I need to literally stand up and walk around and look at the physical world for ten minutes.
  • Eat. I do forget to do that, especially when the writing is going well, and I'm lost in a world somewhere. And then it stops going so well, for lack of fuel to the brain, and it may take me a long time to notice that.
  • Take a shower. I have no idea what it is with me, with water and creativity. Sometimes just washing the dishes gets the magic back in my head.
  • Reread the story so far. Even better if I read it aloud. I think it helps me regain the threads of the story, and puts the rhythm of my own writing voice back in my head.
  • Work on a different story, or a different chapter, or stop working on the main plot and work on a subplot. This works great during NaNoWriMo. It gives me a rest without hurting my productivity. 
  • Read a good book. You can't write if you don't read, and sometimes I get busy and forget this.
  • Have a backup. Like yesterday's short story: copy and paste, edit out the annoying formatting errors that always pop up. Hit 'publish'. Done.
  • Stick any old word in there, and change it later. It sounds like selling out, but really does work for me. Half the time, as soon as I stop beating myself up for not remembering the word, it pops into my head. Sometimes I even type (in all-caps, so I won't miss it) something like 'INSERT WORD HERE' or 'SORT OF LIKE PRETENDING FOR THE SAKE OF SHOW'
  • Call it a day. Sometimes I've just done all the writing I'm going to do that day, and spinning my wheels isn't going to change that. I really think writers are like athletes: we have powerhouse days and off days, streaks and slumps, and they average out.

But that's just me. I'd love to hear from my fellow writers. What do you do when the voice in your head won't sing?


  1. I love the ideas of working on a different story/chapter or sticking in a place holder.

    Often writer's block is perfectionism in disguise. Best way to get over writer's block is to write...and just allow it to be crap. You can always fix it during revision.

    1. Oddly, Joseph, that's the one thing that doesn't work for me, although I understand it works great for a lot of people. If I just write anyway, and it's awful, the only cure for that is to delete it and start over. And then I still have the awful in my head, which makes it harder. I think the difference is that I have no fear of writing: nobody's going to see it until I let them, anyway. But sometimes I do babble about absolutely anything until I find my groove, then delete the babble and go on writing.