Look anywhere on the internet for “How to cure writer’s block” and you’re going to find plenty of people telling you what to do about it. They all basically say the same things. Take a step back, change your perspective, do something else for a while, it’s all the same. I’m not going to talk about any of those (I’ll reveal my very best trick at the end of this post, though). I’m going to talk about WHY you have writer’s block; why you infected yourself with the psyche-out sickness and the writer’s willies.
First, let’s talk about things that masquerade as writer’s block.
“I have no time to write.”
“I can’t focus when I sit down to write.”
“I can’t finish the stories I start.”
“I have to be inspired.”
This is not writer’s block. These are lies that you’ve told yourself to avoid the responsibility of seeing your project through. Don’t be embarrassed. We’ve all done it. If you want to succeed, though, you’re going to have to start calling yourself out on your own B.S.
“I have no time to write.”
Let’s take a look at how you spend your time. Do you work three jobs, have nine children, take care of your sick grandmother and volunteer at the homeless shelter on weekends? Then I have nothing to say to you. You’re right. You don’t have time, no matter what the hobby is- let alone something as slow and heart-breaking as writing. Keep up the good work.
For us mere mortals, our time is usually spent a little differently. I’ll use myself as an example, that we might call out my B.S. together. I get up, get ready for work, head out of the house. This used to take 2.5 hours, because I got on the internet and read crap while I “got ready”. That means I sat and read for an hour and a half, then ran around like crazy trying to get out the door. Now it takes an hour because all I do is exactly that- get up, get ready, get out the door. Once at work, I have an hour lunch where I usually plan to do some writing but usually end up reading most of the time. Then I work some more, then I head home. Once home, I slap together some dinner, turn on Adult Swim, and sit like a lump until sleepytimes.
Yeah. Cartoons. At least 3 hours. Sometimes I read blogs while I watch, or chat up my family and friends, or just lurk on Facebook, but at least 3 hours every night is pretty much devoted to “fiddle-farting”, as my mom used to say. Unless I’m talking to my friends, it isn’t even really satisfying time. Just time spent.
I don’t think I’m special. I think this happens with a lot of us. By the end of the day, you’re tired, burned, more than ready to head back home and veg out. I get it. I do it too. But when I took a good, hard look at my true time-distribution, I saw that there were hours and hours where I could squeeze in writing. Get up a little earlier. Go to bed a little later. Turn off the TV. Write during lunch. Write during coffee breaks. Write on the toilet. I know some people poop a good hour a day. That’s at least 1000 words! If you want this, make it happen. Want it more than the inconsequential crap you’re burning your time with. Time is all you have. Use it toward your dream, and you’ll never be sorry.
“I can’t focus when I sit down to write.”
Well, you aren’t trying hard enough. Sorry, but it’s true. There are very few circumstances in which you can’t put pen to paper, or word to recording device, or fingers to keyboard. Unless you are in the middle of a spectacular natural disaster, you don’t really have an excuse. Even if you are, you should be composing your thoughts on the experience, or filing away mental images for things to put your next main character through. If you’ve found the time (see above), you can find the focus.
I wrote the last chapter of Rabbit in the Road sitting in a horrible fake leather chair next to Oliver’s hospital bed. I wrote the finale in the ER waiting room, while he was poked and prodded. I’m not a hero, or a saint. You might even say the opposite. Dropping back into the work let me focus on something other than watching my favorite person in the world suffer. Selfish? Yeah. Effective? Double-yeah. And he was proud to see me do it. I’ve written in the back of a car, holding a notebook up to catch headlights from cars behind us so I could see what I was writing. I’ve written on buses, on planes, on trains, on napkins, on Kleenex (I don’t recommend it), on my hand, on my arm, on my shoe. I’ve written in margins, on receipts, on other people’s projects. I’ve written when I was sick, tired, in pain, drunk, sober, busy, and bored.
Focus takes practice. Maybe you just don’t know how to focus. Do you actively seek to still your mind and your racing thoughts, and narrow the beam of your brain down to a pinpoint laser, burning the words into the page? Or do you throw yourself at a stack of empty paper and hope for the best? You can’t wait to feel focused. It won’t just happen, like there’s a Focus Muse standing around waiting to hit you with a bolt of single-mindedness. If you’re too scattered to write, you need to think about how you’re thinking. Look into mindfulness, or meditation, or even Morning Pages. These are tools you can use to change your brain from a sieve to a laser. Laser brains. I like that.
“I can’t finish the stories I start.”
Slut! Story slut!
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know. That one probably really hurt your feelings. I know how beautiful beginnings are. A sweet little idea shows up, whispers about exotic settings and deep, mysterious main characters, conflicts on every page…This new world is wide open, just waiting for you to dive in and bring all of those big, beautiful words out. You tear yourself away and look at your tired, worn work-in-progress. You’re stuck in a corner, sick of your theme, tired of your main character, tired of the tropes, the bullshit, the cliches. Who doesn’t want something fresh and exciting?
Beginnings are about promise and potential. “This is the story I’ll finish,” you might tell yourself. “These other stories, they weren’t any good, THIS one, though, this is the winner.” It just wasn’t going to work out with those other stories, they weren’t right for you, they weren’t enough for you.
Your B.S. alarm should be going off. Your work-in-progress isn’t dead, and your flirtatious, fresh beginning isn’t THE ONE. Here’s what’s happened. The beginning was play, delicious, lighthearted frolic, where you dabbled in the world and tasted all of its delights. The middle is work, an immense amount of work, and all the delicious delight time is over. The middle is where the problems you managed to ignore in the beginning come home to roost. The middle is where writing is probably the very least fun, ever, and also the most. The middle is work. The middle is where you find out what you’re made of.
You need to persist. Write down all your ideas and impressions about this sugarpie new beginning, and then file them. Get back to work. You never said “I want to be a writer who never writes anything.” The market for unfinished novels is remarkably small. It’s you and your mom. That’s it. No one else wants to wander down the path with you unless it’s going somewhere. That means finishing, and that means commitment.
You can finish what you write. Just be honest with yourself, and realize that it’s more fun to start again, more fun to flirt, but more important to finish.
“I have to be inspired.”
If you made it this far, you know all about the bullshit alarm, and yours should be going off, again. Inspiration is defined as the stimulation or arousal of the mind, feelings, etc, to special or unusual activity or creativity. Think about that for a moment. “Special or unusual activity or creativity”. Let’s assume you’re serious about writing, that you’re compelled to do it, you’re not yourself without it. Do you really want to wait around for some spiritual breeze to happen to catch you so you can put some words on the page? Do you want that feeling to be “special or unusual”, or do you want to have that feeling on tap, available whenever you want some? Is your dream something you’re going to leave to chance? If you have a work-in-progress, then you were inspired. Just sit down and put words on a page. What could be more inspirational than working toward your dream? Get over it and get the words out.
None of these things are blocks. They’re excuses. If you have a long, hard discussion with yourself about the “reasons” you can’t write, listen closely for your bullshit alarm. I’m willing to bet you it’s been going off all this time.
Real blocks are usually about fear. Fear is healthy, and normal, except about writing, where it turns into some horrid slime-breathing hellbeast. Getting past it is going to take a little bit of therapy.
We’re borrowing a technique about automatic thoughts. You can think of this as your inner voice, your internal dialogue, your Inner Editor, your Personal Critic. Whatever you call it, it’s a product of fear and can be conquered simply. To be upfront about my own bullshit, we’re using MY automatic thoughts on our work-in-progress, code named “LH”. This is my Inner Critic/Editor/Shit-talker showing up when I’m trying to work.
LH won’t be any good
Rabbit was a fluke
I’m not good enough to pull off this ending
I can’t write a convincing male main character because I’m a girl
It won’t sell, there’s no market for it
Ugh. That’s a little embarrassing. It’s kind of raw and silly, looking at it like that. It’s not very courageous, pretty much terrified and whiny. And it’s there every time I pick up a pen to work on our new project. I’ve had writer’s block over less, yet none of these things have even slowed me down.
Automatic Thought: LH won’t be any good.
Response: Why won’t it be any good? It really sounds good so far. I like the idea, I like the characters, and it’s the kind of story I’d like to read. It touches on a lot of the topics I’m interested in, and I think the main character is compelling. All I can do is my best, and if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay. I’ll get a lot of practice at something I love to do. Even a complete failure will yield experience, and that’s great.
Automatic Thought: Rabbit was a fluke
Response: Rabbit was a great little story that we came up with in the very same brains as LH, using all the same tools and techniques. Maybe LH won’t appeal to people in the same way, but maybe it will appeal to more people. I can’t predict the future. It’s pretty hard to say how an unfinished work will compare to another, especially projects as different as these. Test readers will give me all the feedback I need about LH, once it’s done. If it isn’t working, I’ll be able to fix it and make some different choices that improve it.
Do you see how these are going, and how easy they are to take apart? The intrusive thoughts are all assumptions. They’re about things I can’t predict without a finished work, or they’re supposing that once it’s on the page, it’s locked in. That’s what additional drafts, test readers, and editors are for. If I don’t write a compelling male main character, then I’ll try again. If I’m not good enough to pull off the ending, then I’ll keep at it until I am. If the story doesn’t sell, then it doesn’t sell. I’ll try again with the next one.
I take a moment and look at these things as they fire off, trying to keep me from getting the work done. Each of them looks huge until you start poking at them, but they’re really cardboard cut-outs, fakes, props. Once I’ve really examined the automatic thoughts based in fear, I can see how groundless they really are. The horrid slime-breathing hellbeast is really more of an innocuous insect, to be swatted and then promptly forgotten.
Take a look at your fakes, and let your bullshit alarm sound off. Take a look at your real blocks, your fears, and see if you can’t poke some holes in them. Writer’s block is a disease you give yourself, made up of lies and excuses and sometimes a little terror. You can cure the disease with a dose of mindfulness, commitment, and meaningful, reasonable analysis of fear. It doesn’t have to stop you.
P.S. I promised way, way up top that I’d reveal my very best trick for pushing through writer’s block, and I intend to make good on it. Let me be clear: This is not for a fear or excuse-related block. Use the techniques above. This is for “What the hell is the next word/sentence/scene?”
I switch hands. I’m a righty, but I throw the pen in my off-hand and put it to paper. It’s so weird. It takes me a minute to figure out how to angle the notebook so I can write properly, and I’m always fascinated by how…caveman-y my grip looks when my non-dominant hand is trying to do anything. Each word is an incredible labor and looks like a complete wreck. I reread my last few sentences, and then try remember how to draw the next letter. And they flow. They flow like crazy. Within a sentence or two, my brain is firing off like a lightning storm and I’m too impatient for my off-hand, so I switch back. I need to write as fast as possible because the words just won’t stop.
Next time you’re trapped, try the switch. If you usually type, try writing long-hand. If you’re a long-hand writer, switch to the computer. If nothing else, the switch is a lovely little distraction that takes some of the pressure of creating off, and that’s all you really need.