Thursday, June 23, 2011

Overcoming writer's block

Long ago, in the Precambrian era before I was a published author, I used to think that writer's block was an affectation trotted out by lazy writers who wanted to bask on their laurels instead of greasing up their elbows and getting down to work. Well, you know what they say about hubris. I've taken many a fall since.

I'll spare you the painful details of my own blood-splattered duels with blocks. What I will do is share some of the techniques I use to knock this opponent of productivity on to the ropes long enough for me to get some writing done.

1. Recognize it.
You may have lots of great story ideas but when you sit down in front of the computer to start working on your novel, you freeze up completely. Your mind goes blank and you cannot think of a thing to write. You wonder if you'll ever be able to write again. Every time you open that blank document, you question your ability to write anything of value. You begin to avoid writing altogether. This is writer's block, and it may last a few hours, a few months, or worse.

2. Understand what causes it.
Writer's block is another name for FEAR. It's the fear of failure, of writing anything that's less than perfect. It's no mystery why it hits hardest after a publishing triumph. The only way to get around this is to give yourself permission to write less than perfect prose. You might have to throw away nine paragraphs for every ten you write. This is normal. Why is it called a first draft? Because it's not supposed to be perfect.

3. Set realistic goals for YOU.
Forget about the writer in your group who churns out 1000 or 2000 words a day, or the one who sells three stories a month to magazines. Setting goals which you cannot possibly meet sets you up for failure and encourages writer's block. Set goals that work for you, even if it means writing for ten minutes several times a day. I've found that writing down my writing schedule helps. When I have a reasonable written plan, I often find myself writing beyond the time I've allotted for it and surpassing my modest word goals for the day.

4. Focus on writing for enjoyment rather than writing for profit.
Worrying about the marketing of the work while I'm writing it is a sure-fire killer of enthusiasm for me - that focusing on the side of publishing I dislike instead of the creative part that I enjoy. If your current project has become a chore, put it aside for awhile. The enjoyment fades when you have invested so much into a piece of writing it has taken on enormous significance in your mind and you begin to think it will never be able to live up to your expectations for it. Try working on something else. When you come back to the original work you'll be able to get back into the flow. If you still can't, there might be a problem with the work itself, and you should be able to recognize what's amiss when you look at it with fresh eyes.

5. Write.
Telling a blocked writer to write might seem counter-intuitive, but it isn't really. The longer you avoid writing, the harder it is to do. You don't have to work on your current project. You can free-associate, write in your journal, do writing exercises. The act of writing anything at all sometimes gets the ideas flowing again.

6. If you cannot make yourself write, take a break.
The break may be a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks. Set a date on which you'll begin writing again. Do not write or worry about writing during your break. Do things you enjoy; read, go for walks, live life. When you return to writing you might find you bring a fresh perspective to it and it begins to flow again.

7. Relax.
The more you obsess over the block, the harder it will be to overcome. Do not beat yourself up. Do not call yourself names. In the privacy of our minds we treat ourselves in ways we'd never dream of treating another human being. We insult, belittle, devalue, batter, despoil and ravage our abilities and our dreams as no one else can. Because the abuse comes from inside of us we believe it while discounting the praise and encouragement we encounter externally. To borrow a line from Desiderata, be gentle with yourself. Every time a self-directed negative thought takes hold, recognize it and stop it in its tracks.

8. Surround yourself with positive reinforcement.
I've found two books particularly helpful: Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way and Steven Pressfield's The War of Art. They're never further than an arm's reach away from my desk or bed. They help me to recognize writer's block when it hits, to understand why it's hit, to stop obsessing and panicking, and to get back to work.

9. Recognize avoidance activites.
Spending too much time online? Suddenly and uncharacteristically consumed with maintaining a spotless house? Schedule your Internet and cleaning time. Set alarms to tell you when it's time to stop surfing or vacuuming and get on with other things, like writing.

10. Take care of yourself!
Eat healthfully. Exercise. Reward yourself for a growing word count. Tidy your desk. Consciously decide what you'll let slide in order to get the writing done, and schedule your catch-up time. This way you avoid the panicky feeling that everything is going to hell in a hand-basket while you scribble away at your make believe world.

Almost every writer suffers from writer's block. Don't let it control you. You will overcome it.


Charles Gramlich said...

good advice. I don't often suffer from block. I think the reason is that I really write mostly what I want to write, what I enjoy. I get writer's slowdown a lot.

Tom Doolan said...

I've started using my blog as a way to muscle past writer's block. I've even talked about what I am doing instead of writing. That has sparked the creativity in surprising ways.

Anonymous said...

Good solid advice.

My issue is finding/making time to write, rather than being blocked/fearful when actually writing. Any tips on that? Or is it a case of just-flippin-do-it?

Anonymous said...

Excellent - I so agree and will try your suggestions. I do think it's good to not force it and take a break sometimes. I sure need eat healthier and exercise, as I know it all ties in and rewarding ourselves makes a big difference. Nice!

Liane Spicer said...

Charles, writer's slowdown, writer's pause, writer's stop, writer's block - I battle them all.

Liane Spicer said...

Tom, that can go either way for me. Sometimes blogging gets me back on track; at other times it becomes just another avoidance activity.

Liane Spicer said...

Captain Black, it's hard to give writing the priority it deserves in our lives. The thing is, we're not going to find that extra time lying around anywhere, so yup - just flippin' do it. Making a written schedule helps me with that too.

Liane Spicer said...

Marissa, taking a break is the single most effective technique for getting me back on track when I'm truly blocked. The forcing thing just doesn't work for me.

A holistic approach just makes sense as our lives aren't as compartmented as we tend to think. When I take care of myself I see the effects in my approach to writing. When I let any aspect of the taking care lapse everything else tends to go to hell, and fast.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I also find writers block only occured after publishing. I have stopped viewing it as a job and started viewing writing once again as a hobby. It makes it a whole lot easier. And yes I can have up to 30 something drafts.

Good post.

KeVin K. said...

Freewriting. Whenever I'm blocked on a project, I just start writing with little or no plan. Dialogs work well for me -- just the words said with no tags identifying who is saying what how. (Sometimes but not always it involves the characters in my work in progress.) But it can be a description of an event/setting/character, or an opinion, or the thoughts racing through my head. I just write without self-editing as quickly as I can. The only rule is don't stop. There's no set amount of time or number of words in freewriting that generates a breakthrough but at some point I begin writing something relevant to what I should be writing. Or something that makes me think about something I can use. Sometimes this leads directly into writing. Sometimes it generates insights into plot problems or character development that in turn enables me to move forward. Either way, freewriting is my personal jumpstart when I find myself in the grip of writer's block.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, the second book syndrome is a prime example. After the euphoria of the first publishing success it tends to hit really hard.

Liane Spicer said...

KeVin, freewriting is the primary tool that Julia Cameron recommends in that book about unblocking that I mentioned. She recommends doing it every day as soon as you wake to get the resistance out of the way. Many, many writers swear by that system.

Something else that has worked for me (forgot to mention it in the post) is writing longhand. Somehow I find a notebook and biro less daunting than a glaring white screen and keyboard.