Lately, probably due to my cancer, it has become increasingly difficult to write regular blogs. And that has made me consider the miracle involved in simply sitting down at a keyboard, or with a notebook, and expecting anything at all to happen as a result.
For more than eleven years, as a newspaper columnist with a weekly deadline, I never had the privilege of writer’s block. I had a job to do, so I would sit down and hammer out a story each week. Sometimes, when preparing to leave on vacation, I would write two or even three columns in a single week so I wouldn’t have to struggle after returning home tired and jet-lagged.
That said, I acknowledge the fact that countless people experience enormous difficulty when writing. Writer’s block is generally characterized by the inability to start a project, or the inability to complete something that has already begun. There are several very different reasons for block.
One problem might be perfectionism. You stare at the page and imagine the brilliant things that could cover it, but none of the sentences you come up with are good enough to meet your exacting standards. But bear in mind: perfectionism is not your friend. No piece of writing is 100% perfect, even when written by Tolstoy or Shakespeare. Perfectionism is all too often an excuse to defer the task of writing to another day. To break the stalemate on your blank page, write something, anything, regardless of its merit. You can always change, or delete, that substandard opening passage later. The important thing is to get started. Remember, all good writing will get revised again and again, so it’s simply not reasonable to expect a passage that’s immediately perfect.
Sometimes distraction is the problem. You say to yourself, “I’ll check my emails, but I’ll be really quick about it”, but you invariably find a message that requires careful response, ASAP. The next thing you know, breaking headlines capture your attention for another fifteen minutes or so. At that point you rationalize “As long as I’m here, I’ll just check the stock market, and the weather, and play a quick game of solitaire.” Thus precious time gets frittered away. The same is true of distractions such as restless pets or wakeful infants. Distractions and productive writing are like oil and water… they just don’t mix. Clear your immediate environment of impediments, at least temporarily, and make it a habit to avoid going online while writing.
Writer’s block can sometimes be caused by problems of scale. Don’t set yourself the task of writing a thousand-page triple-volume “Lord of the Rings” if you’ve never written anything that size before. Start with a modest and attainable “Hobbit” instead. When stymied by a massive outline that threatens to result in an overly complex work, think smaller and simpler. Think how you would tell your story, or explain your work, to a highly intelligent fourteen-year-old, then scale your work down accordingly. Making your writing project shorter and more concise will not dumb-down your work. It will make it better.
Difficulty in writing can be caused by overthinking. Don’t devise a crazily detailed in-depth outline that features multiple levels of subheads and bullet points. And don’t fill several large file folders with notes on ideas, sources, and footnotes. Don’t worry about the level of detail in your preliminary text! Write minimally at first, enough to get the bare bones in place, and fill in the flesh and muscles later.
And don’t feel pressured to write a work in consecutive order. As long as you have a solid and workable outline, there’s no reason why you can’t write the ending first.
Don’t let old criticisms hold you back. Many people have writer’s block because they suffered repeated mental torment from a difficult language arts teacher many years ago. You might remember bitter afternoons in Mrs. Henry’s class, and the cutting remarks that she used to make in red pen in the margins of your papers. But there’s nothing she can do to upset you any longer. She’s not hovering behind your shoulder, smirking. You have my permission to shove your memories of Mrs. Henry out the window (and into heavy traffic outside, if that gives you pleasure). She no longer matters, and you have moved on.
Stress can be a big problem. If you have recently moved, or divorced, or had a baby, or have a dying family member, you will find it considerably more difficult to write. If this happens, don’t beat yourself up for not living up to your former standards of productivity.
The inability to complete a partially-written project is often due to a nagging awareness that there’s something wrong with the project. The story is not what you’d hoped; your characters lack inner lives; the tone is wrong; and/or you’re out of ideas. Put the project away in a file and turn to a new project. The solution to your dilemma might become apparent after you’ve given it some distance.
Finally, laziness can lead to poor writing habits. I experimentally googled “types of writer’s block” and was amused to find that many of the top results had cadged an identical list from each other (a bad list, at that) and had barely bothered to paraphrase. Passing off someone else’s work-product as your own is arguably a form of writer’s block because it avoids the responsibility of every author to write authentically, using individual work-product.
What other writer’s block mechanisms can you think of? Let me know in your comments.