After staring idly at the white screen for a few moments, your brows furrow. You type out a sentence. It is terrible; you must erase it. You notice your palms have begun to moisten and your intestines are all in knots. Disconcertingly, this process repeats itself until the worst has happened. You have opened all the drawers of your mind only to find you have nothing to say. You have acute writer’s block, and it is a bitter pill indeed.
Writer’s block can be paralyzing; it can make you question your intellectual prowess, your interestingness, and your writing. It can make you rage at that fickle strumpet, the Muse. She, in her capricious glory, has deserted you—no doubt for that better-looking fellow blog contributor who never lacks clever things to say. When she smiled upon you, writing was a joy; idiom and metaphor sprang to the page effortlessly, wit and poignancy followed suit. In those sweet moments, you weren’t writing, not really, you were merely transcribing the words that flowed effortlessly through you.
Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi calls this the “flow state,” and explains that when in it, “the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Essentially, flow happens when you are excited and interested in your writing. Flow ceases when you approach your writing with anxiety, dread, or as a chore to be completed so the real fun can begin.
Writer’s block, then, is the absence of flow. And when it strikes, you are simply left alone with your laptop to make the best of it.
In these lackluster moments, it is good to remember that writing is work. It is a craft, and a craftsman does not cease to work when he lacks inspiration. In his now-classic On Writing Well, William Zinsser acknowledges that “fear of writing gets planted in most Americans at an early age, usually at school, and it never entirely goes away. The blank piece of paper or the blank computer screen, waiting to be filled with our wonderful words, can freeze us into not writing any words at all, or writing words that are less than wonderful.” Yet he also notes that “writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance, no less than actors and dancers and painters and musicians.” At some point, you must reconcile yourself to the Muse’s faithlessness and turn instead to gumption and grit.
Often, the point of determining that you will write is the breaking point of the writer’s block—which is often simply fear or laziness. Once you have girded your loins and begun to write, no matter how bad the writing is, you can build a consoling momentum. Yes, perhaps you haven’t expressed yourself prettily, but then that is the point of rewriting. “Rewriting,” Zinsser reminds us, “is the essence of writing.” It is the opportunity to go return to your work, look at it as objectively as you can, and determine if you have said just what you mean to say—which is the whole goal of writing.
If you still can’t jump-start your writing, Steven Kotler at Psychology Today suggests hitting the books: “If I have nothing to say,” he argues, “then maybe it’s because I literally have nothing to say. I haven’t done my homework. So the first thing I do when stuck is more research. I read everything. I dream up questions and then I call people a lot smarter than myself and ask. I try to poke into odd directions. I purposefully engage my brain’s pattern recognition system with tangents. I get off topic so I can later get back on topic.”
You can also ward off writer’s block by building good habits. It a good idea to write every day to develop stamina, find your voice, and build a body of work that you can use or refine later. Writing, in some ways, is a lot like marriage. You fall in love, and glory in it. It all seems so effortless. Then you realize that it, like any relationship, takes hard work to flourish. And the times of difficulty are often where the foundations of one’s marriage are formed. So with writing. It may be that writer’s block itself is the forge where true writers prove their mettle. ‘