On Overcoming Writer’s Block

Art & Literature, Blogging — By on February 22, 2010 at 1:00 am

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. ‘


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  • http://rachelmotte.com Rachel Motte

    This post cured my writer’s block yesterday. No kidding. After spending hours on one post that I just couldn’t get right, I read this and then wrote a second post, which came out beautifully and effortlessly. We’ll see if it works next time…

  • Victoria Myracle

    Lovely post :)

    It’s interesting,
    “Flow” is also something we strive to achieve for our clients in an OT session.

    Good stuff.

  • Hayden Butler

    Lauren,

    Your post did a wonderful job at capturing ways to jumpstart the writing process and get words on a page.

    I am wondering, how would you suggest jumpstarting the re-writing process. So often, I’ve found that if I had palpable writer’s block going into the first draft, rewriting the second draft is often just as laborious.

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on motivating the revision process and also in how one maintains objectivity in subsequent drafts.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Robin Dembroff

    The Psychology Today reference reminded me of what Ayn Rand said about writing in her book How Fiction Works. According to Rand (who may not have been the world’s best writer, but was undeniably compelling to many people), absorbing your topic, knowing it through and through, was the only way to write well. You can’t make something of nothing, and if you have writer’s block, it’s often because you don’t have enough information to synthesize into language.

    On another note, however, I find that sometimes I get block when I know the topic TOO well. There’s so much information floating about in the brain that perspective is lost, and all the orts of data seem vital. Of course, they aren’t. How about writing an article on how to ‘weed out’ knowledge until left with a coherent and compelling writing project? : P

    (Oh, and I second Hayden about the revision process.)

  • Lauren M.

    I find that time away from your project is key when rewriting. If you begin rewriting too quickly, you still have a strong emotional investment in your work that may make it difficult to cut or revise. A bit of distance helps you to be more objective and to make tough editing decisions (i.e. when you write something that you think is really clever, but you later realize it doesn’t strengthen or add to your work).

    If you’re really stuck, let others view and comment on your work. Outside perspective is often helpful.

    As for the “weeding” process:

    You’ve said it; weed! Discover your thesis via prewriting. What is it you really want to say? Perhaps you really truly want to say about 5 things. Write them out and make connections. One helpful prewriting exercise may be what I call “word vomit.” Just gush out everything you think you want to say as if you were writing a journal entry. Wait an hour, and then come back and scrape through the mess until you find your key ideas/ theme. You can build your essay (or whatever form of writing you’re doing) from there.

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Lauren Myracle

    (That was Lauren Myracle, by the way. I don’t know how I got logged out of EO commenting.)

  • http://www.bukisa.com/articles/255233_curing-writers-block Writer’s block

    A really useful article with some good tips. Many thanks for sharing.