Monday, 20 January 2014

Beyond writer's block

Some writers, on blogs or in interviews, will grandly declare that they don't believe in writer's block and that there's no such thing. Often, they'll follow this up with scornful comparisons: "Do plumbers get plumber's block? Do accountants get accountant's block?" This makes me cross: if someone hasn't experienced something themselves, they don't get to say it doesn't exist. "Your experience is invalid because I haven't shared it" - an appalling logical fallacy, arrogance, and lack of compassion.

The plumber/accountant/insert-profession example is equally nonsensical. Some work relies purely on carrying out pre-established procedures. You can't get "blocked" about that (though you may get bored). Some work relies on problem solving, coming up with new approaches, and inventing. (I don't know about accounting, but I imagine some plumbing issues fall into that.) That kind of work can hit exactly the same kind of wall as writing does: people get stuck. A cell researcher in a lab can get just as stymied and "blocked" as a novelist wrestling with an intractable plot problem. Scientific research, like writing, requires creativity. Some work also requires more emotional engagement than other kinds. An admin job might not seem emotional, but what if you have a task that you're avoiding, because you don't know how to do it or where to start, and you're afraid to expose your ignorance, and then it's gone on so long that you're afraid to admit you haven't even started... You might even not know why you're not doing it, only that at the end of every day, it's staring out from your to-do list like a bad dream. You'd call that "procrastination", not "admin block", but the result is much the same.

Often, that original gung-ho writer is implying that it's a question of professionalism: professional writers just don't get block: that's an amateur's game. (Sometimes they'll come right out and say that.) That's simply nonsense. Many professional, famous, highly respected and admired writers do get writer's block. Here's 13 of them, including Maya Angelou and Neil Gaiman.

If you read that original gung-ho writer further, though (or the interviewer presses), usually they do know writer's block perfectly well: they're simply giving it a different name. That's where I do agree with them: "writers' block" isn't a very helpful term. (Though I still don't see how the original clanging denial serves anyone.) To get beyond writer's block, you need to know what's wrong. If the answer is "writer's block", it's difficult to find a solution. If you keep asking questions beyond "writer's block", you can find the problem at the root of it and resolve that. (If you read the 13 famous writers' advice on writer's block, you'll find that's what they're usually doing: they've figured out what the cause usually is for themselves, and advising accordingly.) So here are some of the possible causes, some useful questions to ask, and a raft of strategies to use. Writer: here are the tools to heal thyself!

Possible causes

  • it’s normal – some days go unexpectedly well, some unexpectedly don’t (remember this when it's short-lived)
  • bad day / bad time outside of writing: I’m tired, stressed, distracted…
  • I’m afraid of / worried about something in the story / about writing
  • I’m stuck on something in the story

Useful questions

  • Is it just a bad day? Can I write through this – write now and judge it later?
  • Do I need a break?
  • What’s happening outside my writing? Am I tired / stressed / distracted? What can I do to ease that or shield my writing from it?
  • Am I being perfectionist?
  • Is there something I’m afraid of? eg hostile readers, not matching up to what I've already written
  • Is there something I’m worried about? eg plot shape feels wrong
  • Is there something I’m stuck on? eg need to research, don’t know how to resolve something
  • What can I do about that?

Useful strategies

You might need to get the words out, to take a break, or to resolve something with the story. Once you have an idea of what you're stuck on, it's easier to choose which approach to take. Don't worry if the first approach doesn't fix it immediately; try a few different strategies.

Get the words out

  • switch into italics and type highspeed what you want to happen, without worrying about style
  • change location - go to a coffee shop with a pad of paper, and write longhand
  • stop thinking about your audience, publication, possible film versions - write it for yourself
  • morning pages: write high-speed, by hand, for 30 minutes every morning - this is just skimming the rubbish off the top of your head, not a place to produce great prose. It's also a great place to explore your fears.
  • procrastination is fear: what are you afraid of, in this story / idea / book / poem? Write down your fears and the opposite positives
  • go with it and see where it leads you
  • stop while you know what happens next: in a book, stop each session while you know what happens next - mid-scene, even mid-sentence if necessary. Leave yourself a few notes of what will happen to kick-start your next session.
  • close down all other computer programs, email alerts, blogs, and so on - go somewhere without wi-fi
  • don't google every detail - you can get the precise information you need later. Just add square brackets [like this] and keep writing.
  • give yourself a two-hour time-block during which you WILL stay at the computer / writing table, and you WILL produce words. Sometimes it's ninety minutes before it starts coming fluently, but by the two-hour mark it usually is.
  • don't delete your false starts - just press enter a couple of times and start again or carry on.
  • write helpful sayings and stick them above your desk, so when you stare up you see those reminders.
  • cut out all the voices: stop reading, watching TV, and listening to radio talk for a week. It's hard, but without the babble your own voice starts speaking again.

Take a break

  • go for a long walk - every day
  • collect an image-bank: brainstorm key words and spend a few hours googling and collecting pictures around each one
  • collect a music-bank: make playlists to write to - a different playlist for each project
  • try a different art form: sewing, painting, drawing, sculpture, music, graphic design…
  • clean your house: set an alarm clock and spend ten minutes whisking through each room
  • read some non-fiction - fill your head with interesting information
  • make your writing space magical: candles, incense, fairylights, flowers, music… Clean it before you want to write, so it's an inviting space to be in.

Resolve a problem with the story

  • take a break: all those activities can help you get the distance and non-thinking mulling time to see what the problem is
  • tell someone new about the story - someone positive and supportive who doesn't yet know anything about it. Describing your story can rekindle your original enthusiasm.
  • talk it through with a friend: tell them what you've got and what you might be stuck on - they might have a solution or (often) you'll come up with the solution as you talk
  • reread everything you've got so far: make a book thing, curl up with tea, and read it like a reader, to get an overview
  • draw a plot map & some character sketches and character arcs: if either of those aspects are creating problems, it should come clear quickly. (I do this in a coffee shop: it's free of distraction, plus physical distance from your usual spot helps you get mental distance.)

Helpful sayings

I have these pinned on the wall in front of my desk, so that if I freeze and stare up, I'm reminded:

  • Everything can be changed, reshuffled, deleted, enriched, or pruned later. Just write what you want to write.
  • Stop while you know what happens next.
  • I can do anything with the alphabet.
  • I am a channel for [your deity/the universe]'s creativity and my work comes to good.
  • [Your deity/the universe]: I'll take care of the quantity - you take care of the quality.
  • Whatever I want to write is right.

I'd love to know your own experiences of writer's block: what causes it for you, what questions you find useful to figure out the cause, what approaches you adopt to get beyond it, and any sayings you find helpful.

Get occasional emails about interesting things

* indicates required

I won't share your email with anyone else. You'll get emails from me only, about upcoming courses, writing competitions, publishing opportunities, interesting articles about writing, new blog posts, and creative events in Oxford. All emails are sent via MailChimp and you can unsubscribe at any time. Add to your address book if you want to keep the emails from vanishing into spam.