A lot of writers suffer from writer’s block. That big mental wall that sometimes get in the way of getting any writing done. But it doesn’t have to be permanent. Only a few times have people suffered career-ending writer’s block, but when that happens, we’ve gone beyond just plain ol’ writer’s block, and are getting into some serious performance anxiety.
- Carry a notebook with you at all times: I keep a little black Moleskine notebook and pen with me close at hand. Whenever I have an idea or a thought that I know I’ll want to use later, I write it down. If I have several minutes, I’ll write as much as I can about the idea that inspired me. Oftentimes, when I’m stuck for a topic or struggling with an idea, I’ll pull out the notebook and refer to what I’ve already written. Or if I’ve written enough, the material from the notebook is what I needed in the first place. I just transcribe it and clean it up.
- Write something else: Most writers I know get hung up on one particular project. They can’t write this blog post, they can’t write that article. So write something else. If you’re a professional writer, or even a persistent amateur, there’s always something else to write. So write that instead. It often gets the juices flowing, and you can break the block. When you feel it break, immediately switch over to the project you were stuck on.
- Write it in an email instead: Most writers seem to get stuck because they’re writing for posterity. They’re thinking not only of The Reader, but The Reader in 50 Years. I don’t know how many journals and notebooks I started and then trashed because I thought, “what if my grandchildren read this in 50 years” or “what if someone wants to study my writings in 100 years? What will they find?” I immediately froze up, got two entries into the journal, and then quit. I lost count of the notebooks I’ve pitched because of this.
If this happens to you, regardless of what you’re writing, write it in an email instead. Start it out with “Dear Mom, this is something I’m working on right now.” Then write your project/article/blog post to your mom. We love our moms, and they love us. But they don’t always get what we’re working on. So write this in terms your mom will understand. Then, go back and delete the greeting, and you’ve got your piece. Stop writing for The Reader and The Future Reader. Write for yourself. And your mom. And call her once in a while, she misses you.
- Pick a different environment: I have two offices. My regular office and my favorite coffee shop. Some weeks see me in one office more than the other. And there are times that being in one place or the other is not conducive to getting work done. So I go to the other office. The change in environment is often enough to jolt me out of my stuckness. But if it doesn’t work — and I can usually feel the torpor coming on — I’ll go somewhere completely different. A different coffee shop, a friend’s office (Tip: Make sure they own the business. Don’t stop by your friend’s place inside the giant corporate building.) The new setting is usually enough to jolt me out of my complacency and get my creative juices flowing again.
- Write nonsense:I’ve never been a fan of writing exercises to get warmed up. This isn’t running. I’m not going to injure my brain if I don’t write something “creative” before I start real writing. But that doesn’t mean there’s not some validity to just writing complete and utter crap for the first 20 minutes. If you’re stuck on a particular topic, write stream-of-consciousness stuff about your subject, maybe even the piece itself. As you write, do it in an over-the-top voice and style, like Sideshow Mel from The Simpsons. As you do this, you’ll find yourself breaking through the block and starting to write some real material. But don’t delete the crap. Cut-and-paste it into another document, and then go back and read it a couple days later. You may find some nuggets worth keeping.
- Quit waiting to be inspired: Once you become a professional writer, you don’t have the luxury of having writer’s block. You also don’t have the luxury of “being inspired” or “waiting for the right moment.” Real writers don’t get inspired. Real writers plant their asses in their chairs and start writing. If the words aren’t coming, try one of the other five things I mentioned. If they still aren’t coming, put your head down, and keep writing. They’ll come to you eventually.
Most professional writers ignore the writer’s block, because they have a job to do, and they do what they need to to get it done. There’s no such thing as an accountant’s block, where the figures just don’t add up. Or a chemist’s block, because they can’t get the formulas right. When you reach this level of writing, the words just come automatically, like breathing and eating. You may have times where your work is better, but as a professional writer, even your “good enough” should be pretty good.
What about you serious writers? How do you break through writer’s block? How do you prevent it? Has anything worked or not worked? And did any of those involve alcohol?
Update: After I wrote this post, I thought of one more method to breaking writer’s block, which I published the following day.