Whenever I meet someone new and they learn what I do for a living, the first question they ask:
How does a person become a writer?
That answer is easy: Write something. Also, lose your ego and learn how to take being kicked in the groin regularly. Maybe hire some fire ants to bite you now and again to remind you that you are alive and to build up your pain tolerance. This is most effective if done just before you receive the letter from your editor telling you everything wrong with your book; envenomation will further prepare you for the book’s release and the inevitable reviews that will tell you you’re full of that stuff they make hot dogs out of. (Let me know if you need a source for fire ants. I can hook you up.)
Almost ALWAYS, the next question is: How do I become a writer who writes for a living? That is a longer process — and a great topic for a future column. (Hint: Most writers have day jobs.)
But to address some of the most common questions from readers and writers alike, and maybe offer some guidance along the way, I’ve started a column in my newsletter called Tips of the Trade. I get that not all folks are interested in newsletters — it’s overwhelming to receive so many from all the people and products we follow — so I’ll start sharing these Tips articles here on the website in the hope that you lovely readers find them useful.
Onward, and happy writing!
This month: Writer’s block!
Is writer’s block a real thing? Depends on who you ask. Some authors assert that writer’s block is a way to avoid real work, a mere figment of the imagination that serves as an excuse to not sit one’s butt in the chair. But if you’re asking me? Yes. It’s real. For me, writer’s block can be a scary, crazy-making experience*.
To understand and thus combat writer’s block, though, you must define what it means for you personally. Are you frozen in front of a blank page, unable to put more than a few cohesive sentences together? Are you unable to come up with an idea at all? Are you stuck in a project, i.e., you’ve written yourself into a corner you can’t seem to get out of? Are you absolutely physically unable to get your body to sit still long enough to engage the necessary concentration for making words?
Writer’s block, when it happens to me, looks a little like this: I’ve just finished a book project. Maybe one that I’ve been working on for a year or longer. (Most of my projects gestate for months before I get solidly into the meat of writing.) Self-edits are done; I’m waiting on a beta reader or perhaps the book has been handed off to the editor. Which means I wait. Sometimes for eight or ten weeks at a stretch before I will see the manuscript again.
Now when I get out of bed in the morning, I don’t have a purpose for that day. My feet don’t feel like they’re powered by engines. Sure, I have to get kids to school and let the leaky beagle out before she leaks all over the kitchen, but I mean the story I’ve been immersed in for months … it’s no longer singing to me to come downstairs and play. It’s off getting its guts rearranged. Instead of excitement about a full five and a half hours of unbridled creativity before my adolescent children come home in a fog of Axe body spray and pizza dust, I’m overwhelmed with a strange sense of loneliness, and sometimes even anger. It’s super weird. I know.
But this is when I’m most vulnerable to writer’s block, in that flux period while I wait for the editorial smackdown to arrive in my inbox. So here are a few tips to maybe help you claw your way out of the writer’s block darkness:
- Start a new project (or go back to one that has been gestating). Try not to lose your momentum.
- Force yourself to sit in that chair, and write as many words as you can. Some folks like to give themselves a goal, i.e., 500 words a day. If that feels like too much, then try for 100. Try for a whole paragraph. The old adage, “You can’t edit a blank page” is a hundred percent true. Some is better than none, even if some is poopy and has to be erased tomorrow. That’s okay.
- Give yourself permission to write less-than-perfect words. I do this often. I will venture to postulate that perfectionism is the #1 cause of any sort of creative block.
- If you can’t get the story to work for you, try some exercises: mind-mapping**, character development exercises, an online course to help move the idea blockade. Check out The Manuscript Academy (http://manuscriptacademy.com) for some cool workshops. (**Another writer friend of mine uses and highly recommends the mind-mapping program MindNode. I’m thinking about buying this in the new year to give it a whirl.)
- Work on your current story’s outline so you’ll know where you’re going once your brain and emotional state are again on the same wavelength. Sometimes we feel blocked by a story because we don’t know WHERE we’re going. Outlines can remedy this (even though outlines to me are like eating broccoli — necessary but SO EVIL). Brainstorming is the food of prose!
- Learn to meditate. I don’t mean sitting criss-cross-applesauce on a yoga mat in your living room where your phone is three inches from your om-shaped fingers or where your own version of the leaky beagle can lick your face. I mean, go to your room, lie down on your bed, close your eyes, and think. Sure, you might fall asleep, but maybe that’s what your brain needs. I find that when I am on my bed with no TV, music, phone, or other humans/beasts nearby, I can walk through a potential story idea, really stroll through the story’s “rooms” and characters, to get a feel if the story has legs. I find meditation brilliantly helpful because it takes away the pressure of that dastardly blank screen/page poking me in the chest to scribble across its surface.
- Watch some movies! Sometimes when I’m mired in the muck, I’ll watch movies in a similar genre to what I’m writing (or sometimes in the opposite genre!). It helps open my mind to new visuals, to new possibilities for a story’s path. If nothing else, for 90-120 minutes, I forget how annoyed I am that I have writer’s block. Plus, popcorn! Win-win!
- And of course, READ! Sometimes seeing how other people squish words together is all you need to get inspired to start making your own again.
Writer’s block (or whatever you choose to call that vexing inability to put words on the page) is like an infection — and it will get you if you let it. Take your vitamins, eat good food, get some exercise, go out of your house. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, go sit in a mall and people-watch. All kinds of fun ideas are just waiting for you at the food court (as are Oreo Blizzards from DQ). Open your ears, and let the ideas come flowing in!
[*Edited to add: Make sure that your writer’s block isn’t actually something else — depression with a complicating component, such as anxiety. If it is, give yourself a little space and time and practice self-care. Writing books is hard enough as is but when you’re depressed? It can be insurmountable. And may I HIGHLY recommend Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive. I’ve found it brilliantly comforting.]
(Thank you, Karen Hussey, for your great ideas for this column!)