Writer’s block! What writer doesn’t despite it? The feeling of having a truly great story on the front of your mind, and yet when it comes to getting it out on paper… nothing. Just pure static. But what causes writer’s block? And what are some of the ways in which we can fix it? Author Roy Peter Clark has penned out a whole chapter on the topic in his book “Help! for writers: 210 solutions to the problems every writer faces.”
So what are some of the causes of writer’s block? “Counterproductive perfectionism, personal distractions, a lack of preparation,” writes Roy. “All contribute to that dull aching sensation that we have nothing to say.”
Poet William Stafford also had a say on the subject: “I believe that the so-called ‘writing block’ is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance… One should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It’s easy to write. You just shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing.”
Well so far so good. We understand what’s holding us back, but how can we fix it?
Try to imagine the story in your head. “Writing begins before your hands start moving,” states Clark. “Think of your writing preparation time as something positive, a process of rehearsal rather than a failure to get started. The more of this head work you do before you begin to draft, the easier the hand work will be.”
Rehearse the beginning by speaking it to another person. “You can draft your story with your voice before you write it down with your hands,” states Clark. “All you need is a friend willing to listen and maybe ask a few questions. Even an attentive dog will do.”
Don’t write the story yet, but write a memo to yourself about the story. “When you write a memo to yourself, you instinctively lower your standards in a productive way,” states Clark. “Once your hands get moving on an informal draft, words begin to flow.”
Write as fast as you can for ten minutes – without stopping. “Why not use the physical act of writing to discover what it is you want to say?” states Clark. “…this means sitting down at the keyboard, or with paper and a pencil, and committing yourself to, say, ten minutes of uninterrupted scribbling.”
Tell the critical voice in your head to “shut up!” “Psychologists call that [critical] voice the ‘watcher at the gate’, the negative force that wards off all creative impulses.” states Clark. “That watcher keeps a sharp eye on writers. Most early writing is preliminary, which is to say, tentative, experimental, good enough for now. Because early prose is unperfected, it can jump up and bite us right in the associative imagination. That is, we may fall into the trap that expresses itself in this internal dialogue:
- You: Hmmm. That’s not a very good first sentence. If all my sentences are like that one, this will be a terrible story and people will not think well of me.
- Your internal critic: Yes, Big-Shot Writer, that sentence sucks. Bad writers write bad sentences, so you must suck too.
- You: Oh, my god, if anyone sees this, I’ll be exposed as a fraud. I better stop writing now.
You can call that critical voice on stage during revision, but for now, instruct it to return to the green room.”
If you are blocked in your usual writing place, try a new place. “Every writer needs about a half-dozen reliable places to work,” states Clark. “Desk at work, desk at home, recliner in a back room at home, in an airport waiting for a plane, on a plane, at my mother-in-law’s kitchen table.” The possibilities are endless. “It may also help you to become a more mobile writer. By that I mean a writer who uses the walk around the park or the drive to the beach not as procrastination but as a form of rehearsing the story.”
Write on a legal pad [notepad]. “Even preliminary drafts can have that finished look on a computer screen, which is always dangerous,” states Clark. “It may artificially exalt your standards too early in the process. Or, toward revision, it may lull you into thinking that a piece that looks good must be good… Yellow paper announces to the critic, internal or external, “Step back. Just getting started.”
Get someone to ask you questions about your story. “When I try to help get writers unstuck,” states Clark, “I often rely on these kinds of questions:
-How is it going? How can I help you?
-What are you thinking?
-What’s your story about? What is it really about?
-What happened? Who did what?
-What or who did you want your readers to remember?
-What most surprised you about this?
-What was the most interesting thing you learned? The most significant?
Notice that all of these questions are open-ended, which means that I can’t know the answer until the writer informs me. If you can’t find someone to coach you, try asking these questions of yourself.”
Forget the beginning for now. Write the ending first. “…when you approach a roadblock, don’t be afraid to take a detour. Perhaps you can begin drafting somewhere in the middle of the work. Or… you can imagine where the work might end.”
Novelist Katherine Anne Porter puts it well: “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work toward it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.”
So hopefully if, or when, that dreaded writer’s block hits, at least one of these pointers might be the kick you need to get back into the writing groove.
Happy writing. 🙂
Source: Help! for writers: 210 solutions to the problems every writer faces by Roy Peter Clark.
I feel I know pretty well what MY primary block is: not enough timeless time.
At the moment, too much RL in the form of too many commitments on my time and energy makes that blissful state of timelessness as rare as gold dust and something more often only found in my dreams.
Ironically, it comes to be that when I’ve got the time I haven’t got the energy, and when I’m feeling just a little less tired….. guess what: I’ve run out of time!
Some dreary essential chore, some obligation, or having to go out, has successfully made sure of THAT and killed off any more timeless time, usually for that day, or a couple of days, or quite a few days really. And, by then, guess what: I’m completely exhausted, mentally and physically!
Frustratingly, I’m not one of those people who can do anything in any place. As I’m very sound-sensitive and easily-startled I have to have complete – and guaranteed! – stillness and quiet if I want to concentrate on anything. Only my own desk and office-chair and my desktop computer in my own home will do. So that rules out anywhere in the outside world. And that is completely beyond me how anyone could have such nerves of steel that they could work amongst kitchen clatter, or the clatter in one of those ubiquitous coffee bars!
And anyway, there’s no choice of alternative places in my home: my one-bedroom flat is smaller than some caravans.
Yes – Katherine Anne Porter does have a point about writing the end of one’s story first: which could give one a goal to work towards. Maybe, next time I do have some timeless time (!) I should try that method….. That, and just hammering out loads of writing whatever I like, however nonsensical.
On an ending note: I hate handwriting and mine is so horrible that just seeing pages of my handwritten stuff, getting worse by the minute as I grow more exhausted, is enough to put me off for – for, well, quite a long time. That beautiful printed-book crispness on the screen is what heartens me – even if what I’ve typed out is rubbish.
OK, I know full well that even if it LOOKS good doesn’t mean it IS good.