tagHow ToCure for Writer's Block

Cure for Writer's Block


If you're reading this, you probably think you have writer's block. You want to write but you can't. You have this piece you desperately want to get out, but, every time you sit down to it, you totally freeze. Or you can only write crap. Or you never seem to sit down to it at all because there's always a kitchen to tidy or a call you have to make and then the kids come home or you're too tired and somehow, you just never make it to the keyboard.

Or maybe you're the opposite -- you've always been prolific, churning out one piece after another but now, just at the point where everything should be flowing smoothly, it seems as though the well has dried right up.

Well, it's possible that you have writer's block.

It's also possible that you don't.

There are things that can stop you from writing that have nothing to do with writing, and all the advice and analysis and writing exercises in the world aren't going to help.

Before you frustrate the hell out of yourself, consider whether one of the following might account for why you're not writing:

NO TIME: This is a pretty obvious reason not to be writing, but one that is most often pooh-poohed as not being good enough. Rather than just whopping your limp carcass to sit upright in front of that monitor and create, try a more strategic approach.

Make a list of all the things you do during the day and how much time you spend doing them. Do you work eight or more hours? Do you commute back and forth? Do you have kids? Are you responsible for cooking, cleaning, and/or caring for a parent? Do you have friends, a spouse, or a pet that needs your attention from time to time?

Don't forget to add in office work you bring home and the number of hours you need to sleep in order to function and anything else you spend time doing during the week. If just reading the list makes you tired, then it should be no surprise that adding an hour of writing every day seems like nothing but a great, big, dreary burden. For now, maybe you should concentrate your energies on simplifying your life and making time (and space) for writing.

GRIEF, DEPRESSION, & ILLNESS: Another explanation for not writing that seems obvious from the outside is physical or mental anguish. It's sometimes appealing to think of throwing yourself into your work in these situations, to escape the pain or boost your spirits, but if it doesn't work out this plan can backfire and make us feel worse. If you can't write because of pain or sorrow, you may need to concentrate your energies on healing yourself before you can get back into writing.

NATURAL RHYTHM: Believe it or not, not all professional writers are prolific and it's possible that one short story a year is your natural rhythm. If nothing you've tried makes your productivity increase and pushing yourself to get more stuff out just makes you miserable, you might want to consider that the world has already seen a Jeffery Archer and a Stephen King, and it might be okay to allow yourself to write only as often as you enjoy it.

SOMETHING'S PERCOLATING/BRAIN'S RECHARGING: Here are two reasons for not writing that every writer can embrace and celebrate, because they mean that, to quote science fiction writer Spider Robinson, "you ARE writing, you're just not TYPING yet." But how do you tell the difference? Is this quiet spell the happy silence of little gray cells puttering away or is it the echoing silence of the void? Most writers get a feel for the idea percolation process, but it's a subtle distinction and hard to distinguish through a haze of writer's block panic. The other end of the process, brain recharging, may hit in the middle of a roll, after you've successfully completed one project with the intention of just breezing through to another. The sudden bout of tiredness, disinterest and the longing to be anywhere but in front of the word processor can be very panic-inducing, particularly when it goes on for a while.

Instead of jumping to conclusions on either front, give yourself a chance to sort things out. Take a break from writing for a while, test the waters occasionally, work on something else, but above all, listen to your inner voice. If it tells you nothing's broke, don't rush to fix it.

Now, if you've read through all of this and none of it applies to you, you might just be right about having writer's block. In that case, this How To is made for you. I hope the ideas help you, give you hope or at least take your mind off being blocked for a while.

Advice on getting off the block:

1. Don't obsess on one thing -- have more than one project going at a time and if you get stuck on one, move to another.

2. Commit to finishing everything you start -- if you've left a project, commit to returning to it; continue to work on the problem.

3. Change the mode of putting down words -- if you're stuck on the word processor try a dictation machine or writing by hand; or change where you write -- go outside, or to a friendly coffee shop, or the library.

4. Get some physical exercise -- go out and walk; mow the lawn -- physical activity of the pleasant and slightly mindless kind seems to precipitate mental activity of the kind that promotes creativity.

Okay, so those were good words and nice advice, but exactly are you supposed to do when you have writer’s block?

Here are a few practical methods you can use to get started writing, or to free yourself from writer's block, or to explore new possibilities. Some demand a lot of time, but then the serious writer devotes a lot of time to learning the craft.

Oral story telling to a friend, followed by questions from the friend, followed by writing the story in detail based on the questions.

Journal writing: Write on a regular basis in a personal journal. Explore personal feelings, develop your thoughts, and record the happenings of the day. Underline any ideas you'd like to explore later in expanded writings.

Spontaneous Prose Composition and Free Writing: The aim of spontaneous prose composition is to work in a stead rush, not stopping to search for the right word or to think about grammar. Free writing does not attempt to focus on any object at all, as does spontaneous prose composition, but simply follows the mind's associations, writing them down, omitting nothing.

Getting Words on Paper: Most people get stuck writing because they have an internal censor who says, "Wait-you can't write that shoddy sentence down. It's not smart/witty/concise/eloquent/perfect enough." It's good to have a critical eye and high standards, but if you hold yourself to these standards all the time-even while jotting down first thoughts or a rough draft-it interferes with your creative juices. It's helpful to think of creating and critiquing as separate activities. First be creative. Get as many ideas on paper as you can. They don't have to be brilliant, original, well-formulated, or correct. Then when you're ready to be critical, you'll have lots of material to choose from. If the first four ideas are completely wacky and irrelevant, the fifth might just be useful and interesting. A few of your sentences might be usable the way they are-and lots more could be reworked into usable sentences.

Using the senses: Sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. In erotic writing, it is very important to involve the senses in a scene. Concentrate on using all or any combination of them in a scene you are writing. Do not write anything other than this in the particular scene.

Clustering: Begin a cluster with a nucleus word. Select a word that is related to the topic you might like to write about. Record words that come to mind when you think of the word. Don't pick and choose; record every word. Circle each word as you write it, and draw a line connecting it to the closest related word. After 3 or 4 minutes of clustering, you probably will be ready to get going and write non-stop for 8 minutes.

Sketching with words: Carry a pocket-size notebook with you at all times (writer's journal) to record whatever catches your attention. Sketching can help you get over dry spells when you can't think of anything to write. Record actions, activities, characters, conversations, and events. In other words, record life as you see it happening all around you from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Recording dreams: Most of us do not remember dreams on a regular basis. To do so we must write them down. Keep a notebook or writer's journal by your bed, and if you are awakened by a dream, write it down. At first you may not remember much, but once you begin writing the occasional dreams you recall, you will begin remembering more. Keeping a dream journal has other advantages besides offering an incentive to write. Aside from offering whatever insights, if any, dreams may give you to your inner life; dream journaling is important for three reasons. First, it is another form of writing, and during the early stages of writing, the more you do, of any kind, the better. Second, dreams offer several literary devices to use in your work. They are filled with exaggeration, with impossibilities, with cinematic cuts. Third, dreams themselves are keys to the unconscious and can add dimension to your characters.

Revise: When you are ready for this process, take a deep breath, calm yourself and say "don't worry, be happy!" This step will be the most time-consuming. Here you will correct your grammar, organize your paragraphs in logical order, and delete or modify words for clarity. Use active verbs to improve the strength of your writing. Think about your intended audience; write for their level of understanding. Then leave it for a day or two, revise again. You will be amazed at how revising helps you get into the writing mood again.

Piecework: Sometimes, starting at the beginning induces Perfect Draft Syndrome. It may be easier to get started if you approach the task sideways. If you've got a plan for the article or manual, choose a section from the middle or a point you know well and start there. Then do another section. After you've gained some confidence, you can work on the opening and smooth out the transitions.

EXERCISES: Here are some useful exercises to help kick the block. You'll get out of these exercises as much as you put in. If you like an exercise, do it several times. A painter may sketch a face a dozen times and each time is new. If you don't like something, still give it a try. Don't use your dislikes as obstacles. In general, plan to spend 20 or 30 minutes on each exercise. But if something particularly stimulates you, of course, keep going.

1. Pick a story from your life and tell it to someone. Afterwards, ask them what else they want to know: anything about the action, conversation, character, or place. After this sorting out, write it down.

2. Scan your mind for an event that you have been bursting to tell-- a story that arouses strong emotions. Now visualize it. Then pick some point in the action and start writing. As you write, continue to see the activity you describe. If an idea or thought about one of the characters or about an object in the area grabs your attention, write about it until drawn back to the main event. Whenever your mind is drawn away from the story, let it follow the flow of association.

3. If you're having trouble finding an object to write about, practice free writing 10 minutes a day for a week. Simply write down the free associations that pop into your head. The mind, eventually tired of babbling, will focus on an object and kick in.

4. Each day, for 2 weeks find a different place to sketch with words. For example, sit at a lunch counter and observe what is happening. Write as fast as you can. Note conversations, but do not try to write them word for word. Get a few broad strokes, note the gist of the conversation, a few exchanges, note the mannerisms, or any odd expressions. Mainly concentrate on the ambience- the look and feel of the place. Is it mirrored in the look of the customers? What details of the physical setting are you drawn to? Which of those details turn you off? Is it very modern with clean lines, or old and rundown? Note what the waiters looks like. Do they reflect the place? Pick one. What does this person look like? How does he or she stand, straight or slouched? Does he or she talk much? Loudly? Any peculiar accent? Are his or her clothes clean? Greasy? Food splattered? What does the place smell like? Does it remind you of any place you've been before? KEEP YOUR SKETCHES VARIED: a street scene, a coffee shop, a library, a bar, a gym, a park, an office, etc. In some of your sketches, focus on process and activity; in others, focus on place. Focus on characters in others.

5. When you go to a grocery store, jot down your observations in a notebook such that later you'll be able to compose three paragraphs based on your experience. In one paragraph, describe a loner's looks and behaviour; in another, a couple's looks and interactions. In the third paragraph, describe how an employee communicates with the customers.

6. Take one of your sketches and transform it into a prose poem. No, this is not as hard as it looks. Try it. You don't actually have to do it well you know.

7. Pick a fast moving activity--crowds moving through a department store, work at a construction site, a sporting event-- and take notes. No later than the next day, write up your notes.

8. Observe an event carefully without taking notes or sketching. Five to ten minutes later write it up from memory.

9. Go to five very different public places and transcribe as much of the conversation as you can. As soon as you can, transcribe your notes, filling in whatever words you missed, based on memory or likely guesswork.

10. Write a short story about a person or group of people you observed during one of your sketching sessions. Let the plot be advanced through the building of the character arc.

11. Take any public domain tale and translate it into a contemporary story or take a story from the Bible and rework it into a contemporary tale.

12. Find an old ballad that you like and transform it into a short story or a tale told in free verse.

13. Keep a dream journal for at least three weeks. At first you may not remember any dreams; then, fragments; then, as your practice recalling and writing them down, you will find yourself remembering more and more of them.

14. Write a story or essay in imitation of your favourite author. Pick a theme and/or characters that typify this writer or take a published story with well-defined characters and a strong narrative and rewrite it in imitation of one of your favourite authors. As you do this, you will find yourself changing the characters and story line.

15. Sound, like visuals, can help create a sense of place or set the stage for activity. Write a short scene that begins with a sound that indicates an activity. Make that activity an important element within the scene.

16. Write a short scene that layers sounds on one another. Use the sounds to create tension.

17. Write a short action scene in which sound and visuals are integrated throughout.

18. Describe he town you grew up in--the streets, the shops, schools, churches, rivers, bridges, houses, people. Don't mention your emotions; don't be sentimental. Then for half a page, indicate a place in the above sketch where something happened. Map out the event with special attention to the physical details of the setting. It need not be a big event-- your shattering a window or seeing a teacher you had a crush on kissing a cop will do. Have you described the childhood place vividly? Do you mention enough details to construct a visual impression? Do you engage other senses, not only sight? Read your descriptions slowly. Are you there?

19. Make a one-page list of all the objects you remember from your childhood home. Don't use any particular order or many adjectives. Don't censor yourself-- something seemingly unimportant may evoke strong impressions. Read your list and circle the objects that evoke the strongest feelings and memories of events. What are these events? Do you see a story lurking there? Now write one page and describe one of these events. Rely on topography. Where exactly did it happen? What objects were involved? What people played a part in that event? Make sure you haven't used sentimental vocabulary. It's fine to be sentimental, but mentioning the sentiments won't give them to your reader. Connecting the details with the events might.

20. Write down your first three memories. Can you make a story out of them? Try. Why do you think you still remember these things when you've forgotten so many others? Even if you aren't exactly sure why you remember these or the exact details of the memory, keep going. Imagine that you remember more than you do. Later on, you might want to expand this writing and then even later on rewrite this in the third person and forget that it's you. If your drafts sound grave and heavily psychological, go back and lighten them up by inserting funny insights.

21. Write down the first dream you can remember having. Don't mention the fact that it's a dream you are writing about. Turn it into a story. Remember that in dreams you can't be held accountable for making everything plausible. Strange things happen, and not everything is explained. Don't punctuate, just drift words and images together into a dreamlike stream of consciousness. You can't remember all the details of your early dreams- or maybe you can? - but don't let that deter you from writing at least two pages. If you can manage to get into a primitive dreamlike state of mind you'll create strange connections and images. This approach could be productive for helping you develop unique moments in stories.

22. Recall a physical or verbal fight, and construct it as one scene.

23. Think about an incident that you avoid remembering-- or can't clearly remember-- and write about it. Write about a moment of terror you experienced, or about a defeat that hurts your pride. You can choose a terrible incident that, though crucial to you, you could not witness (such as the expected death of a close relative). Even if you are afraid to think about something--or especially if you are-- muster the courage to plunge into the middle of your frightful memory. You will come up with something that matters to you, and if you evoke it clearly, it should matter to the reader, too.

24. Imagine some event that could have happened to you but did not-- something that you wanted to happen or feared happening. First, make up the basic outline of the event, and then incorporate true details. Put your teapot and cats into the story; they won't sue you. Your knowledge of these details will help convince the reader of the truthfulness of the story's main event. Don't spend too much time on introducing this event or on drawing conclusions. Just give us the scene with your desire (or fear) acted out. Keep yourself as the main protagonist. Desire and fear are the MOST productive dynamos of fiction and imagination. Around the desire or fear you can easily integrate the character, conflict, setting-- all the basic elements of fiction easily fall into place once you have a character with a strong motive.

25. Think of someone who has meant a lot to you. Pick a crucial moment in your relationship with this person and then tell it to someone. Talk about the difference this person made in your life. If unusual or striking, describe his or her habits, looks, and gestures. Now, write it down.

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