I’ve done some thinking recently about writer’s block, the self-inflicted wound that almost all wordsmiths endure at least once in our careers. So much has been written about the subject that it almost seems presumptuous to add anything more. Indeed a Writer’s Block cottage industry has sprung up, complete with books, audio tapes, even counselors who specialize in the phenomenon. Nonetheless, I’ll throw in a few more paragraphs in the hopes that they might be of help to anyone battling the wretched affliction. For, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that there can never be too many suggestions for getting rid of writer’s block. It’s like the common cold. Remedies are everywhere but you have to search out the ones that work for you. In that spirit, some musings of mine follow.
First, my personal bottom line: I believe you write well when you can write without fear.
From my teens, I was employed as a writer. It was fun, people liked my work, and I had no writer’s block. I also had no fear. Perhaps, in the beginning, I had that sense of invincibility that comes with youth. Maybe I just didn’t know enough to be afraid back then.
After college, I made my living as a writer, so churning out words became a necessity, not just entertainment that paid well for a kid. I was in politics now and the glib words flowed easily. And again, I had no fear.
Then a sea change. When I was 23, I quit my job as Press Secretary to a Congressman and set out to write The Great American Novel. I gave myself a pocketbook-imposed deadline of six months, grabbed several bags of jelly beans to kick start my new career with sugar-induced adrenalin, and sat down at the typewriter in the English basement of my very tiny, very old and very cold townhouse.
The first episode of writer’s block occurred almost immediately when I could barely get my frigid fingers to move. It was arctic that winter and despite the companionship of a bright fire, I could never seem to get warm. I blew on my fingers, which were – blue.
It really didn’t matter that they couldn’t move because my brain cells were just as frozen. I started with no idea and, six months later, ended at the same place. I was timorous when I sat at the typewriter. My heart raced but nothing else did. Every now and then a few glops of ink would hit the page and I would examine them intently as though scrutiny would make them better. It never did. It didn’t take me six months to realize I was not going to write the GAN, at least not then and there. It was apparent before the jelly beans ran out.
At my new job at Ford’s Theatre, the words began gushing again. I was ready to write – and I needed to produce. Most important, I had things to say and knew how to say them. Once again, no fear.
Out of these experiences, came my first rule for dealing with writer’s block: Write material that’s appropriate to your ability.
It’s fine to stretch yourself, we all should, but it can be disabling to take on a project when we don’t have enough skills and life knowledge to support it. I was trying to write the Great American Novel at the wrong time in my life. Later, I would begin a career in novel writing – at the right time – and the words would come pouring out.
Second rule: Try to turn your fear into something positive.
An illustration: Some years later, when working as a freelance writer, I was commissioned to produce the annual report for a very large Midwestern real estate corporation. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, the President of the corporation refused to provide any information except a list of the company’s properties. I was also enjoined from calling the corporation or any of the properties for help. Since this was in pre-internet days, I was effectively hogtied.
The whole thing was ridiculous to the extreme but I had, unfortunately, signed a contract and, despite the hamstrings, was committed to deliver. So, I spent days looking at the list, picking it up, turning it around, projecting mind rays that would make it produce the desperately needed information. And days staring at an empty page in the typewriter. I was furious and afraid at the same time.
Finally, my anger overcame my fear and I began to see useful patterns in the list which ultimately led to a glowing report using equal parts of stock photos, imagination, and chutzpah. No more writer’s block. No fear. The circumstances had energized me into producing something after all.
Later, I learned the company had been in the throes of a hostile takeover. One faction had not wanted the annual report produced until the takeover was complete, while the other did. The first prevailed – but so did I. In this case anger was the instrument that turned fear around.
There are other instruments of effecting this kind of change, reward being one that comes to mind. The lure of the dollar can be a mighty motivator. Perhaps you have still others to add?
I’ll go on to rule number three: Assess your project honestly.
What exactly are you trying to accomplish? If you’re writing a novel, length alone can be intimidating. So can character development, setting and the story arc. Have you a reasonable goal for your novel? Are you trying to tell a story that holds together on its own or are you constantly having to artificially prop it up? If you’re creating a world, did it spring to life as a plausible cosmos or do you constantly question its viability? Are your characters real or are you forcing more attributes on them than they can reasonably absorb?
The character who refuses to come alive is a nasty beast. He or she can stop you cold. A world once thought glittering, now grey and forbidding, can make the best of us. And God forbid we have plot lines that were wrestled into place – possibly at great cost elsewhere in the story — but now are deciding to strike off on their own. All reasons to step back and look at the project critically and objectively. All reasons to modify the project, trim it down, eliminate that meddlesome character, build a smaller, less ambitious world. Scale back your project. Regain control. Eliminate fear. Then you can begin to add back, gradually, those elements you still want to include.
Rule number four. Guess what? Even best-selling authors use clichés, repeat words in close proximity, and commit other “unpardonable” writing sins.
The rule: Don’t let YOUR sins stop you; just keep on writing. My current read by a New York Times bestselling author just committed this “unpardonable:” “She flipped back her glossy black mane.” And, no, it’s not a romance, where this kind of thing is almost routine.
Ignore these blips on the radar, keep right on writing, and correct them later. It doesn’t matter if you have a hackneyed phrase on every page. Just. Keep. On. Going.
Rule number five: find the unique tool or tools to help you break the block.
There are lots of tools suggested on the internet – exercise, yoga, write something else, etc., etc., see a counselor if you must. For me it was almost always about deadlines.
An extreme example — When President and Mrs. Reagan were to visit Ford’s Theatre and attend a special performance, the White House called the theatre and asked for draft remarks for both. The deadline: Two hours.
I remember looking at the Executive Producer as she gave me the news and for one split second thinking that this could very well be the end of my career. Instead, I wrote “in the moment” and produced two sets of remarks by the appointed hour. It disappointed me when the President didn’t use what I prepared — I later learned through Reagan biographies that he almost always re-drafted speeches written for him– but it remains a point of pride that Mrs. Reagan did read my remarks, almost to the word.
This deadline was so strict it permitted no time for second-guessing and oh, why me’s? Typical of White House edicts, there was barely enough time to do the job, let alone do it right. Yet, I got the job done. I made the deadline work for me.
Have a deadline? Don’t gnash your teeth. Instead, use it to spur yourself to rigorous action. I’m doing that right now, or at least trying to, with Thrillerfest looming in July and me with a half-finished manuscript. Terrified is the word of the day. I’ve dilly-dallied and shilly-shallied around, and now it’s down to the wire. Nothing like seeing how good I am at taking my own advice.
Are you suffering from writer’s block at the moment? Using some aids you’ve found on the web? Perhaps that’s how you landed here. Maybe you have suggestions of your own to contribute? Love to hear them, as I have a feeling I’ll need the heavy guns to get this Thrillerfest manuscript ready in time. 75 days, a blank page on the computer screen, and counting…..
Your suggestions – please?
~~ Britt Vasarhelyi