Writer’s block is very dramatic, a painfully romantic way to think about the intensity of the creative process. There the writer is, sitting slumped at her desk, a bottle of (add in liquor of choice) at her side. It’s clear she’s written before and perhaps well (her published books near her desk), but no longer. Life as she knows it is over. She’s blocked. She has nothing to say at all. The violin, harp, and cello wax and swell, the writer swoons some more. End scene.
As much as it would be nice to believe in writer’s block, I don’t. I believe in not being able to write something very good—happens all the time, more often than I would like. I believe in having a bad idea that is going to die and wither on the vine about page 75 (happens all the time, too. Just come over and see my C drive). I believe in fear—the notion of being scared to write because 1) no one will like it or 2) you won’t like it. I believe in the truth that I might write my little heart out and write something good that everyone likes and still, it will go nowhere.
All of the above are common problems for writers. But I don’t believe that a writer is blocked. That the writer’s head is completely empty, that her fingers won’t move, that she has nothing to say. Bottom line is that she just doesn’t want to say it. Not now, at least. And in an attempt to explain the non-writing, she says, “I have writer’s block.” Everyone nods and understands, and the writer goes ahead and cleans the sink instead.
There is use for a fallow period in writing (most people who work take breaks from said work), but sometimes this fallow period lasts so long that the writer forgets to write. Not writing certainly is easier than writing. Cleaning the sink—while useful and necessary—is not going to get a novel published.
So when I feel the urge for the Comet and sponge, I remember a few useful tips that have kept me from a dramatic swoon and writing. Maybe what I’ve written hasn’t been published or been read, but that “bad” writing has kept the chain of writing alive and something later has been liked and read—by me and others.
1) Write every day. When I was a writing student, one of my teachers Anne Lamott famously said “Write 300 words a day. In a year, you have a novel.” Maybe that “novel” will be an ugly first draft, but 300 x 365 is 109,500 words. That’s a little overlong for some novels, even. There are a few thousand words to cut! And writing 300 words isn’t too scary. It’s barely a page and a half. The truth is that once you start, you likely won’t stop at 300. But 300 is ALL you have to do. I promise. I have also heard tell of the 100 x 100 club—people who band together to help each other commit to 100 words a day for 100 days. This seems like a fine, similar plan! And quite doable as well.
2) Try to back off the judgment. More than likely, you will not be the next Nora Roberts or (fill in the latest NYT bestselling author). Sorry, I have to say it. But you might be the next—well—you, and you have things to say. Don’t worry about the 300 words as you write them. Now that getting them out is fabulous, and then know that you will have all the time you need to make them better. Stop feeling that you are wasting your time and just put down the ideas. Let the character roam. Let the themes play out. Since you are in control, you can later take all the time you need to make your story “perfect.” But for now? Lay off yourself, please.
3) If a scene won’t start and you are sitting there about to develop a full blown case of fake writer’s block, start with dialogue. In fact, make sure that you always write down a provocative line that you hear in the grocery store, at a restaurant, at a coffee date.
One of my friends told me a story recently about her son’s first kiss. He was telling my friend about it—a sweet summer vacation kiss by a lake—and my friend told me that after his first short kiss, her son turned to the girl and said, “That first kiss was so short, I have to ask for another.”
Hello! What a line. If I were blocked write now, I’d take that line and just go. Do they kiss? Does she say no? Where are the parents of these almost 13-year-olds? Is it sunrise or sunset? Or 12 midnight? Maybe the scene would go nowhere, but I’d have a nice little bit to use at some point. And more importantly, I’d have opened the dam and let the words pour out. As we know, broken dams are hard to fix.
4) Get a good book on writing, one with exercises. There is nothing like a prompt. my favorite textbooks on writing are Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction and Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book. If you really don’t know what to do, open the book and grab and exercise and do it. Again, the above dam metaphor.
5) Take a class. There is nothing like peer pressure to get you going. For my current sabbatical at the college where I teach at full-time, I am focusing on short story writing. I am in a class, and even though I was in Barcelona on my honeymoon, I had homework to do! So I wrote my story. Is it groundbreaking? I’m pretty sure not. Is it even very good? I don’t think so. My teacher told me “there is much to admire about this draft,” which means in translation: Honey, you have a hell of a long way to go here. But I know that I will get good feedback from my teacher and my fellow classmates, and I wrote a 17-page story. Any threat of writer’s block was cured by the syllabus.
The bottom line is that if you want to write, you will write. I think that’s the hardest thing to admit to yourself. If you really wanted to tell a story, you’d be telling it. Often for would-be writers, it’s easier to just sit back and let other parts of life take over. And that’s not a bad thing. Being a writer is often hard, unpaid work. But for many, the fear of rejection and judgment keep them from sitting down and doing what they really dream of doing.
My advice: do it, regardless of success. Write because it’s fun and amazing. And lord knows, you can clean the sink later. Good luck.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
Women for Women International Goodwill Industries Lindsey Wildlife Museum Freecycle.org