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By Geoff Hart
Previously published as:
Hart, G. 2012. Writer’s block: different causes have different solutions – Part 1. <http://techwhirl.com/skills/development/writing/writers-block-different-causes-different-solutions-one/>
Hart, G. 2012. Writer’s block: different causes have different solutions – Part 2. <http://techwhirl.com/skills/development/writing/writers-block-different-causes-solutions-2/>
"Write something, even if it's just a suicide note."—Gore Vidal
Writing should be exciting and pleasurable, and most of the time it is. But if you’re a dedicated professional who earns your living from writing, writing is also a job, and even the most exciting job sometimes grows boring or frustrating or stressful. When that happens, you may find yourself “blocked”: unable to write, and not sure why. That’s particularly true for technical communicators like me, who also enjoy writing fiction in those rare free moments between paying work. (You’d be surprised how many technical writers also write fiction on the side or vice versa. Philip José Farmer and Isaac Asimov are two familiar names from the old school; Charles Stross and Ted Chiang are two from the new school.)
Writing guides and the Internet abound with essays about specific solutions that work for one person and may not work for you. Why? There are probably as many reasons for writer’s block as there are writers, and those reasons change over the course of your life and between projects. A solution that worked for you when you were young and passionate about a particular story may not work once you’re a jaded old pro facing a tight deadline for an anthology that doesn’t thrill you but that will pay the rent.
You need to understand why you’re blocked before you can find a solution that will work. The bad news is that it’s not always obvious why you’re blocked, and major life stresses (dying parents, adolescent kids, or the boss from hell) may require professional help to overcome before you can start writing again. The good news is that most writer’s block has less serious causes. A little introspection, perhaps aided by someone who’s a good-enough friend to be honest with you, can help you pinpoint these simpler problems and maybe even solve them without the need for a shrink. When you can’t solve a problem, there are also some things you can do to keep working until the problem solves itself.
In this article, I’ll discuss three categories of cause, and present various solutions. For simplicity, I’ll focus on psychological causes, practical barriers related to the mechanics of writing, and literary or esthetic causes that arise from your artistic goals. You may be facing an entirely different category of problem, but one of these suggestions is likely to lead you to your own solution. Please note that although I’ll focus on fiction, most of the advice here applies equally well, mutatis mutandis, to non-fiction.
Some of the biggest problems we writers face are the various life stresses that affect each of us at some time, not the least of which is earning a living so we can indulge in our passion for writing. The only good solution for long-term (chronic) stress is to eliminate the cause of that stress, then give yourself some time to recover. The harsher the stress, the more likely it is you’ll need professional help to get through it. I don’t even pretend to play a shrink on the Internet, so here, I’ll focus on the small and manageable stresses most of us can deal with on our own.
Distractions are one of the biggest problems, particularly now that most of us have high-speed Internet access and myriad Web sites we can explore instead of writing. Self-discipline helps; for example, I’ll often reward myself with a few minutes of faffing around on the Web after I’ve gotten through enough of a scene or story. But when you can’t discipline yourself because some stress makes you seek out frivolous sites that let you avoid writing, more desperate measures may be necessary. For example, consider setting the parental controls provided by your computer’s operating system. On my Mac, I can restrict e-mail and chat, limit Internet access, and restrict the time I’m allotted to do certain things; Windows offers similar options. If you need something more powerful, check out PC Advisor’s list of “The five best free parental control programs” for Windows alternatives. For Mac users, check out the options at FindTheBest’s “Compare Mac Parental Control Software” page.
Of course, if you know the password used to manage the access controls, you can override them at any time, making them useless. If you have sufficiently weak self-discipline that you need such controls in the first place, you may also need to ask your spouse or partner or a close friend to set the control password and not share it with you until you develop enough self-discipline to make this unnecessary.
TV is another major distraction in your writing space, and is particularly bad because it relentlessly draws your eyes away from the computer screen. Unless you can resist the urge to watch or you need white noise to write, move it or your writing space to another room. Even if you don’t move the TV, clear out major time-wasters like video game systems. Music players are a different issue entirely; I can’t write while good music is playing (I want to listen!), but I know other writers who can’t write without music. Learn which type of writer you are and plan accordingly.
Writing is an intensely focused activity, and any disruption of that focus can throw you right out of the zone. This means you need to schedule a writing time when nobody will interrupt you. If you find you have a particular time of day when you need to write or write most efficiently, reserve that time. Some of us write best at the crack of dawn, others while burning the midnight oil, and others have no specific time and write whenever the muse arrives. The trick is to make it clear to your friends and loved ones who don’t already know about writers that you need this time. Invest some time in a heart-to-heart with the person to explain what you’re doing and why you need private time. End with a promise to negotiate times when you’ll give them an equally intense amount of your attention. (That’s particularly true with young children.) When you clear the air about what you do and gain the acceptance of the people who are important to you, you won’t feel quite so guilty that you’re stealing time from them to do your writing.
Most will accept this arrangement as one of the downsides of loving a writer. For others, it may take considerable persistence before they get the message. If you have someone who simply can’t understand that writing is work and that it’s important they not disturb you, learn to unplug the telephone before you sit down or when you feel you’re about to enter “the zone”. Get an answering machine and check it every hour or two. If you have the kind of life where occasional emergencies are likely, such as school-age kids who might injure themselves at school or elderly family members who may need your help with little notice, you probably can’t afford to be out of touch for more than an hour or two. Find someone who can run interference and be your point of contact; they’ll interrupt you if necessary, and let you work if it’s not urgent.
A thought about chores: When you’re looking for excuses to avoid writing, doing household chores offers a perfect escape because you really are accomplishing something necessary. Resist that temptation. You can’t avoid your chores forever, but you can schedule them at times when they won’t interfere with your writing. For example, I prefer to do the dinner dishes right before bedtime, when my brain’s turned to mush and there’s no hope of writing. Clean out the kitty litter mid-morning so it doesn’t interrupt your sunrise writing session, or walk the dog first thing in the morning so it doesn’t interrupt your midmorning writing session. Once you learn your writing rhythm, you can find ways to schedule chores around your writing. That being said, chores sometimes represent a good way to step away from a problem and distract yourself so that your subconscious can work on the problem. Learn to recognize the difference from avoiding a problem and taking a necessary break.
Burnout is a more subtle problem. Writing demands enormous amounts of concentration, and that consumes surprising amounts of mental energy. Even if you love writing, you can’t neglect that energy drain in the long term. Signs of burnout include:
These are all signs you need to take a break, and possibly a long one. Recovering from burnout requires rest, and the more severe the burnout, the longer it may take to recover. You can do a few things to shorten the recovery period. Learning to meditate can cleanse your mental palate more effectively than even a good night’s sleep. Exercising regularly maintains the body that sustains your writer’s mind, and exercising to the point of exhaustion sometimes eliminates accumulated stress in a way nothing else can. For example, I’ve found that this kind of exhaustion stops my conscious mind from putting the brakes on my subconscious, which seems to be the source of much of my creativity.
Loss of enthusiasm is a particularly important sign of burnout, but fortunately, it may be one of the easier problems to deal with. Pause a moment and ask yourself what book or story or article you read that first inspired you to become a writer. Identify your literary comfort food—the books you reread periodically when nothing new will give you that same satisfaction. Go reread that writing to remind yourself what the excitement feels like. Then harness that energy for your own writing.
Conversely, if you can’t muster the energy to care anymore, seek out something that outraged you, whether written, spoken, or visual. (For me, most science fiction TV shows or movies do the trick.) Ask yourself what got you so hot under the collar, then set out to do it right. There’s an enormous community of fan fiction (“fanfic”) writers on the Internet, formed by people who found something that inspired them about another author’s work. When that writer neglected to consider some aspect of their literary universe that fascinated a reader, or when they wrote something so badly readers knew they could do better, inspiration and enthusiasm were born, along with huge libraries of fiction intended to solve the problem. To learn more, check out the Wikipedia article “Fan fiction” and the Organization for Transformative Works Web site. The act of writing purely to skewer another author or their work, or even writing a poison pen letter (but not sending it) can also get the creative juices flowing.
Teasing yourself can also work. In this approach, jot down plot notes, snatches of dialogue, unusually witty or profound phrases, and other story ingredients—but don’t let yourself write about them. As these fascinating ideas accumulate and begin to tug at your unconscious, you’ll gradually develop an irresistible urge to assemble them into a coherent whole. Only then should you let yourself start writing again. Needless to say, don’t let this become an excuse to avoid writing.
Performance anxiety is the final psychological barrier. First, reconcile yourself to the notion that you’re not Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. That’s okay: you shouldn’t try to be! When they started out writing, they weren’t famous authors either. More to the point, they weren’t interested in slavishly imitating someone else. The point of writing is to write your own stuff, in your own voice and with your own priorities, and find your own readers.
Give yourself permission to fail, particularly when you’re early in your career: becoming a professional at the top of your game takes thousands of hours of practice, and it won’t happen overnight. Before you start reliably hitting the target, you’ll face a long series of complete misses, followed by unsatisfactory but better results, followed by increasingly effective efforts to fix the problems. This learning curve is inevitable, and rather than insisting on perfection right from the start, aim to be better with each new effort.
And don’t worry about critics. You’ll learn is that it’s not possible to satisfy everyone, and that you shouldn’t try. Each of us knows of authors we can’t abide, but that friends or family love, and each of us has undoubtedly had the “don’t tell me you read that” experience. Some writing techniques may be objectively bad, but most critiques of writing are highly subjective and personal, particularly when they ignore the author’s goals and replace them with the critic’s prejudices or agenda. The best way to spare yourself the embarrassment of committing such errors is to join a writer’s group. If you’ve chosen your group well, you’ll have tough critics who are also sensitive to your goals as a writer, and they’ll help you eliminate the worst problems with a story before the rest of the world has a chance to point them out. With those problems eliminated, and foreknowledge that you don’t need to please everyone, you can write with more confidence that you won’t embarrass yourself.
Practicalities are obstacles you can solve by choosing an appropriate strategy and then gritting your teeth and doing the necessary work. Because they aren’t psychological barriers, they’re much easier to get past because all you need to do is force yourself to follow the appropriate steps, possibly with help from friends and colleagues. You don’t always need your muse to be able to write: some aspects of writing, such as developing a timeline or plot outline, are fairly mechanical. Since you’re the only one who will see them, they don’t have to be perfect. You’ll fix the problems later when you revise the story.
When the blockage comes because your talents aren’t yet mature, and you haven’t learned how to solve the range of typical problems in your genre of writing, look for help from others who have gone before. It’s unlikely you’re the only one to have ever encountered a particular problem, so do some reading in writer magazines and online forums to find out how other writers have dealt with it. Many writers maintain excellent web sites with advice on certain common writing problems, including James Patrick Kelly and Robert Sawyer. Collect a few possible solutions, and then try each until you find one that solves the problem. If you’ve got time and energy, try all the other solutions too so you can discover different ways to solve a particular problem. One may work where others fail in a future situation.
Finding good ideas is perhaps the most common problem writers face. If you don’t live near Schenectady (Harlan Ellison’s infamous reply to a question about where his ideas came from), there’s no shortage of ways to find ideas. My first strategy starts with reminding myself that life’s too short to waste it reading crap. Anything good enough to hold my interest to the end is something that fascinates me, and understanding the source of that fascination provides an inspiration. For example, I’ve been working somewhat erratically on a science fiction novel based on Commodore Perry’s invasion of Japan in the 1850s. It’s a wonderfully rich basis for crafting a first-contact-with-alien-species story.
The key is to develop a rich intellectual and emotional life by exposing yourself constantly to new ideas, in areas you’re not already intimately familiar with and areas that inspire some degree of passion. The more you learn about people and the world you live in, the more things you’ll find that interest you. The more things that interest you, the more likely it is that one of them will inspire you to write. If you lack the energy or drive to go seeking these ideas, make them come to you instead. Some writers subscribe to a quotations or “joke of the day” service; others use writing-prompt software such as “WriteSparks”. Still others subscribe to blogs or news services that focus on an area of interest. The trick is to expose yourself to the kinds of things that wake you up and make you take notice. Each is a potential source of something to write about, or of details that can enhance your writing about something else.
One of the most frequently cited tips for writers is to never go anywhere without a notebook or a few scraps of paper so you can jot down ideas as they occur to you. Nowadays, the notepad may have become a smartphone or iPad. I still keep a pad and paper beside the bed so that when inspiration strikes, as it often does while I’m falling asleep, I can capture it for future consideration. A companion pad lives in my backpack. Use that notebook or your smartphone to create and expand a well-stocked “ideas” file: include fragments, outlines, characters, dialogue, and the names of books, articles, and Web sites that caught your interest, and when you run out of inspiration, return to that file and see if anything in it helps your imagination catch fire. Consider using software such as IdeaFisher to organize your thoughts and help you brainstorm ways to unite all this information into something coherent.
When you do have a great idea, but it hasn’t gelled enough for you to write about it yet, spend some time researching the subject. Unless you’re already an expert, you need to learn enough about it that, to the casual eye, you appear to be an expert. Scientists (I’m a recovering scientist) often complain that most science fiction writers don’t know much about the science they’re nominally writing about, but that’s only one example; historians complain that writers don’t understand history, horse experts complain that most writers know nothing about horses, and cooks complain that most writers know nothing about cooking.
That’s okay, at least to some extent: no writer can become an expert about everything. But if you’re serious about your craft, you should at least make an effort to learn your subject well enough to write credibly about it, even if you might not fool an expert. Nowadays, Internet discussion groups exist for just about any topic you can imagine (and many you can’t imagine). Find relevant groups and join them to learn how their members speak, the things that fascinate and frustrate them, and the kinds of arcane knowledge that only members of that group possess. Don’t join the conversation until you know how that particular community functions and how to ask a question in a way that meets with community approval. Learn enough to ask intelligent questions, and you’ll find a great many people willing to provide knowledgeable answers, and their enthusiasm is often contagious.
One useful tactic is to never let a particular stumbling block stop you from carrying on. You never need to get all the details down in near-final form during your first pass through a story. It’s always acceptable to insert a note such as “find out what horses eat” or “insert the joke’s punch line here”, and carry on with the story after the horse has been fed or all the characters have stopped laughing at your joke. There will be plenty of time to fill in the gaps, whether by research or by letting your subconscious dwell on a problem overnight, when you come back to revise the story. If not, talk it out with friends. Several times, a friend has pointed out the obvious solution that I couldn’t see because I was too close to the problem.
Resolve to write though impasses even if you know the results will be crap: the goal is to make some progress, capture the essence of what you’re trying to achieve, then refine it later. Because you’re going to have to revise later anyway, don’t paralyze yourself by trying to revise as you write. Definitely don’t stop to fix typos, and don’t overthink what you’re writing. Your internal critic is your biggest enemy. The worst thing about revision as you write is that while you’re busy tripping over your feet, you’re losing sight of the big picture.
The important exception to this rule is when you’re on the brink of something really good—numinous, even—and you desperately need to capture its essence before it fades. In that case, it’s worthwhile grappling with the idea until you can wrestle it to the ground. This kind of intense focus really requires freedom from interruptions, so even if you can’t normally unplug the phone or Internet, do it now.
There are a variety of exercises you can try that may help get you past specific stumbling blocks. Most are purely mechanical exercises, but some require creativity. On the former end of the spectrum, try retyping some writing that inspires or inspired you, including your own work. Feeling the words flow from your eyes, through your brain, and into your fingers can get your mind back in gear. Particularly for your own writing, this is a great way to get your brain thinking the same way your character was thinking when you wrote that original text. In a more creative version of this strategy, take a chapter or scene you particularly liked and recreate it from a radically different point of view (POV). If you’ve written the scene from the perspective of the monster who’s killing its victim, rewrite it from scratch from the POV of the victim. If you’ve written about an epic meal, write about it from the perspective of the chef who created it or the waiter who cleaned up afterwards. Try to recapture the original excitement that led you to that scene by seeing it through someone else’s eyes. Even if you just jot down point-form notes, thinking about the resulting differences from your first thought can reveal key details you omitted from the original version.
It’s commonly said you can’t write believably about characters if you don’t know how they think. Many writers describe this as the characters suddenly coming alive and developing their own opinions about what should happen to them and how it should happen. To learn those opinions, try interviewing your characters. Ask them who they are and how they found themselves in their current situation. Ask them how they felt before, during, and after an event. Pretend that you’re a journalist, whether you’re working for the snootiest “just the facts” newspaper or for the seediest tabloid. Pay attention to how the character responds to gain insights into how they’re feeling about their situation, including you and other onlookers.
When it actually comes time to write about the events in question, remember to write “in the moment”. Your characters don’t know what is going to happen next, even if you do, so they must react to their current situation, not to the long-term needs of your plot. The mismatch between what they expect to happen and what actually happens will have consequences for their emotional and intellectual responses to their situation. Don’t neglect those consequences, particularly if you would respond differently. The whole point about this trick is that even if you don’t know what to write about in a given scene, the characters may know and may be willing to tell you.
Use the same approach to learn what key aspects of their context a character will experience in a given scene—sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, emotion, or logic. Determine which of these senses will motivate the scene and the character’s response, and which ones are irrelevant. Focus on the motivators, but don’t neglect the less important factors, since each of us experiences many things simultaneously, even if we don’t focus on any one thing. Sometimes what seems irrelevant may acquire relevance later. Once you’ve figured out the key details, pick the ones that interest you most and use them to get past your block.
Keep your eyes open for opportunities to try both new and old things. New markets, such as anthologies, literary magazines, and Web sites, are constantly emerging, and sometimes one will inspire you to try something new. Sometimes the opposite is true: you’ve written something long ago in an older style that doesn’t much resemble your current style or that focuses on different concerns, but it still has some resonance that brings you back to it. Remember that old story you wanted to write about the aging vampire who needs dentures to eat? The new anthology on geriatric protagonists might be the place to send it. Remember the old-style western you wrote, centered around a love story? That new magazine of classic western romances is just the right market. Think of those old stories as a kind of comfort food for your writer’s soul: you can go back to your roots and remember some of those early inspirations. You may find that you can write something in an old style when your new style is simply too challenging.
However, if you aspire to grow as a writer rather than simply getting better at the same old same old, you also want to avoid sinking into old ruts. Try rewriting one of your stories in an entirely different style or genre: if the plot points of the original story require all the trappings (and literary conventions) of science fiction, and the story must be plausible based on our current knowledge of science, ask yourself whether and how the human heart of the story changes if you remove those constraints and adopt the different set of constraints imposed by fantasy (e.g., the possibility of magic), a western (science fiction without the modern science), or something else entirely.
Periodically breaking out of your box keeps your writing muscles flexible. If you tend to write in one voice (first person versus third person), one style (formal vs. folksy), or one genre (e.g., spy fiction vs. romance), it pays to occasionally try a different style or genre to stretch your literary muscles. That’s particularly true nowadays, since mashups of all kinds that combine elements from very different genres are becoming wildly popular as authors chafe against the artificial boundaries imposed by the marketing needs of publishers and bookstores. It may be difficult to find a particular mashup that hasn’t already been tried, but if you can, this is also an opportunity to blaze new ground and make a name for yourself, while simultaneously offering a possible motherlode of new stories that haven’t yet been mined out by other writers.
If something inspires you, write about it. Don’t be afraid to set it aside when you’re done and move on, then come back to it later—or never. No writing is wasted if you enjoyed the process and learned something from overcoming the particular challenges of that story. There’s a huge difference between writing and marketing: write for joy of it, then worry about how to sell it once you’re satisfied with the writing.
Some of us just want to tell a good story. Others have some “deep” message they want to share in the hope of changing the world. Still others want to craft a literary jewel that shows off all the pomo techniques they’ve learned while earning a BA in literature, even if the result isn’t much in the way of story and doesn’t have much of a message. Each goal comes with a different set of literary and esthetic criteria. If you make an effort to understand what you’re trying to accomplish before you set out, you’re more likely to reach that goal.
Once you understand a genre’s criteria, brainstorm about them with friends who share (or at least understand) those criteria. They’ll help you see the holes in what you’re hoping to achieve and ways to work around any obstacles that stop you from that achievement. But also brainstorm with people who don’t share or possibly don’t even respect those criteria. Their radically different perspectives may give you a fresh approach or (as you try to justify your goal) confirm you in your desire to use the chosen criteria and approach.
Joining a writer’s group is an excellent way to obtain these contrasting opinions. The best writer’s groups include people with different backgrounds and goals who will challenge you to clarify and defend your ideas. But they will also talk you past impasses and dead-ends once they understand what you’re trying to achieve. In particular, authors in their genre may have long since solved a problem that authors in your genre are still grappling with, so you can adapt that solution to your own needs. The adrenaline of defending yourself and the excitement of sharing someone else’s interest in your work can provide unparalleled motivation to get writing. However, writer’s groups can also be powerfully demotivating if members don’t understand that the group’s primary goal must be to help you achieve your goal, not to impose someone else’s arbitrary set of criteria. If someone doesn’t get that the goal of critiquing is to help you write better (not to prove how nasty they can be as a critic), remind them of why they’re part of the group.
As an alternative to the traditional writer’s group, why not form a “reader’s group”? That is, find a few people who love reading and enjoy thinking about what they’ve read, but who have no aspirations to be writers. Such people are invaluable for several reasons, most importantly because they’re often better representatives of your audience than other writers, and because they aren’t constrained by the kinds of assumptions most writers learn and internalize. (In a terminology familiar to most technical writers, these people are often called “beta readers”.) As a result, their reactions to your writing may be more valuable than the critiques of your fellow writers. Talking to real readers can help you understand what excites them about good writing, and that excitement may be sufficiently contagious to get you writing again.
Speaking of arbitrary criteria, you’re not obliged to accept all of the criteria of a particular genre. A good example is science fiction writer Geoff Ryman’s “mundane manifesto”: as an esthetic choice, he’s offered the challenge of writing only stories that use the science we already know rather than (so far as we know) impossible technologies such as faster-than light spaceships See the Wikipedia article “Mundane science fiction” for details. Asking the difficult question of why a particular criterion is assumed by a genre and what might happen if you relax that constraint can lead to really interesting new insights into a genre that’s beginning to show its age.
Some writers find they must understand the overall shape of their story before they begin to write it, and only begin to write once they understand how everything fits together in an interesting and exciting way. Others prefer to learn these things as they write, led by their growing understanding of a character and how that character thinks and acts. I’ve found myself taking both approaches at different times: sometimes the story springs into my head fully designed, with all the key details in place, but other times I only find out what the story’s about by writing it—or rewriting it half a dozen times.
If you’re the kind of author who knows exactly what is going to happen and how, you may be tempted to force your characters into procrustean paths, and give your characters no choice but to obey you. If you’re the kind of author who’s driven mainly by a desire to understand your characters, you’ll be more reluctant to place those constraints on your characters, preferring to let them gradually come into focus and lead you somewhere interesting, even if that destination’s not where you originally intended to go. The latter approach is more organic, but the former approach can be more realistic. In the real world, we often have no choice about what we must do or the obstacles in our way, and must instead find ways to do what’s necessary while maintaining our courage and sanity. The two approaches create very different responses in a character. If a character is your hapless puppet, they’ll experience a sense of powerlessness and lack of agency that shapes their every action to some degree. But characters who have a sense of agency because they feel they can control their world won’t passively accept your plot choices, and their struggle against those choices can provide exciting discoveries about where to take a character and how to tell their story.
The practical and literary/esthetic problems are easy to solve, because they’re primarily mechanical, requiring a little effort or insightful help from your writer friends. The psychological problems are far less tractable, but in many cases, the solutions come down to the simple challenge of regaining the excitement that drove you to write in the first place. That desire can get you past a great many problems.
Popova, M. 2012. How to break through your creative block: strategies from 90 of today’s most exciting creators.
Geoff is the author of close to 400 non-fiction articles, some of which have been gathered in his book of essays on scientific communication, not to mention three novels and more than 20 short stories.
©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved