Got Writer's Block? Keep Calm and Carry On.
Nov. 22, 2019
Put your hand up if you’ve ever procrastinated about an unpleasant job. You’ve never done that, right?
My most recent trip to the land of repeatedly-putting-off-until-tomorrow-what-you-could-quite-easily-do-today-or-now-even finds us once again at the County farmhouse.
Anyone who has moved house knows that the process usually involves boxes. Cardboard boxes. Lots of them. Add to that all the various deliveries to the farmhouse – new BBQ, new Endy mattress, new water pressure tank – and the piles of cast-off cardboard packaging had steadily accumulated.
That damn cardboard had been staring me in the face for months. There was far too much for regular roadside recycling so the only thing to do was break it all down and cart it off to the local depot.
I desperately wanted to get rid of it – I really did – but somehow, I kept putting it off. There was always something else, something more important to do. When I finally lamented out loud to Richard that I didn’t know where to start, the wise one had a characteristically straightforward response: just start.
So, I did. I waded into the storage barn, took a deep breath, and grabbed hold of the first big box. Wrestling it to the ground, I broke it into four smaller pieces. Then I tackled another box and broke that into four. Soon, I was industriously chewing my way through the pile like a little chipmunk. Cutting, ripping, piling. Fitting smaller pieces into larger pieces. Neatly binding it all with twine.
Here’s the thing … once I actually got going, I found the task enjoyable. Of course I did! What person with a *smidge* of OCD doesn’t relish tidying up? What’s more, it didn’t take me half the time I’d predicted it would.
When it comes to writing, how many of us are hesitant to start? We often put off writing because we’re certain it will take us hours and hours to create a draft, and who has time for that? Or, we’re plagued with doubt or fear: How will I ever write anything, much less anything worthwhile?
When I Googled “writer’s block”, I got 27 million results. Clearly this is a big concern. Not big like climate crisis big (310 million results) or national debt big (465 million), mind you, but big enough. Bigger than, say, restless leg syndrome (8.6 million) or hangnails (1.6 million).
Depending on your appetite to deal with this affliction, Google offers anywhere from “4 easy ways to overcome writer’s block” to “14 tricks that work” to “27 techniques to overcome it forever.”
But then there are those who say writer’s block isn’t a thing at all. That it’s a load of nonsense. Here’s Bernadine Evaristo, the 2019 Booker Prize co-winner (with our own Maggie Atwood) on the topic:
I don’t believe in writer’s block. If there’s a problem with getting words on the page, it needs to be investigated. I think that the act of naming it as this thing called ‘writer’s block’ actually exacerbates the problem and makes the writer feel powerless and the issue insurmountable. What’s really going on?
Evaristo is not alone. In September 2018, Emily Temple collected the thoughts of 25 famous writers on the subject for Literary Hub. Many, like Toni Morrison, actually “disavow the term.” Patrick Rothfuss, best-selling author of epic fantasy, had a particularly Seinfeldian response:
I really don’t think it [writer’s block] exists. Actually, no, sorry, I’m going to take that back: it does not exist. We’ll state it flatly. Sometimes, writing is super hard. Just like any other job. Or, if it’s not your job, sometimes it’s hard to do a thing even if it is your hobby. But no plumber ever gets to call in to work, and they’re like “Jake, I have plumber’s block,” you know? What would your boss say?! I have teacher’s block. I have accounting block. They would say “You are fired! You have problems and you are fired. Get your ass in here and plumb some stuff, Jerry!”
Rothfuss’ wittiness aside, there’s no denying that putting pen to paper in an effort to produce something coherent (and, hopefully, interesting) can be difficult. Daunting even. So, what’s a well-intentioned writer to do?
1. Just do it (as Nike used to tell us). But…don’t just keep doing it. A 2014 social science study found that the formula for perfect productivity is to work for 52 minutes, then break for 17. Stop for heaven’s sake. Stand up. Stretch. Go for a walk. I wrote a decent first draft of this article in 52 minutes, and that included Google research. Then I took a wee break to do the dishes and make a marinade for my chicken dinner. (As an aside, that’s something I love about working from home – on any given day, I can accomplish both work projects and domestic chores.)
2. Reframe. Don’t think of it as big, bad “writer’s block.” Instead, accept that mid-project slow-downs or even reluctance to start are both normal; they are simply part of the writing process. Despite the considerable advances in A.I., we aren’t yet at the point where we can hit a button and spit out perfect prose. (Although it is coming – more on that in a future newsletter.) To be ready to write, you need to think ahead. You need to plan and organize. And to see a piece of writing through to completion, you need to pause to let your ideas percolate. For minutes, hours, days even. See point No. 1.
3. Don’t worry, be crappy. You can waste a lot of precious time worrying whether something will be good enough. And when you’re worrying, you’re not doing – or, at least, not doing very well. Believe me, I know this from hard experience. The fact is, the daily writing done by most professionals doesn’t have to be Pulitzer-prize worthy. “Perfect is the opposite of done,” we used to say at my old engineering firm. Sometimes you need to settle for getting it done.
4. Write first, edit later. To write faster – or at all – learn to resist the urge to edit as you go. According to Susan Reynolds, author of Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer:
Your editing brain is not the same as your writing brain, which is why you kindly ask the editor to step outside while your more imaginative and spontaneous brain is writing the first draft.
Or, as Daphne Gray-Grant puts it in The Happy First Draft: A Practical and Painless Guide to Obliterating Writer’s Block:
Editing and writing appear to be similar jobs because they both involve sitting at a computer trying to work with words. But they are entirely different work, using different parts of our brains. In one case, we’re producing the words – a creative task – and in another, we’re trying to improve them – a linear task.
So-called writer’s block is part of the writing process. Accept it, find two or three techniques to deal with it….and carry on.