A conversation in the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook group got me thinking about this issue again. That conversation was initiated by Julianna Baggot’s blog post Is Writer’s Block a Form of Self-Protection.
First, let me just say that I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I do believe there are many reasons why we don’t write, and that some people call these reasons writer’s block. I believe it’s a concept; I just don’t believe the concept is helpful.
I face what some people would call writer’s block constantly. Starting a new poem, deciding what to write next, trying to decide whether the project I’m working on is a book or a bunch of words that I’ve arranged to look like poems, deciding whether I’m a writer or someone who wastes time with words, fighting to make time to write when there are a million other pressing concerns: all these could be considered aspects of writer’s block. But naming them that doesn’t help me find solutions to those problems. Instead, considering those as part of the writing process — an unavoidable part, perhaps, but also a part of the process that every writer must face — does help.
So here are a few strategies I’ve found that can be helpful in overcoming what some people call writer’s block and I prefer to think of as a stage of pre-writing. It is a stage that can feel like a block when we allow it (or even encourage it) to go on too long and consume our energies, rather than allowing it to lead to productive writing.
- Rumination. Sometimes what we think of as writer’s block is simply the necessary phase of dormancy. Instead of actively writing, we are searching for the next thing to write. Our minds aren’t ready to put words on paper, and we don’t have a direction to write in. Calling this phase writer’s block makes it sound like a problem, something to be overcome, when in fact it may be a quiet period that the writer needs to embrace. Thinking that you’re ‘blocked’ leads to stress. Enjoy this time to refuel, and don’t push too hard to get a new project started. To keep from getting stuck in this phase, though, you can begin writing without purpose just to see what might come out. Free writing is a good tactic in this phase. The point of free writing is not to create something good, but simply to explore and see what happens.
- Finding Direction. After rumination or maybe as part of that process, writers often are searching for a new direction to write. After completing a novel or even a book or cycle of poems, writers often report casting about, looking for the next big project. Writing prompts and exercises can often help in this stage. The goal is not to complete the exercise and get a great piece of writing. The goal of the exercise or prompt is to distract you. The stress of needing to start something often gets in the way of writing. Because we want it to be a poem, a story, an essay, or heaven forbid, the next novel, we don’t know how to start that. Writing an exercise lets us write without worrying about what we’re starting (other than to follow the prompt). As we do that, often something completely unrelated comes out. After writing several exercises, those unrelated elements may start to add up. The exercises didn’t give you the content that will become your next project, but they did keep you distracted from the need to have a project, so you were able to write about those things and then recognize the project in them. Distraction is often the best way to combat what many think of as writers’ block.
- Finding Time. Another thing that gets in the way of writing, especially when we are between projects, is the fact that most of us are incredibly busy. If you don’t have a pressing deadline for a writing project or aren’t energized by being in the midst of a project, then it’s easy to let those work projects or house projects that have piled up take over every spare moment of your life. On the one hand, those are also necessary, and completing those tasks can free you to write later. They can also be a vital part of the process of rumination — keeping busy while you think about writing. But ultimately, if you’re going to get back to writing, you need to make time for it. Taking time away to focus entirely on writing by attending a writing retreat can seem like a luxury. But even if you can’t do that, you can schedule time for writing every day or several times a week. In those scheduled times, make sure you have something to write. Doing prompts or free writing can be a great way to get warmed up. Keep your expectations low: plan to write a list or write a paragraph or write random words; don’t plan to write a poem or a story until you know you have an idea for one. Just write. Doing that, and allowing yourself to write drivel is often the only way to get back to writing something you care about. Usually there is something of value in what you write, though you may not recognize it until much later. But even if none of what you write can be salvaged, it is still worthwhile if it eventually gets you to something you do care to write about.
- Journaling. One way to keep writing is to keep a journal. A journal is not meant to be published or even publishable work. It is a free space for writing ideas, observations, lists, rough embarrassing drafts, etc. Sometimes, what causes ‘writer’s block’ is a subject that we need to write about but we don’t know how to make it public. It may be an issue that so consumes us that we can’t write about anything else, but we’re not sure we want anyone else to read (or that we think no one else will be interested in). My advice is to write about it anyway, but write it first in a private journal. Write your way through a difficult subject, and eventually you will be able write about other subjects, too. You may well find that there are portions of the journal that can be made into a public document. Write it first in all its raw honesty, and then cull out the parts that you aren’t willing to share and keep the parts you can share with the world. Or change the names and disguise the circumstances so that you can create enough distance between you and that subject. When writing, know that it never has to be public. When revising, choose what to keep and how you want to make it public.
- Banish Your Inner Censor. There is a time in the writing process when we make value judgments, but in the early stages of any project, we really need to keep our inner censor at bay. If we worry too much at the outset whether something will be good enough, we will never write it, so how will we find out? If we have too many preconceived notions about the form or the ending of a piece, we are not free to explore wherever it might lead. If we worry what others will think, we can’t be honest with ourselves. So learning to write without expectations can be extremely valuable. The draft of a poem I write isn’t a poem, but it is a draft that I can refine and rewrite until I’m happy with it. The first draft of a story may be clunky and ill-conceived, but as long has there is something of interest in it for me as the writer, I can revise until that something is apparent to the reader. Writer’s block often happens when we worry too much about the final product and don’t allow ourselves the messy early stages of writing. If we expect the first draft to look like the final product, then we will be continually dissatisfied. If we allow for the fact that all good writing goes through multiple revisions until the final product is distilled from the rough beginnings, then we give ourselves license to begin.
- Follow a Form. Often contradictory advice can be useful, and though this tactic contradicts the absolute freedom I’ve been advocating, it can be helpful. A form is essentially a writing prompt. If I try to write a sonnet, I will write something to fit that form. If I decide to write a modern epic or follow any other recognizable pattern, I will find content to fit the pattern. The value of the form is that it forces you to write content that you didn’t intend. To meet the demands of form, you have stretch yourself beyond your limits. Form can lead to valuable surprises. Be willing to reconsider the form at a later stage of the process, but try using a form to generate unexpected content.
- Write Different. Sometimes the best way to get out of a pattern of not writing is to try something completely different. The fiction writer who turns to nonfiction or the poet who turns to drama can often stimulate their creativity in the unfamiliar territory. If you’ve been successful at writing in one form, the demands of continuing that success may get in your way, so try a different form where you aren’t the expert. This may give you more freedom to write in ways your inner censor would normally block. Consider blogging or writing creatively on social media or another platform that you’re not comfortable with. Give yourself limitations — novelists might try flash fiction; free verse poets might try haiku. Or break your limits: poets might try prose or longer lines; short story writers or essayists might try longer forms. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone to find the creative tensions that come with new forms.
- Set Attainable Goals. Giving yourself a goal or deadline can be helpful in getting back to writing or remaining productive. But keep the goal attainable. It is probably not the best idea to have as your goal that you will write a novel by a specific date (unless you have a contract with a publisher and need to have it finished!). Rather, it is more productive to set goals like writing a certain number of words every day or sitting down to write and actually writing something, regardless of its merit. Once you’ve started writing, then your goals can become clearer. Maybe you’ll realize those words are part of a novel or an essay, and you’ll keep working on that project. Maybe those poems will begin to take shape as a series of poems. Maybe you’ll find the content that you want to keep returning to: whether that is a character and plot or a time and place in your memory or a subject you decide to research for your next project. Set goals that work for the stage you are at in your writing process, and be willing to modify those goals as the project evolves.
- Collaborate. Working with others can be the best incentive to keep writing. If your writing partner is looking for your next installment of a shared project, you don’t want to let that person down. Hopefully you collaborate with someone you trust, so that when you send them something you aren’t 100% sure of, they will take what you’ve written and run with it. Another form of collaboration is translation. If you find you don’t have a lot of ideas coming, then work with someone else’s ideas in another language or in another form. If you don’t speak another language, adapt a work from an earlier era to the present. Once you get working with it, allow your own ideas to infuse the work. Listen to music, go to an art museum, go to a reading or read other writers. These are all forms of collaboration that can lead to ideas. If those are specifically about the work of art, then you may have ekphrastic writing. If the other artist leads you to ideas that are mostly your own, then you are simply taking part in the great conversation of art. Often at a reading, ideas for a poem or a character will come that have nothing to do with what the writer is reading: the sound of their words may have called up a memory or a thought, but it isn’t directly related to the other writer’s content. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike, in other words, go in search of it.
- Let Others Read Your Writing. Often what we call writers block isn’t really an inability to write. Don’t we all write emails, memos, texts, grocery lists, and other practical things every day? We are able to put words on paper. We simply think that none of our writing has merit or is creative. This is the perfect time to give it to someone else. Don’t tell them what they should find in it; listen to what they say they did find that was valuable. Often we are surprised that someone else responds to work we think isn’t good enough. That doesn’t mean we can’t still revise and make it better, but the voice of encouragement from someone we trust can be exactly what we need to embark upon that journey.
The main situation where I encounter writer’s block in others is in the creative writing classroom. There we have a built-in incentive to get over it: a grade. Yet this can also put an incredible amount of stress on the writer. This is why I emphasize the writing process and the reality that no writing is good enough in a first draft. The goal of a class is not to make the writing perfect, but it is to make it better. I value improvement and growth as a writer over perfection. And students in a class have the support system of the class—other students and the instructor, who want them to succeed. Of course, there are also aspects of form that we’ve studied that I want the writer to pay attention to in their finished work. Value is part of my final grade determination, but it shouldn’t be an issue in the beginning, and it shouldn’t be the final arbiter for the grade. I have found that with some encouragement and with some combination of these strategies, writer’s block can be overcome. Sometimes writer’s block is an excuse or a crutch that a student uses to rationalize why they haven’t written. Treating it as a real issue, but not as an insurmountable obstacle, helps the writer start writing. When I’ve faced my own incredibly busy schedules or the lack of direction between major projects (or when I’ve been stalled on a project), I’ve tried many of these strategies myself. Sometimes have been easier than others, but I’m still writing so they must work.