The other day, I heard a guy complaining that he had writer’s block, and I wanted to tell him, “That’s impossible! Writer’s block isn’t real.” Then I realized, it would be like breaking the news about Santa Claus to someone else’s kid. Who am I to mess with the religious convictions of strangers?
So I’m going to let you, dear reader, in on a secret. If you think you have writer’s block, you’ve just bought into one of the most harmful and destructive myths in the industry. It’s a lie that will bring you down, make you procrastinate more than you have already, and prevent you from reaching your goals.
“Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing.” Philip Pullman
But first, it’s important to understand why you persist in believing writer’s block exists. I think deep down it makes you feel smug. You have come to believe that by owning writer’s block, you’ve become a “real” writer.
Wrong. You’ve been brainwashed. Duped. You’ve been had. Writer’s block is B.S and the truth will set you free.
“But no!” you say. “I’m telling you, you don’t understand. I have writer’s block. Things aren’t flowing.” OK, that’s fine. We all have good flowy days, and we all have days of mental and emotional constipation. Deal with it.
“Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?” Philip Pullman
Writers block means you are mistaking (a) the end result (ie. finished poem/manuscript/essay/song) with (b) the actual process of writing. You cannot have (a) without (b), but writer’s block is the myth that you can.
As an aside, I’ll bet that writer’s block is a concept that exists only in Anglo societies. Respond to this post if you know other cultures also perpetuate this myth. I’m banking on it being an Anglo thing because writer’s block reflects two of the dysfunctions of Anglo society: self-entitlement and self-censorship. If you didn’t feel entitled to sublime inspiration right now, you would stop censoring yourself, and you wouldn’t have writer’s block.
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” — Mark Twain
When you think of writing as a process, and not a goal, you can liberate yourself from the tyrannical myth of writer’s block. You will find that writer’s block consists mainly of self-censorship, borne of self-entitlement and phony perfectionism. When you cease buying into the myth, you will find that your writing improves and you write more.
“I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.” — Barbara Kingsolver
Writing is more than coming up with magical sentences and stringing them in the right order. Learn to honor the early fermentation stages of writing too: when you are scribbling ideas on a napkin, jotting down the dream you had last night, drawing the stranger sitting next to you on the plane, or analyzing a movie for its structure or dialogue.
Here are some concrete things you can do when you think you have writer’s block.
- Edit what you’ve already written. Seems like a no-brainer, but editing what you’ve already written can also trigger new ideas, and best of all, makes your writing better. Editing your own work or rewriting is in the job description anyway. Perhaps your “writer’s block” is a sign you have more significant things to do than that next sentence. Take the seeds of what you jotted down yesterday and nurture them.
- Get non-linear. I like to use a blank, unlined journal to stimulate free-form thought. Pen and paper, dude. Sometimes I even draw crude visual aids. Many of the thoughts and visualizations brainstormed in my journal turn into fully-fledged pieces of writing later on. I also use the software Evernote to record random ideas, brainstorm, and organize my thoughts. An Evernote session or drawing in a journal can become necessary and enjoyable parts of the writing process.
- Stop censoring yourself. A lot of what is mistaken for writer’s block is actually just self-censorship. You want to come up with the perfect sentence, poem, or scene for your script…and you want it now. It doesn’t work that way. If you want the end result to be awesome, you have to start somewhere. Give your stream of consciousness room to move.
“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’” — Maya Angelou
Sometimes letting the garbage out helps your brain make room for good stuff. Even if it’s crude, just get it out there and worry about polishing it later. Of course, the best way to overcome self-censorship is with a deadline. Have someone counting on you to deliver and watch how fast you can get stuff done. Without a deadline, you’re stuck with self-discipline. You can do it.
- Write about something else. If you’re writing about love, write for a while about death. If you’re working on an essay about politics, write about your dinner.
“If you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.” — Ray Bradbury
- Write in a different genre or mode. If you’re writing a screenplay, write a poem. If you’re a poet, write an essay. If you’re writing a novel, try writing a review of the latest restaurant you ate at and publish it on Yelp.
- Take a walk, or take some drugs. Maybe your brain is fried. Take a walk. Who knows what or who you will see to trigger a new idea? Smoke, drink, whatever it takes to shift your consciousness. Writer’s block is a sign you need greater mental flexibility and altering your consciousness can help.
- Read. Few things are as helpful for writer’s block than reading other people’s writing. Sometimes it triggers a new tone or style in your own prose; other times it reminds you to look at something in a new light. It helps most to read good writing, but even reading bad writing can spark the synapses.
Anything I’m forgetting?
Don’t buy into the whole “writer’s block” thing. It’s a form of sabotage. You’re better than that. Realizing the truth about Santa hurts at first, but it also means you’re growing up. Reframe, and keep working.