My husband once said the only thing worse than a wife who is writing is one who is not. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s right.
Writer’s block sucks. It’s the primary cause of pacing back and forth across a room, of staring at the blank page on a computer and experiencing annoyance with writers who claim they’ve never had it.
You are not alone.
Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joseph Conrad suffered from it — if that makes you feel any better.
It probably goes back to the caveperson who worried his drawings were pathetic, but the condition wasn’t given a label until 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler. Writer’s block is basically fear: creative paralysis caused by the belief that whatever you write is crap and always will be.
Maya Angelou wrote “for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat’” until her affliction, similar to a head cold, wore itself out.
George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, portrays a poet who struggles to complete an epic poem. According to the narrator, "It was too big for him, that was the truth. It had never really progressed, it had simply fallen apart into a series of fragments."
Writer’s block has been the subject of a multitude of self-help books including Rosanne Bane’s Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance, K. M. Weiland’s Conquering Writer's Block and Summoning Inspiration: Learn to Nurture a Lifestyle of Creativity and Laraine Herring’s On Being Stuck: Tapping Into the Creative Power of Writer's Block and a slew of books with numbers in them, like 642 Things to Write About, 70 Writing Exercises To Get You Started and Keep You Writing and 786 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination.
That would total 1,498 ideas and exercises. After I made it through all of those, it would be wrist-slitting time.
There is also a plethora of movies on the subject, including my personal favorite, Barton Fink, about a scriptwriter, who moves to Hollywood lured by the promise of riches. His writer’s block is so severe, it’s worse than your usual bout of composition constipation. He descends into a nightmare so surreal it rivals Francisco Goya’s “black paintings.”
Although other aspects of life, such as an illness, family responsibilities, financial worries and clinical depression, can lead to the affliction, fear is the primary cause.
“My writing sounds amateurish.”
“ I haven’t a clue as to what to put on the next page.”
“This book won’t do as well as my last one.”
“I’ll never make enough money to live on.”
“My muse has abandoned me.”
“I can’t come up with a decent idea.”
“I’m sick of writing about the same protagonist and it shows.”
“Writing isn’t fun anymore.”
That’s the critic sitting on your shoulder like Edgar Allen Poe’s raven.
If you’re a perfectionist, you might as well get out of the business right now, because there is no such thing as perfection in writing. The critic will always be sitting on your shoulder, and if you think famous novelists were overnight successes, put http://www.litrejections.com/best-sellers-initially-rejected/
into your search engine and smoke it.
I had a friend who wore pajamas and ate cereal for three days in an attempt to finish her novel. I lost touch with her, which may mean she’s still at the rehabilitation center.
In her book, The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain, neurologist Alice W. Flaherty tells us that creativity resides in a certain part of the human brain. When stressed, the brain will change control from the cerebral cortex to the limbic system, the area that ignites the fight or flight reaction or negative behavior deeply embedded in the brain over time. Normal brain activity, including the creative process, is disrupted. It’s so much nicer to think of writer’s block as a few snapped synapses rather than deep mental despair.
It’s amazing how easy it is to crush a writer’s confidence with just a few words. I remember when a woman who was a publisher’s representative told me I wasn’t very good at portraying women. I actually believed her for a few years.
A writer friend once said, “Why is that when someone criticizes our work, we wholeheartedly believe her and agonize over it, but when someone praises us, we’re sure she’s just trying to flatter us. My friend thinks it’s primarily “a woman problem.”
I won’t pretend to have the cure for writer’s block but here are some strategies:
1. Brainstorm with a group of supportive writers (my favorite because it’s almost magical the way it works).
2. You can try writing through it, but like my friend in the pajamas eating cereal, you could suffer a nervous breakdown. (Why doesn’t anyone use that term anymore? In certain cases, it sounds better than suffering from borderline personality disorder or maladaptive coping skills. We all know what a nervous breakdown is.)
3. Take a break. If you’ve written the opening more than five times, you probably have analysis paralysis. Walk two miles a day, play golf, take piano lessons. Do something that has nothing to do with writing. If you have a deadline, put your head under the pillow and say you have carpel tunnel syndrome. It’s okay to lie when it comes to your mental health.
4. Reboot your writing process. If you’re sick of your little office or the scene outside your window, go to the library or Starbucks (if you can tolerate fifteen cell phones ringing at the same time).
5. Think of a scene in your novel that you can visualize, preferably not the opening. When I began The Starlite Drive-in, the first scene I wrote was a very emotional one I intended to use further in the novel. I could see it clearly in my mind, and it flowed out onto the page. Then I went back to the beginning and wrote the book in sequential order. When I came to the place where my first scene fit, I plugged it in and it worked just as I hoped it would.
6. Don’t let anyone read your first draft because all first drafts are sh***y. My friend, Deb Caletti, National Book Award finalist for Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, told my class at the University of Washington Extension to protect those words because they are seedlings in your garden, and if they’re still young and tender, it’s too easy for someone to come along and stomp on them. Give them time to mature.
7. If you have a critique group in which you read first draft material, don’t do it! Supportive critique groups can be helpful, but hammering a writer's new scene can demoralize him. Tell your group you’re moving to Paris to find inspiration.
8. Outline, write a synopsis or try “freewriting” about anything that pops into your head.
9. Develop a thick skin. Actually, this works well for most of life’s problems but especially for writing.
10. If all else fails, eat chocolate. Studies show it prevents memory decline, and believe me that’s a lot worse than writer’s block.
cartoon by Michael Shoemaker