By: Sandra Novack
Over the years I've been asked what I do when I have writer's block, and my response has usually always been the same: There's no such thing as writer’s block! But recently, about a year ago, wouldn’t you know it: I had to eat those words. I wasn’t having trouble writing so much as carrying things through. I was in a stage where I felt discouraged. I still wrote everyday, but every time I read the words I’d written, I swore they were all bad. So finishing things became a problem—I was suddenly scared, set back—and I came to consider that fear of ending something a form of writer’s block.
Some tips for those who hit a wall:
Be kind to yourself. Don’t let the hypercritical part of the self step in too early. If everything needs to be perfect right away, nothing will ever get written, or finished. Be sloppy. Write through the chapter, even if the scenes are awkward or the language is clumsy. Write through, even if characters say really stupid things, or if a simile or metaphor falls flat. Write through the next chapter, and the next. Just write through! I believe it was Sara Gruen who once said that you can revise anything, except, of course, a blank page.
Stop writing. Why not? Go ahead. Take a break for a while. Do yoga. Play tennis. Take two weeks off and knit something gorgeous for your mother. So often we get caught up in thinking that writing is all there is in life. This is especially true once you’re in the ‘publish or perish’ paradigm. Look, your brain is a muscle and it needs downtime. It needs to refuel. Often just doing something else recharges creative thinking and gets us ‘unstuck.’
Play around with juxtaposition. When I’m writing one scene and I start to hit a wall, I sometimes switch to another scene or character altogether. Skip that trouble spot and keep going. Sometimes you have to write ahead or write another sequence, in order to see what something you’ve left behind needed.
Read. Reading is often the best solution to everything: getting unstuck, learning how to write, getting inspired, learning new tricks of the trade. I’m always getting ideas when I read, and those ideas fuel my writing when I sit down at the computer again.
Words are fuel, too. Back in graduate school, I had to write a story for a workshop deadline. The problem was that I had no inspiration for a story. I had no ideas whatsoever. So I wrote my short story “My Father’s Mahogany Leg” one word at a time. This was actually an idea that came from a mentor, Francois Camoin. He said, “Some narratives are driven by plot, by the idea of what happens next…Other narratives are driven by language, by the writer’s search for the next word, the next phrase, often without conscious attention to narrative logic.” Instead of thinking ‘big’ – in terms of character, scene, plot, or theme – think ‘small.’ Write a word, then just say, okay, what word next? You CAN compose an entire story from this micro-level approach alone.
Write a story from a minor character’s point of view. You’ve already got the story outline, then, but you have a totally different vision of known events, and a totally different desire to fuel the outcome.
What If? This one is from Pam Painter’s marvelous book, “What If?”: Take a story that you feel is stuck, and, at the top of the page write WHAT IF. Add a list of ways to continue the next scene or event sequence. What if my main character’s car breaks down? What if she calls her mother? What if an old boyfriend shows up? What if an alien lands from the sky? Be as playful and wild as you want. Do that until you find a ‘what if’ that feels organic.
Be productive in other ways. Polish up other stories, or other novels. Work on your agent query, or research journals that will accept your poems. There are many ways to stay productive, even if the muse isn’t whispering sweet nothings in your ear. Writing and publishing both require a hell of a lot of work, so turn your attention to some other aspect of the trade for a while.
Take a walk already. This is similar, I suppose, to ‘stop writing’, and some of the suggestions there, but what I mean is this: Balance yourself out. Writing is very much a mental endeavor. Remember your body, too. When you’re fried and tapped out mentally, go do something physical.
What’s REALLY the issue here? Identify your demons. Writing requires an understanding of craft, human motivation and desire, and plain old story telling. But I frequently think that much of the writing process also deals with the mind-fucks we play on ourselves, too. So go ahead. Have a little therapy session. Sit down. Make a list. What are you really afraid of? What is REALLY blocking you? I’m afraid of endings. I'm afraid I won't have any more novel ideas left. I’m afraid of beginning anything new. I’m afraid my family won’t speak to me if I write this. I’m afraid of saying goodbye, so I don’t want to write a death scene. I’m afraid my editor will pass on this story. I’m afraid I’ll fail. I’m afraid I’ll SUCCEED. You’d be surprised what can cause writer’s block. Write the demons down, if only to better recognize what is really going on sometimes with your process.
Well, those are just a few suggestions. What about you? What do you do to get unstuck?
Sandra Novack is the author of the books PRECIOUS and EVERYONE BUT YOU. Visit her at: http://www.sandranovack.com