Monday, October 22, 2012

The Shocking Truth About Writer's Block

And How To Cure it Before National Novel Writing Month Begins
By Cindy Jones

The affliction known as Writer's Block is about to go viral with National Novel Writing Month around the corner.  A week from now, writers everywhere will sit down at their computers, stare at the blank screen, and update their Facebook status with a complaint about creative paralysis.  By mid-November,Writer's Block will reach epidemic proportions.  But is it really writer's block?  And can it be cured?
Writer's Block occurs when emotional or intellectual demands divert mental energy.
We had a death in the family two months ago.  The sudden overwhelming grief left only enough mental energy to write the obituary.  My work-in-progress went into limbo and upheaval dominated my life.  But slowly, time heals and balance returns.  I know because Writer's Block has obstructed progress at other times in my life when the emotional or intellectual capacities of my mind were overloaded.  The demands of a full-time career, the holidays, marital spats, and last minute Middle School emergencies all took their toll on my word count.  The cure for this strain of Writer's Block is to wait it out.  Creative energy will be restored once the crisis passes.

But the plague about to sweep the nation will be described differently.
Symptoms include a white page, a seated writer, and paralysis of imagination.  
Do not call a doctor.  You can diagnose this strain of Writer's Block at home with the following question:  Did you have a story in your mind when you sat down at the blank screen?
A writer does not sit down at a blank screen until they are ready to download the story already created in their imagination. 
Me journaling in Samuel Johnson's house in London.  
 Anne LaMotte developed two technical terms for the product of the writer's download:  "brain vomit" or the "sh*tty first draft".  In order to download a story, the story must be present in a writer's mind.  If it is not present, there is nothing to download.  Hence the writer staring at the blank screen may simply be unprepared to write.  Get up.  Leave the blank page and find something productive to do.
The shocking truth: Most cases of Writer's Block are due to lack of preparation. 
So how does a writer create a story to download?  The answer would require another blog post so let's just say writers explore premises where characters act under pressure and they use ideas from memory and imagination, research, insights, and observation, working out the details in their head.  Be open to ideas that come to you during the day but do not return to the blank page until you have something to download.

you are not suffering debilitating emotional or intellectual challenges, and if you have made a serious attempt to cultivate a life of the mind, and if you still find yourself staring at the white page,
perhaps your day-dreams are short-circuiting.  
Which brings us to another type of Writer's Block.  Story ideas come to me while I am in daydream mode.  That is, while I am engaged in an activity that allows my mind to wander.  The very best ideas come in the shower, hence the wet trail from bathroom to computer.  I also develop stories while driving, cooking, and listening to others talk.  The downside is I pass destinations, burn food, and annoy people when I zone out.  Here is a simple test to determine if you are short-circuiting daydreams:
  • do you wear ear buds while exercising?
  • is your TV on while you cook dinner?
  • do you play music while driving?
  • do you check Facebook at red lights? 
 If you answered yes, a constant stream of distraction may be interfering with your capacity to receive ideas from daydreams.  The cure?  Unplug yourself and be quiet until you can hear your own thoughts.

The good news for NaNoWriMo participants: October is not over.  You still have time to prepare.  As you clear your desk for National Novel Writing Month, don't forget to spend the rest of October developing an imaginary world full of characters under pressure.  And when the 30 days of November begin, make sure you can hear yourself think while you fill that blank screen with brain vomit.

Cindy Jones is the author of My Jane Austen Summer.  Follow:


  1. I haven't yet signed up for NaNo, but it is in my mind that I really want to do it. This is a great post in preparation for that. I love the tips on distraction.

    I find I do a lot of my mind wanderings when I'm driving and often turn the car radio off so I can do just that. I may see you during NaNo :)

    1. The great thing about being a writer is that time that might otherwise be spent doing mindless activities (driving or exercising) can be diverted to solve literary problems. Good luck if you decide to do NaNo.

  2. Tried it last year and hated the whole experience. It really did my head in and much of what was written wasn't just a bad first draft. It was just rubbish. Giving it a miss and blocking out NaNoWriMo on Twitter so I don't get caught up in the madness. I'll see everyone in December.

    1. I hear you. NaNo is not for everyone and perhaps what most people get out of it is not a completed novel but a reason to dive in and write. Personally, I can't complete a novel in under three years.

  3. Very interesting article. Didn't know to be prepared before sitting down and looking at the computer screen.

    1. Thank you! Funny thing is, it really works for me since, with four children, I've never had the option of staring at a blank page for more than two minutes. Yet I've always had lots of time to think while waiting at soccer practice, etc.

  4. I'm a fan of NaNoWriMo. For me, it's a great way to get a start on a rough draft. I think I would still be writing that first book if I hadn't participated. Thanks for the tips on how we short-circuit our daydreaming ~ I'm definitely guilty.

    1. Smart approach. Sometimes we need to set drastic goals, and getting started on a rough draft is a GOOD thing no matter how it happens. And November is a good time to be productive, before the holidays divert mental energy.

  5. Excellent explanation about writers'block. One of the best I've ever read. Thanks!

  6. Just loved this post! Brain drain and writers block are an affliction of not only emerging writers but successfully published ones as well. Great suggestions for getting back to work and releasing the creative genies in all of us. It really is a matter of getting out of our own way. Just like in life.

  7. I like the idea of unplugging. I've become an obsessive sports fan - Jets, Mets, Knicks - but I suspect I'd be better off spending time in the car thinking deep writing thoughts than to annoying analyses about why my latest team is losing.

    Also, I'm ADD when it comes to blogs - I thought that was *your* room you're sitting in in that picture!

  8. I made myself at home! I LOVE finding cozy places to write while on vacation. Revives me.