In the first of a two-part series, Geoff Hart looks at the causes of and some of the solutions to writer’s block, a condition that affects most fiction and non-fiction writers at some point in their careers.
Write something, even if it’s just a suicide note.”—Gore Vidal
Writing should be exciting and pleasurable, and most of the time it is. But if you’re a dedicated professional who earns your living from writing, writing is also a job, and even the most exciting job sometimes grows boring or frustrating or stressful. When that happens, you may find yourself “blocked”: unable to write, and not sure why. That’s particularly true for technical communicators like me, who also enjoy writing fiction in those rare free moments between paying work. (You’d be surprised how many technical writers also write fiction on the side or vice versa. Philip José Farmer and Isaac Asimov are two familiar names from the old school; Charles Stross and Ted Chiang are two from the new school.)
Writing guides and the Internet abound with essays about specific solutions that work for one person and may not work for you. Why? There are probably as many reasons for writer’s block as there are writers, and those reasons change over the course of your life and between projects. A solution that worked for you when you were young and passionate about a particular story may not work once you’re a jaded old pro facing a tight deadline for an anthology that doesn’t thrill you but that will pay the rent.
You need to understand why you’re blocked before you can find a solution that will work. The bad news is that it’s not always obvious why you’re blocked, and major life stresses (dying parents, adolescent kids, or the boss from hell) may require professional help to overcome before you can start writing again. The good news is that most writer’s block has less serious causes. A little introspection, perhaps aided by someone who’s a good-enough friend to be honest with you, can help you pinpoint these simpler problems and maybe even solve them without the need for a shrink. When you can’t solve a problem, there are also some things you can do to keep working until the problem solves itself.
In this article, I’ll discuss three categories of cause, and present various solutions. For simplicity, I’ll focus on psychological causes, practical barriers related to the mechanics of writing, and literary or esthetic causes that arise from your artistic goals. You may be facing an entirely different category of problem, but one of these suggestions is likely to lead you to your own solution. Please note that although I’ll focus on fiction, most of the advice here applies equally well, mutatis mutandis, to non-fiction.
Psychological Barriers Create Writer’s Block
Some of the biggest problems we writers face are the various life stresses that affect each of us at some time, not the least of which is earning a living so we can indulge in our passion for writing. The only good solution for long-term (chronic) stress is to eliminate the cause of that stress, then give yourself some time to recover. The harsher the stress, the more likely it is you’ll need professional help to get through it. I don’t even pretend to play a shrink on the Internet, so here, I’ll focus on the small and manageable stresses most of us can deal with on our own.
Distractions are one of the biggest problems, particularly now that most of us have high-speed Internet access and myriad Web sites we can explore instead of writing. Self-discipline helps; for example, I’ll often reward myself with a few minutes of faffing around on the Web after I’ve gotten through enough of a scene or story. But when you can’t discipline yourself because some stress makes you seek out frivolous sites that let you avoid writing, more desperate measures may be necessary. For example, consider setting the parental controls provided by your computer’s operating system. On my Mac, I can restrict e-mail and chat, limit Internet access, and restrict the time I’m allotted to do certain things; Windows offers similar options. If you need something more powerful, check out PC Advisor’s list of “The five best free parental control programs” for Windows alternatives. For Mac users, check out the options at FindTheBest’s “Compare Mac Parental Control Software” page.
Of course, if you know the password used to manage the access controls, you can override them at any time, making them useless. If you have sufficiently weak self-discipline that you need such controls in the first place, you may also need to ask your spouse or partner or a close friend to set the control password and not share it with you until you develop enough self-discipline to make this unnecessary.
TV is another major distraction in your writing space, and is particularly bad because it relentlessly draws your eyes away from the computer screen. Unless you can resist the urge to watch or you need white noise to write, move it or your writing space to another room. Even if you don’t move the TV, clear out major time-wasters like video game systems. Music players are a different issue entirely; I can’t write while good music is playing (I want to listen!), but I know other writers who can’t write without music. Learn which type of writer you are and plan accordingly.
Writing is an intensely focused activity, and any disruption of that focus can throw you right out of the zone. This means you need to schedule a writing time when nobody will interrupt you. If you find you have a particular time of day when you need to write or write most efficiently, reserve that time. Some of us write best at the crack of dawn, others while burning the midnight oil, and others have no specific time and write whenever the muse arrives. The trick is to make it clear to your friends and loved ones who don’t already know about writers that you need this time. Invest some time in a heart-to-heart with the person to explain what you’re doing and why you need private time. End with a promise to negotiate times when you’ll give them an equally intense amount of your attention. (That’s particularly true with young children.) When you clear the air about what you do and gain the acceptance of the people who are important to you, you won’t feel quite so guilty that you’re stealing time from them to do your writing.
Most will accept this arrangement as one of the downsides of loving a writer. For others, it may take considerable persistence before they get the message. If you have someone who simply can’t understand that writing is work and that it’s important they not disturb you, learn to unplug the telephone before you sit down or when you feel you’re about to enter “the zone”. Get an answering machine and check it every hour or two. If you have the kind of life where occasional emergencies are likely, such as school-age kids who might injure themselves at school or elderly family members who may need your help with little notice, you probably can’t afford to be out of touch for more than an hour or two. Find someone who can run interference and be your point of contact; they’ll interrupt you if necessary, and let you work if it’s not urgent.
A thought about chores: When you’re looking for excuses to avoid writing, doing household chores offers a perfect escape because you really are accomplishing something necessary. Resist that temptation. You can’t avoid your chores forever, but you can schedule them at times when they won’t interfere with your writing. For example, I prefer to do the dinner dishes right before bedtime, when my brain’s turned to mush and there’s no hope of writing. Clean out the kitty litter mid-morning so it doesn’t interrupt your sunrise writing session, or walk the dog first thing in the morning so it doesn’t interrupt your midmorning writing session. Once you learn your writing rhythm, you can find ways to schedule chores around your writing. That being said, chores sometimes represent a good way to step away from a problem and distract yourself so that your subconscious can work on the problem. Learn to recognize the difference from avoiding a problem and taking a necessary break.
Burnout is a more subtle problem. Writing demands enormous amounts of concentration, and that consumes surprising amounts of mental energy. Even if you love writing, you can’t neglect that energy drain in the long term. Signs of burnout include:
- resentment about the task you’ve set yourself
- an increasingly cynical or critical attitude towards that task
- irritability and impatience towards yourself and others
- finding yourself seeking ways to avoid the task
- crushing fatigue or a lack of energy, possibly due to a change in sleep habits
- dreading the effort required to sit down in front of the keyboard
- physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle pain, and your complexion going to hell
- a lack of enthusiasm about or satisfaction with your work
- increased use of food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better about yourself or your work
These are all signs you need to take a break, and possibly a long one. Recovering from burnout requires rest, and the more severe the burnout, the longer it may take to recover. You can do a few things to shorten the recovery period. Learning to meditate can cleanse your mental palate more effectively than even a good night’s sleep. Exercising regularly maintains the body that sustains your writer’s mind, and exercising to the point of exhaustion sometimes eliminates accumulated stress in a way nothing else can. For example, I’ve found that this kind of exhaustion stops my conscious mind from putting the brakes on my subconscious, which seems to be the source of much of my creativity.
Loss of enthusiasm is a particularly important sign of burnout, but fortunately, it may be one of the easier problems to deal with. Pause a moment and ask yourself what book or story or article you read that first inspired you to become a writer. Identify your literary comfort food—the books you reread periodically when nothing new will give you that same satisfaction. Go reread that writing to remind yourself what the excitement feels like. Then harness that energy for your own writing.
Conversely, if you can’t muster the energy to care anymore, seek out something that outraged you, whether written, spoken, or visual. (For me, most science fiction TV shows or movies do the trick.) Ask yourself what got you so hot under the collar, then set out to do it right. There’s an enormous community of fan fiction (“fanfic”) writers on the Internet, formed by people who found something that inspired them about another author’s work. When that writer neglected to consider some aspect of their literary universe that fascinated a reader, or when they wrote something so badly readers knew they could do better, inspiration and enthusiasm were born, along with huge libraries of fiction intended to solve the problem. To learn more, check out the Wikipedia article “Fan fiction” and the Organization for Transformative Works Web site. The act of writing purely to skewer another author or their work, or even writing a poison pen letter (but not sending it) can also get the creative juices flowing.
Teasing yourself can also work. In this approach, jot down plot notes, snatches of dialogue, unusually witty or profound phrases, and other story ingredients—but don’t let yourself write about them. As these fascinating ideas accumulate and begin to tug at your unconscious, you’ll gradually develop an irresistible urge to assemble them into a coherent whole. Only then should you let yourself start writing again. Needless to say, don’t let this become an excuse to avoid writing.
Performance anxiety is the final psychological barrier. First, reconcile yourself to the notion that you’re not Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. That’s okay: you shouldn’t try to be! When they started out writing, they weren’t famous authors either. More to the point, they weren’t interested in slavishly imitating someone else. The point of writing is to write your own stuff, in your own voice and with your own priorities, and find your own readers.
Give yourself permission to fail, particularly when you’re early in your career: becoming a professional at the top of your game takes thousands of hours of practice, and it won’t happen overnight. Before you start reliably hitting the target, you’ll face a long series of complete misses, followed by unsatisfactory but better results, followed by increasingly effective efforts to fix the problems. This learning curve is inevitable, and rather than insisting on perfection right from the start, aim to be better with each new effort.
And don’t worry about critics. You’ll learn is that it’s not possible to satisfy everyone, and that you shouldn’t try. Each of us knows of authors we can’t abide, but that friends or family love, and each of us has undoubtedly had the “don’t tell me you read that” experience. Some writing techniques may be objectively bad, but most critiques of writing are highly subjective and personal, particularly when they ignore the author’s goals and replace them with the critic’s prejudices or agenda. The best way to spare yourself the embarrassment of committing such errors is to join a writer’s group. If you’ve chosen your group well, you’ll have tough critics who are also sensitive to your goals as a writer, and they’ll help you eliminate the worst problems with a story before the rest of the world has a chance to point them out. With those problems eliminated, and foreknowledge that you don’t need to please everyone, you can write with more confidence that you won’t embarrass yourself.
Geoff is the author of close to 400 non-fiction articles, some of which have been gathered in his book of essays on scientific communication, not to mention three novels and more than 20 short stories.