One of my students is obsessed with the concept of writer’s block. In her mind, writer’s block is this metaphysical monster or force that’s totally impossible to overcome. If she’s got it, she finished.
She’s right to be worried. An unknown entity that stops her from being able to write completely? Yikes. If her conception of writer’s block is accurate, we should all be terrified.
I happen to think she’s wrong.
That sense of being frozen, staring at a blank page or screen, with no idea what to do next can be conquered. It belongs to us, after all: writer’s block. It’s our block, not some opposing dark energy from without. It comes from us, and we can move it out of our way.
What makes writer’s block difficult to maneuver is the sense of a total absence of words. Too often I assume that what I’m feeling is truth. But emotions aren’t always trustworthy. This one in particular. Because of course, the words are there. As long as we breathe and think and move, we have words.
Don’t believe me? Try this free-writing exercise.
Get some paper and your preferred writing utensil. Set a timer for five minutes. Once it starts, you have to start writing and keep writing, NO MATTER WHAT. Write about anything. Your earliest memory. A place you love. Something that bothers you that is really quite small. Take the first idea that occurs to you, commit to it, and write. Don’t spend time wondering if it’s good enough to write about. Just commit and write.
I had to do this a lot in a classroom setting. A professor would give us a prompt and we’d write. Sometimes, they’d want us to share from what we wrote after, so I didn’t have the option to sit and stare at my paper. It was terrifying. But once I did it a couple of times, I started to realize that there are always words available. There is always something to write. The ideas fill from beneath, writes Annie Dillard, like well water.
The ability to grab the first idea you think of and write it out is one of the most important skills I’ve learned since I started writing seriously. It takes practice.
Practicing that skill through free writing is a great way to jumpstart your writing time. Find a prompt you like or think about a problem in the piece you’re working on, set a timer, and write until the timer goes off. Once you start letting the words out, they’ll keep coming.
Speaking of writing time.
I know there are mixed feelings in the writing world about scheduling writing time, writing every day, and etc. I recently saw Twitter light itself on fire over an article claiming that if you don’t write every day you’re not a writer (or something to that effect). Some of this is personal preference. It has to do with the way your brain works and the circumstances you need for optimal creative processing. However, there is something to be said for the heavy lifting writing habits and rituals can do in the fight against writer’s block.
In her book The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about her daily workout ritual. She gets up, hails a cab, and goes to the gym every day at 5:30am. She doesn’t think about it. She just does it.
It’s vital to establish some rituals–automatic but decisive patterns of behavior–at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.
I had a teacher who lights a candle before she writes. It’s a ritual, a signal that now she is leaving the every day and entering writing time. I often make myself a cup of tea before writing. The process of making tea and having a mug next to my computer helps me settle down. I’m going to be there at least as long as it takes to drink the tea. This is also the reason it’s a good idea to have a dedicated writing space. It adds to the ritual, which strengthens the habit.
Because if writing is a habit, just another thing we do, a regular activity, it will come to us naturally. Defeating writer’s block, filling emptiness with words, will be something we do daily. And the more we practice defeating it, the better we’ll get.
John Cleese advocates a dedicated creative time of 90 minutes. Not too long to burn out, but long enough for ideas to develop. He believes that knowing you’ll be doing this creative thing for a set period of time helps you surrender to the idea and begin to be creative. If you’re going to be there for an hour and a half, you might as well get something done.
Flannery O’Connor also advocated a dedicated writing time. She set aside 2 hours every morning and did not allow herself to do anything else during that time. No reading, no research. Only writing or staring into space. Some days she’d just sit at her desk and stare. But she’d be there, ready to write, every day.
I love that image of her just sitting there, waiting. Even if we make writing a habit, if we develop our own rituals, if we practice free writing, put words down on the page even when it feels like there aren’t any, we may still have days where no words are written. This is not failure or writer’s block. It’s just another part of the writing process’s cycle. A lot of the work in my process happens internally. Me getting things straight in my own head. Sometimes my subconscious needs time to process, too. Our subconsciousnesses don’t always let us know what they’re up to, the jerks…
But before we blame our subconsciousnesses and sit passively through our writing times, we need to make sure we’ve done everything in our power to deal with our impulse to not write.
Because no one will ask us to keep writing.
Because we will only be writers if we keep writing.
Because the only thing that will keep us from being writers is if we stop.