What the heck is writer’s block, anyway? And what can you do about it? Here’s what I’ve come up with. First off, the term writer’s block is too vague. It specifies nothing but the symptoms, nothing about the cause. It’s like saying you’re ill, suffering from soar throat, cough, and fever. But what’s the cause? A cold? Flu? Strep?
Same thing with writer’s block. All we can say is that the words are not flowing from brain to page. But what’s the cause? Until you can answer that question, you won’t know how to, ahem, cure the disease! Here’s a short list of some possible causes:
- Fear of failure
- A harsh, critical inner critic
- A lack of ideas
- A lack of time and space
- The story isn’t ripe.
These problems can occur simultaneously, but let’s look at each separately, and see what the solutions might look like.
A Lack of Time and Space. Suit up and show up! Commit to a regular writing schedule. Write in a regular place, which then becomes a trigger for your words to flow. This can be anywhere. I wrote my novel, Wyndano’s Cloak, while commuting on a train! If the goal of writing a quota of words stifles you, choose an amount of time you’ll write. When your time is up, no matter where you are, make a note of what you want to do next and stop. You’ll be itching to get back to it!
Procrastination. I don’t believe there’s a lazy gene. Ditto lazy people. There is only ineffective behavior. Personality is hard to change. Behavior isn’t. When people procrastinate, they often anticipate something will be hard or unpleasant. (Think about doing your taxes!) The problem is that we’re often poor predictors. When we’re procrastinating, we’re usually predicting the avoided task will be less fun than something else, or will be more difficult. Two things you can do:
a) Grandmother’s Rule: Eat your dinner before your desert. In other words, write first, no matter how it comes out, and then do the thing you would have procrastinated with afterward. The second, preferred activity reinforces the first!
b) Test your assumptions; fill out an Anti-Procrastination Sheet. Space doesn’t allow me to describe it here, but you can find it in David Burns’ famous book, Feeling Good.
Ideas not Flowing. Try speed writing, without consideration for what comes out. Try stream-of-consciousness writing, without consideration for punctuation. Here’s a favorite of mine: write in a different document, someplace away from what you’re working on, someplace that doesn’t matter. I do this in a journal, or in a document I call Sketchpad. My father—a screenwriter and playwright—did it on a paper bag or the margin of a used piece of paper. Once he came home with a poem on a napkin!
Another reason why ideas might not be flowing is there’s a lack of sufficient stimulation. Stock the idea pond. Go on what Julia Cameron calls an artist’s date (see her book, The Artist’s Way). You’ll be surprised how quickly your mind starts making connections between your story and what you’re seeing.
Ideas might not be flowing because you need something concrete as a starting point. I always have photos of my main characters and most of my settings to spur my imagination.
Stimulate your creativity. Challenge yourself to come up with twenty ideas, without judging them. Try merging these ideas, or vary them. Add something smaller. Add something bigger (think of chocolate chunks instead of chips in cookies or ice cream!). Close your eyes, open the dictionary at random, run your finger down the page, and stop. Brain storm how the word you’re on might relate to your story. I did this with a middle school class, with amazing results. It’s like being dropped in an unfamiliar part of town. You always find your way home! (Method and analogy courtesy of creativity pioneer, Edward De Bono.)
The story isn’t ripe. Ideas might not be flowing because the story isn’t ripe. The characters may not be sufficiently developed. The theme may be unclear, or there are too many of them. The plot may be mired somewhere in the great unknown of the middle. Try developing these areas. If that fails, let it incubate. Work on another section, or set the whole thing aside and write something else. Some stories take years to ripen. Larry McMurtry took a vacation from Lonesome Dove to write Desert Rose!
Inner Critic. The inner critic is one of the wettest blankets we can throw on our creativity. The critic is all left brain, and when you’re trying to be creative you need to be more in your right brain, drawing on your imagination and the pictures in your mind. Try talking back to the critic, but not harshly. An easy going, “Hi! I see you, I hear you, but I’m going to focus on this right now. I’ll get back to you later when I’m revising,” helps! As does mindfulness: “Those thoughts are just fish in an aquarium, and no more significant. They’ll pass.” Humor helps: “Oh, pipe down you wascally wabbit!” said in the most Elmer Fuddish voice you can.
Fear of Failure. Depending on the severity, fear of failure may be one of the more difficulty problems to tackle. Try writing down your fears. Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen, and if that thing happened, why would it be so bad? Ask yourself how likely that outcome is? Ask yourself what is the evidence for your fears, and what evidence you can think of to the contrary. Try replacing your fear thoughts with more realistic thoughts. How much do you believe the new thoughts? If you believe them, you should feel less fearful. If not, talk to a trusted friend or relative, and get some perspective. If all else fails, consider working with a therapist to help move you forward. It worked for Rachmaninofff. After seeing a hypnotist to overcome writer’s block, he penned his famous Second Piano Concerto, one of his greatest works!
You may notice other causes for writer’s block. Follow the steps above. Identify the root of the problem. Devise a solution. For most people though, simply sitting and starting will do the trick. Just write. Do it daily. The story is inside of you. Get out of its way and let it flow.
A. R. Silverberry has won a dozen awards, including Gold Medal Winner in the 2011 Benjamin Franklin Awards for Juvenile/Young Adult Fiction; Gold Medal Winner in the 2010 Readers Favorite Awards for Preteen Fiction; and Silver Medal Winner 2011 in the Bill Fisher Award for Best First Book, Children’s/Young Adult. He lives in California, where the majestic coastline, trees, and mountains inspire his writing. Wyndano’s Cloak is his first novel.
Jen has settled into a peaceful life when a terrifying event awakens old fears—of being homeless and alone, of a danger horrible enough to destroy her family and shatter her world forever.
She is certain that Naryfel, a shadowy figure from her past, has returned and is concentrating the full force of her hate on Jen’s family. But how will she strike? A knife in the dark? An attack from her legions? Or with the dark arts and twisted creatures she commands with sinister cunning.
Wyndano’s Cloak may be Jen’s only hope. If she’s got what it takes to use it . . .