There is probably nothing more frustrating for a writer than encountering the dreaded problem of writer’s block. And the problem shows no prejudice. It is a creative paralysis that hinders the best of us at one time or another. Adages and acknowledgments about the problem run the gambit from practical to practically obvious. Consider some of the following quotes from some pretty heavy hitters:
“Writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” ― Charles Bukowski
“Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?” ― Kurt Vonnegut
“Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: ‘Fool!’ said my muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’” ― Sir Philip Sidney
“Don’t waste time waiting for inspiration. Begin, and inspiration will find you.” ― H. Jackson Brown Jr.
These four quotes are of the sort that seem to offer little in the way of practical advice. They simply acknowledge the existence of the problem and tell us to do exactly what it seems impossible for us to do: write. In some ways, this might seem like to asking someone who has no hunger to partake in a seven-course meal. Having trouble writing? Just do it. Just write. And for those of us suffering this stagnant mire, this is so much easier said than done. After all, if we could do this then we’d no longer be suffering from the problem.
During a recent bout of writer’s block I decided to try some of the more seemingly practical suggestions. Renowned author Sol Stein suggests, “The easiest solution for writer’s block is to open a good dictionary to any page and read slowly just the words, not the definitions, one at a time. Many writers I have taught find that this method works, a word kindles an idea that enables the writer to continue his or her work.” He follows this up with the suggestion that if this doesn’t work that perhaps the suffering artist should find some other line of work.
I tried Stein’s method and found that my distractible personality was not a good fit for it because I soon became wrapped up in the words and the definitions despite the admonition to “read just the words” and when it was all said and done I was no better off than when I’d started. Despite Stein’s advice that those finding this method ineffective should become something other than authors, I persevered, certain that I would find a way to jump my creative engine back to life.
I found some advice from Hilary Mantel who suggests, “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in
where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
For a moment I was frustrated by Mantel’s advice as well, not knowing how to bake a pie, and being unwilling to invest the time and effort involved in learning. So I did jumping jacks, turned on some music, walked down the hallway, took a meditative bath, fell asleep in the tub, and woke up surrounded by sopping wet drawings with more wrinkles on my toes than ideas in my head about how to continue my writing. Ironically, I felt rejuvenated enough by my aquatic nap to do the opposite of her advice and call a friend who invited me to a party. And it was then that the final bit of her advice finally made sense to me, “open a gap … create space.”
At the party I met a guy who’d taught himself to hula hoop and spin flaming balls of fire attached to chains while dancing on stilts. No joke. I came home early the next morning and began writing a story about a three-generation family of circus performers touring Mexico. My advice to writers suffering from writer’s block: be patient with yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you. You need nothing more than time to get your bearings.
No single piece of advice is good for everyone. Pay no attention to those who might suggest that your bout with writer’s block is evidence that you should not be a writer. The true mark of a writer who has something left to say is that the desire is still there, and if you still have that then all you need is to give yourself time and space.
One good way to start writing again is through undergoing the editing process on something old. It is because writing and editing are entirely different crafts that this is a possibility. And yet they are related, so revision can encourage the creative wheels to churn out something new. So seek the advice of other writers, surround yourself by things that you’ve found to be inspiring to you in the past, seek an editor if revision too has reached some kind of impasse.