On Writers Block

Let’s be honest, you and I, and just agree right now that Writer’s Block is our own mind getting in the way of our own mind. It’s not a sickness, it’s not a poltergeist rattling your brain lose—even though it feels that way, we both know it’s that we are getting in the way our of ourselves. Writer’s Block happens when you just get a little too stuck in your own head, and start to take yourself a tad too seriously.

I don’t say this as a criticism—it’s human nature. And as much as us writer types like to think our brain works just a little bit differently than everyone else’s, at the end of the day, we are our own devil.

The easiest way to put it is that Writer’s Block is to writers what Completely Blanking Out is to a student—you know the material, you know it’s all in your head somewhere, you just can’t fucking find it.

So, do what we tell students to do—skip the question, and come back to it later.

I think the mistake I made for a long time, and I think many other people do, is twofold: focusing too much on the problem, and also completely ignoring it.

It tends to happen, at least for me, like this:

            I’m staring at the cursor, watching it blink. I type a word or two, thinking it’ll get my fingers going, and then I stop and delete it. I sit, and I stare at it. In my frustration, I move on to a new, equally daunting project (like that plot I wanted to work on two weeks ago). I focus on this project so much, I don’t even think about my main project. One hundred years have passed, and I’m a corpse sitting at a keyboard wondering why I never got the upgrade to the new OS.

Okay, while that escalated quickly, you get the gist. The idea of actually solving writer’s block is to treat it, not try and obliterate it, because it is bound to always creep back into our tiny little brains. Usually, it’s that our brain is begging us to let it focus somewhere else.

My suggestion: work on something new.

This can be reading or writing.

If you’re going to read, pick up something you’re not familiar with—that book that’s been sitting on the shelf for two years that you haven’t even cracked open. Start reading it. Give yourself thirty minutes. If any ideas come to you, jot them down, but keep reading. I did this recently with Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and within three pages I had an entire plot idea based off of maybe a total of three separate ideas presented in the prologue.

More successful, I find, is forcing myself to write something. It’s never a big project, never a plot I’ve been meaning to get around to or a poem that needs some tweaking—it’s something that I have zero obligation to.

I use prompts for this. I made a prompt box of sorts where I can just reach in and pull out a little piece of paper. It says things like “A scene with a lamp in it” or “A conversation over fries” or “the feeling of the sun.” Vague enough to be used any way I would like, whenever it is I end up pulling the prompt. The feeling of the sun, for instance could be someone who hasn’t felt the light on their skin for years because of nuclear fallout, captivity, or working the night shift. Or, it could be a cat lounging in the sunlight, a child with a sunburn after a day at the park, or the heat that hits an astronaut as they float around in space.

I never know what it’s going to be, but I just start writing. I open a blank document, I write the prompt. Sometimes I start by just writing out what the prompt is and asking myself a few questions. And eventually, usually within a minute or two, I’m beginning a small story, a snippet of anything. Sometimes, I never finish them. Sometimes I do, and know they’re nothing I ever need to reread again. But at least I got the brain muscles workin’.

And most importantly, I wait. I let my mind wander to the thing I was stuck on, but until I have a spark—you know the spark, that bright light that goes off in the back of your brain and wakes it up—I don’t go back to the piece. I don’t open it, I don’t try and force it. I just wait for the spark, and invite it to come by anytime it likes.

This involves a certain level of mindfulness of course. You need to sit and focus on something new, and not let the problem consume you nor escape you. You just let it hang out, and do what it wants, and acknowledge but not coddle it.

It’s a precarious game of cat and mouse with your own subconscious.

Sometimes it takes a few days of prompts or reading something new before Writer’s Block is whittled away enough to reveal the next piece of my work. But, I find that when I do this consistently—even if one day I only do it for five minutes and the next for fifty—it does ware down on the Block, like water weathers rock.

At the end of the day, Writer ‘s Block will always be somewhere around. If anyone ever tells me they never have it, I assume they’re a damn liar. Everyone’s brain blanks out. It’s a brain. Even our machines freak out, and those at least get upgrades.

Just remember, Writer’s Block is your own brain against your own brain. Get out of your head for a minute, go for a walk, stretch—hell, take a small nap. Your brains likes stimulation, and stimulation will inspire it.