You ever hear yourself talk about why you can’t do something and get this nagging feeling that maybe you’re just making excuses?
That’s how I feel whenever I hear the phrase “writer’s block.” It feels like the kind of thing you say when you just can’t muster the energy or willpower to work – an adult version of “the dog ate my homework” if you will.
Then again, I do experience what I legitimately believe is a sense of obstruction, a lack of inspiration, a feeling like the words are slipping in and out of your consciousness. A mental constipation. Just when you think you finally need to go, you’re right back where you started from.
So is writer’s block a real, proper affliction of the mind? A quick Google search (good ole Google – yes you will one day rule us all with a Big Brother-esque dominance, but you will be a gentle and informative master) assures me that writer’s block is real enough that many trusted resources have dedicated time and space to addressing the issue. Purdue OWL, my go-to dispenser of wisdom for matters of APA comma placement, has several suggestions based on why you have writer’s block – you’re too stressed out, you don’t want to write about the topic assigned, you want to write about something without knowing what that something is (this, I assume, is their euphemistic way of saying ‘lazy.’)
In my experience, writer’s block is more likely to happen when you don’t have a clear vision of what you’re doing or where you’re going. That’s not what causes writer’s block though – I think the cause is probably a combination of mood and a lack of interest in a work or lack of belief in it. Those are the things that prevent you from writing at all, that have you staring at a page, having only been able to come up with “BY [NAME].”
[This, in fairness, is how I start all my writing projects. It’s part narcissism, part ease, part “I forget to put my name on an assignment once and got a zero” paranoia.]
When you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, it’s always easier to write. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to know the end, but you know the point. Even if your phrases are stilted and your vocabulary has seemingly shrunk to somehow include only words that would be more suitable for a 40-page treatise on the history of economic theory in Western thought (one of the many pleasant side effects of grad school), you can still write. It may not be particularly good, but it’s there and good can always come later. It’s when you don’t know where you’re going or why you’re writing that even the most creative and original ideas will sit on your page undeveloped and unfulfilled.
What’s a gal to do?
Of course, this is not exactly a breaking development in the understanding of writer’s block – in fact, a book my dad bought me when I was a teenager counselled exactly this: know where you’re going to end up before you start. It’s good advice and one that I should follow more often.
The problem is if you do have a really interesting (I won’t say great since it seems presumptuous, nevertheless feel free to assume it here) idea but you don’t have a vision for where it’s going to go, do you jot it down and then sit on it until you figure it out, or do you work with it to the best of your ability and hope that inspiration strikes eventually? Because when I do the former, I end up with a bunch of promising but unwritten stories, and when I do the latter I get writer’s block.
Writer and author Henneke Duistermaat doesn’t say exactly what I should do in this case, but she does have a lot of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. For her, it’s all about getting out of that routine that can sometimes suck the life out of you. Change where you write, she advises, or even the time of day you sit to write. Switch out your fonts, or hey, even change the color from boring black to intense hot pink. The idea is that change in your surroundings can jumpstart your mind.
James Altucher, who writes some really thought-provoking stuff on LinkedIn, says, “Start with the blood.” Sometimes the most frustrating part about writing is that you know something good is coming up in your plot, but you can’t seem to find your way there yet. So just jump ahead! It’s the kind of thing that would never occur to my linear mind, but it’s genius as far as I’m concerned.
Of course, not all advice is golden, and not all of it will work for everyone. For example, Altucher suggests reading before you start writing, but for me, that just serves to muddle my thoughts and distort my style. I’m a bit of sponge that way. But what I do find helpful is visual inspiration – just scrolling through photos and artwork online can motivate and encourage me. That is what originally motivated me to compile a list of all the websites I go to for inspiration.
So, in conclusion, there exists sufficient evidence to determine that writer’s block is certainly perceived as being very real by many established writers. If nothing else, that should at least comfort those of us who are still amateurs.
What do you do when you have writer’s block? Tell us in the comments!