Special request this week – it was suggested to me recently by one of my regular Twitter pals that a good subject for this blog might be writer’s block.
I hesitated a little because it’s not something I personally tend to suffer from greatly but then, on the other hand, I haven’t written anything much for a while so maybe I have it without realising?
For me the hold ups in writing tend to come, as now, when I’m looking for a project to begin. Writing a book tends to take me the best part of two years to do the whole thing, soup to nuts, so I like to make sure I have something worth pursuing before I make that level of investment in time and effort. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing anything – I have been doing what I often do at this stage: starting something to see how it goes, getting a little way in then realising it’s not really doing it for me and abandoning it.
I see this as all part of the process however so it doesn’t worry me unduly. I’ve never really found myself paralysed and unable to write mid-way through a book or story as some writers do.
What causes this grinding halt in the creative process? My feeling is that it might be the fear of not being perfect. The feeling that what you write might not be good enough could be enough to stop you writing anything.
In an interview I did recently with a fellow writer for her blog she asked me: “How does a writer keep from being afraid of feelings of inferiority, of being a talentless hack or stupid and just keep at it despite it all?” I think right there we see where the feelings which lead to writer’s block can come from, and if you let them grow so they become paralysing that could bring your work to a screeching halt.
So how do you mentally prepare yourself to avoid this situation?
In an interview I read once an author was asked what she does when beset by writer’s block. She replied: ‘I lower my standards and carry on.’
I can’t remember who said it – but the phrase itself stuck in my mind, precisely because that’s exactly what I do. The point is to get something, anything, down on the blank sheet of paper in front of you. What helps me greatly in this is the knowledge that what I write is a fluid, evolving process. Just because something is written down, doesn’t mean it is set in stone. I know my rewriting process means that everything can, and probably will, change – so there is no great pressure to get it right first time. The pressure I put on myself is to get it right eventually.
Another top tip I think, can be found within the advice Ray Bradbury offered in the lecture of his I blogged about earlier in the year here. His cure for writer’s block was to put down whatever you are writing and write something else instead, because you’ve picked the wrong subject. I suppose that is what I’m doing with my false starts – I’m accepting that part of what we do is to search for the right subject.
I guess what wise old Ray was telling us is that writer’s block might have a valid function in a writer’s life. It might be there to tell us we are on the wrong track and urging us to follow a different path. It’s certainly a thought isn’t it?
Tell me about your experiences of writer’s block, and your tips for dealing with it – in the comments below?
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I don’t suffer much from writers’ block. I always have more than one project going, so if I get stuck on one, I work on another for a while. I think WB is mainly lack of confidence in ourselves as writers, but if you truly can’t write, maybe a period of rest is called for. Sometimes you empty the well and have to let it refill.
Wise words I think Jane, there’s nothing to say a bit of a break is always a bad thing – I know, I’ve just had one and it did me good.
Interesting post, Chris. Maybe you don’t suffer from Writer’s Block because you’ve also been a journalist for so long. I’m guessing you probably couldn’t afford to have a block. Another writer once said to me ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’, which is probably another way of saying ‘drop your standards’! It’s something I always keep in mind even when writing academically. You can always go back and re-write things!
Very true Val – I’m sure you are right that writing to deadlines for years does teach you to get things done. Equally though I do quite understand the wrestling match people sometimes have in their minds between getting something written and worrying it’s not perfect. The only perfect story is the the one you haven’t written yet.
Oh goodness, how true – although I have a feeling that in my case, if I worried too much about perfection, I’d have given up long ago. Luckily, the desire to improve is always a strong push to keep going 🙂
For me, what is called “writer’s block” is usually a fear of opening the floodgates. I have TOO MUCH to write, as opposed to nothing to write. Lowering standards, free-writing and a regular writing practice will barge right through that, and then prevent it. That’s also why I like word sprints.
Oh well, too much to write is a good problem to have I suppose! I go through phases, sometimes a lot pours out – several stories at once or good progress on a book, other times it dries up a little. But I tend not to worry about that too much and see it as the natural rhythm of the thing
Mine occurs when I haven’t written in a long time, it makes me sort of frozen in fear. Regular blogging and writing helps with it.
I don’t think I’ve ever had that – the fear I mean – I might get fed up, or bored, or short of ideas sometimes though.
Very interesting comments here Chris. I like the Ray Bradbury comment about moving on to something else. Wrong book maybe, or perhaps a sign the writer is trying too hard. Or worried about the writing process itself. I think the creativity of writing is a mystery to all of us at times. When it’s going really well it seems like your tapping in to some kind of magic, but there’s always the fear that one day the process will dry up. I think it’s the fear of that aspect that can create a block. I guess you have to keep believing that there’s more where that came from. Like you, I have been a journalist and there wasn’t the ‘luxury’ of WB. When I do have the odd WB moment I always write something else entirely: a funny shopping list or a daft poem and it just takes the pressure off things. But if that fails, I leave it, and give Wallace the dog a nice bath. Then I don’t feel I’ve wasted the whole day. Ha!
That’s right – do something else for a bit is a great idea I think, come back to it when you are ready. Works for me.
I agree with many of the commentators: the best way of avoiding writers block is to have several projects going on at the same time..this is where a blog fits in nicely, because you have to come up with a regular short but finished piece. And you get instant feedback. I usually have two books on the go…one may not come to fruition but is an antidote to the other. The other advice is the apply bottom to chair and write. It works. Hahaha.
I wouldn’t like to have two books going at once – I am a bear of very little brain and would get confused. I don’t mind breaking off part way through to do a short story or two though if the occasion demands.
I get conflicting advice all the time – just get it written down and then edit or edit as you do each chapter or just write and see what happens. I agree with a lot of what has been said already but everyone is dfferent and what works for some, doesn’t necessarily mean it will for others. I continually assess my worth as a writer as most of the writers I know have had further academical education or have been journalists before they took the plunge. I have been neither but as my Mum used to say ‘What’s for you, won’t pass you’ and I follow that mantra most of the time. I think it’s important to remember that we are all human beings and can only do as much as our minds can let us, we may burn the candle getting the final chapters completed but it’s what we are born to do. I have to write, otherwise the literary voice that is there in the morning when I brush my teeth and lies down beside me at night in bed will never stop. Books need to be written so people can feel, touch, taste the same burning ambition that we writers have to get our story out there and (hopefully) enhance the lives of others. Can you tell I’ve just finished reading a very deep and meaningful book? lol. See what it can do, when you let your mind go. Anything is possible. #amwriting and #amreading
I’m very much a finish the first draft then rewrite person myself – but I’m also a do what works for you person! I really don’t think it matters that you’ve been involved with neither journalism or academia – the number of famous and successful authors who haven’t either is legion!
I agree with what’s been said but no-one’s so far mentioned that writing should also be enjoyable shouldn’t it? If there’s no enjoyment then why do it? An Aussie writer once told me that all his books were written in ‘blood’ – not literally, because it was that much hard work. And sadly, reading them was hard work too. I don’t know if the two go together there. I’m not an expert. The block may be a sign that the enjoyment isn’t there. Yes?
That’s a good point and certainly made me chuckle! I do tend to say though that I write more because I feel compelled to than because I enjoy it. However, I am a bit of a grumpy old git at times so I think you may be right.
I keep a document open on my desktop; a scratch pad of sorts and just jot down notes or ideas that come to me, especially for my blog. Sometimes I’ll write 3 paragraphs and get discouraged, or write 5 pages that I end up honing into an article. But I never delete those abandoned paragraphs and notes. Sometimes they end up wrapped in something else, and sometimes they just sit, but I assign at least some value to everything I write. I also carry a little note pad and pen with me at all times, and take notes while I people-watch. I write non-fiction so the characters I observe become my story or my launching pad.
Either way, writing is hard, tedious work. If it wasn’t, everyone would do it.
I have a notebook (oldschool) and do the same notey thing – always have funnily enough, ever since I was a kid.
Yes I have suffered really badly with writers block now that I am trying to write a sequel to my first fantasy novel The Realm of the Purple Dragon. http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Realm-Of-Purple-Dragon/dp/1470974800/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1372530232&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Realm+of+the+Purple+Dragon And I realised that I was being just far too hard on myself, stressing over it. I decided to stop for a few months and write other things, like poetry and short stories and different genres. Actually I have found writing in different ways has given me a new love of writing and what I have learnt is that you need to relax, meditate maybe or at least take some time to look inside yourself to discover why you started writing in the first place. That helped me! 🙂
Very true. I think you get better as a writer by practicing different things, I know I have. And variety is the spice of life as they say.
Excellent post, Sir! Thank you for writing this… One sentence resonated with me more than anything, so much so that I had to add it to my entry on Writer’s Block… Here’s the link if you’d like to check it out… http://wildandwoollywordsmithing.wordpress.com/
Thanks for the comment Dover – and for sharing your link.
I don’t really suffer from writer’s block. I do suffer from, to borrow the title of Bunny Berigan’s landmark 1937 recording, I Can’t Get Started-syndrome. One of the reasons is that when I do, I know I may not move from my chair for four, five, six hours. I’m more likely to suffer from writer’s bottleneck, than from writer’s block. Too much to write, too little time. (Didn’t the Mad Hatter say something like that?)
I also hesitate before starting a big project as it takes such a large chunk of my time I want to make sure I’m on the right track before committing.
This is my take on Writer’s block: http://matchstickcircus.com/2013/09/17/break-through-the-writing-doldrums/
Good advice I think – especially ‘read’ which is good advice at any time!
And one that is so often overlooked. Your suggestion of getting anything down on the page is likewise something that is often overlooked but very helpful to push yourself through the block.