Writers, or those who want to write but don’t, like to say they have Writer’s Block, Capitalized, as if to makes it real, an explanation for why they’re stuck. They can’t get started or get back to the project they’re sure would be a bestseller. Ideas come only when they’re falling asleep or driving, never when they sit down to write. They often smile when they talk about the Block, as if there’s a certain satisfaction in having one, like a treasure or a talent to display.
I think saying you have Writer’s Block is an excuse for not planting yourself in the chair and facing the blank page or screen. You don’t want to admit that what you write might be crap, which is more than likely. Any writer will tell you that what comes out varies in quality, and must be polished and revised. At least you have something to revise. You don’t have to show it to anyone.
But when you actually write something and see it never measures up to the quality of what you had in mind, the fantasy flies out the window you’ve been looking out of. How much better to believe you’re a writer who has never failed because, in reality, you’ve never started what you had in mind. In fantasy, it’s still shapely, beautiful, unmarred by awkward phrasing and the confusion of grammar and punctuation that throws you off balance and into the hole of despair.
That’s why your writing is first called a draft. Not a piece that could be published unless it’s one of those rare days when the muse holds your hand. Anne Lamott advises us to give ourselves permission to write “shitty first drafts.” You don’t have to show them to anyone.
How do you get past what you call Writer’s Block? You just write. About the block, if you must, or whatever is rattling in your head— all the complaints and resentments and fears in foreground that you don’t want to admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else. We all have them. It’s fear of what we’ll say, of what will surface in the waking dream of creative writing when we put down the words we wouldn’t dare say.
My hypothesis is that some feeling or internal argument is in the way, something you’re likely obsessing about (we all do), and you don’t want to write about it. If you write it, briefly or not, you will be able to put it to the side so that you can write what you want. Ironically, writing about what’s in foreground is often one’s best work. Pleasant surprises await, as do your own horrified epiphanies. You don’t have to show them to anyone.
Another reason why so many claim Writer’s Block is that they haven’t yet developed the skills and strategies to get started again and again. Here are some suggestions that work for me.
- Read. As soon as your mind wanders (to a memory or emotion or disagreement with the content), write about whatever has surfaced.
- Hand-copy a poem or paragraph that you believe is good writing. Make notes on what you notice about its construction. Copy some of the elements (opening phrase, diction, rhythm) in a poem of your own. If you move away from the poem as impetus, just keep writing.
- Hand-copy a poem you dislike or don’t understand. Write about your reaction. Does your reaction change after hand-copying it?
- Write a to-do list. Come back to it after a few minutes or more and look at it as if you didn’t write it. What does it tell you about this person? Write as the observer.
- Browse dictionaries and field guides for words that spark interest or reaction. Specific dictionaries and glossaries (medical, legal) can offer fresh diction where the words might juxtapose with the content to add irony or accuracy.
- Peruse how-to and self-help books and look for metaphors and interesting language. Keep a file/list of metaphors.
- Look at old photos and write about memories and the feelings that surface.
- Take a news story and write a persona poem or flash fiction from one of the points of view.
- Keep a notebook or file of ideas so you have your own personal prompts.
Notice what works for you, what gets you going and keeps you writing. Make your own list of strategies for times when you feel stuck again. Do what works.
If you write every day and make it part of your life, you’re a writer. You’ll show up and know you can write anywhere and at any time because you’ve done it. Like me, you won’t believe in writer’s block, either.
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