It seems people fall into several camps on this one. One: Writer’s Block is an excuse for being lazy, so just get busy. Two: Everyone gets to a tough, stuck point once in awhile, so give yourself a little slack, take a break, think about it, then … just get busy. Three: Something real and hidden is going on, like you need a career change or a divorce. Figure it out, change your life, then get busy. Four: You can’t write, because you don’t have anything to say, because you’re not a real writer, or maybe you just plain suck. Advice: Hire a real writer to do the dirty work. Or better yet, just stop writing.
The causes are listed as “fear”, “perfectionism”, “bad-timing”, “distractions”, “depression”, “no talent.” I think the problem is often too much self-criticism and self-editing while trying to write a first draft, famously called “a shitty first draft” by Anne Lamott.
I fall into the camp of “just get busy.” I know some people, some very good writers, who struggle at times, and some for complicated reasons. My struggle gets closer to the “you just plain suck,” when it’s time to submit to publishers, read aloud, send a draft to a critic or editor. However, in the meantime, I write as much as I can, as fast as I can, as often as I can. Here’s what helps me.
I’ve done a ton of “Free writing” of one sort or another, and find it, well, freeing. The idea is to just keep scribbling for a set period of time or length, say Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. Three Pages first thing in the morning, no stopping, no editing. Or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Practice. Usually done in a café in pairs, scribbling in notebooks for 20 minutes without stopping. Then there’s Tom Bird’s Divine Writer Within. I went to a seminar called “Write Your Bestseller in a Weekend.” This was the ultimate Free Writing exercise. We were crammed together in a room with the special music playing (coyotes howling, subliminal messages beneath the subtle piano) and wrote as fast as we could. We counted our words every twenty minutes, whether in a notebook, or on computer, so before long, we were driven by the desire to write more and more words in an hour. After a two minute counting break, the bell would ding, and we’d be back at it. I regularly wrote 2000 + words an hour, hour after hour, compared to a goal of 1000 words a day, to which I’ve sometimes adhered. Granted, of the 2000 words many were not always in sentences, or did not follow what came before the bell. The tenses and voice changed and shifted, the story jumped around, but what I got was a beginning, a middle, and an end, in short, a 30K word draft of a novel.
I believe in free-writing, the editor is mostly left in the dust, and the muse has a chance to shine through.
The first time I did free writing was in college, though I didn’t have a name for it then. At exam time, we were given a ruled notebook and a question or two, say comparing a work of Chaucer with one of Shakespeare. We had to hand-write an essay and turn it in to be graded an hour and a half later. I drank coffee back then, and sometimes took no-doz, so I was a little sped-up as I scribbled in my notebook. (Glad to be freed from the tortures of a pre-computerized typewriter, and my inability to type with any accuracy.) Somewhere in the middle, I would come to the nugget for which I’d been searching. There was still time to expand on my idea, tie it up into a final paragraph, and to seek that illusive A, which oddly, though I considered myself a bit of a dullard in those English classes, I earned more often than not.
This, I believe, is the essence of free-writing, even regular, on-the-computer writing that breaks through. If you go forward fast enough, without much editing or judging, without a plan or expectation, maybe driven by some kind of deadline or desperation, you eventually come to that nugget. The nugget can be a new plot twist, or a missing character, or a little bit of truth about the human condition, or even some insight into Chaucer. Some people call writing like that, “being in the zone.” I believe the zone is there, and can be accessed on a regular, though slightly unpredictable, basis.
One more thing about deadlines. I think often of all my unfinished novels or ideas for novels or novellas, or story collections, and I worry about the ultimate deadline: death. So, just like in English class, I am motivated to get the words and ideas down before that final bell rings.
Perhaps this post is more about the effectiveness of writing through the block in a free way, rather than the old-fashioned hunt and peck method, with lots of white-out and notes in the margins, or the computer equivalent. There’s plenty of time for editing later. If you have a chance to get something down, do it.
I do love editing and rewriting when the page is no longer blank, and I admit to editing while I go, as well, but there usually comes a point when I need to push out those pesky words and revise them later.
How good is it?
Just like hearing your own signing voice from inside your head, it is sometimes considered impossible to judge your own work. Can you let go of self-judgment? Can you go back and fix mistakes, improve your point-making without saying “I suck, I’d better quit?” My belief is that if you have a calling to do something, give it a go. A calling to creativity is a precious gift.
Here’s a quote from one my favorite articles on the subject of writer’s block:
“In general, it's a good practice to initially treat all blocks as emotional noise, something you can work your way through. You can work under the assumption that Writer's Block is an imaginary beast, a beast you can banish by writing. At the same time, the rare work stoppages that you can't defeat with enthusiasm and discipline are almost certainly signals that something's amiss in your life, your work habits or your goals. In that case, you'd be wise to work under the assumption that Writer's Block is a real live monster that you ignore at your peril.”
By Bruce Holland Rogers, The Writer’s Store.