How To Overcome Writer's Block

Feeling unable to write? Follow these tips to overcome writer's block:

  1. Quell the Critic.  There are really two parts to writing-writing and then editing or improving what you've written.  Many people's biggest problem is in not quieting their editor (or critic, as I like to call her) as they sit down to write.  The critic is the one who says "That's a stupid sentence.  Didn't the erudite and well-known writer X describe a similar thought but much more compellingly?"  And "Is compellingly even a word?  Better stop writing immediately and look it up so people won't see how illiterate you are......"

    The critic can really take the fun out of writing, so you have to know how to shut your critic up.  Excluding substance abuse, you must do whatever it takes.  I'll often engage my critic in a game of badinage-"You think that was bad?  Wait until you see this!"-which fortunately has yet to progress to fisticuffs.  So whether you come to understand the critic as an illusion-a spiritual challenge presented for you to master-or you simply agree to switch hats from writer to critic and then back, do what you need to do to quiet your critic long enough for you to get some words on the page.

  2. Sheer Force of Will.   Willpower is a wonderful tool that is underused these days.  It's a great way to stop smoking, prevent yourself from having an affair, and otherwise keep your life in good order.  It's also a nice tool when it comes to writing.  Here's how it works:  Put the pen to paper and move it.  Put your fingers on the keyboard and type.  It's called mind over matter and its mastery will take you far, not only in the practice of writing, but in the rest of your life, too.  However, it's a muscle that grows flaccid without use.  So use it already.  Say no to a second helping and the potential paramour.  Say yes to the things that will take you where you want to go in life.  You will be amazed at how powerful sheer force of will can be.
  3. Profane not Profound.  Chances are, you're trying too hard to write something significant.  If you can't be profound, try profane instead.  In fact, that's how most of my articles get written.  I lace them with innuendo that, except for a few words here and there, will end up on the cutting room floor.  But I do it because it's fun.  It makes me laugh and I enjoy it.  Write what you want to, not what you have to.  Write a grocery list or a letter to your friend.  Instant message or blog.   Make a list of what you would like for Christmas this year.  How about a letter to your recent ex telling her how you really feel?!  Your'e not going to mail that letter, mind you, but you are going to enjoy writing it.  And that's the point!  Excitement is part of doing anything well.  We're supposed to be following our bliss, remember?  And it's a great antidote to trying too hard. 
  4. Lighten Up.  And along these same lines...  Let's face it.  We can't all be Franz Kafka.  And frankly, we wouldn't want to.  But that's not to say that each one of us doesn't have our own unique voice.  We'll often run into trouble when we try to write things that aren't well-suited to that voice, for example, the next great American novel.  Are you trying too hard to get into The New Yorker when you should be writing for The National Enquirer?  Are you trying to be a reporter when in your heart of hearts, you're an advice columnist?  Thanks largely to the Internet, literature with a capital L has been taken down a notch.  And while I'm not saying that we should all aspire to blather on in an endless blog that only our mothers read, you do need to find a venue that you enjoy. 
  5. Lower Your Standards.  My child likes me to tell stories on his back every night.  Some nights I am completely devoid of any ideas, but every night I do it.  Rather than say no to my child's request, I prefer to lower my standards.  And no surprise here......he is perfectly content with every story, no matter the lack of plot, characters, story arc or denouement.  That's because, just like writing, this ritual is about the process, not the product.  Remember that.  Sit down at that computer and type.  Every day.  Lower your standards and enjoy the process.  One of these days, it will be something decent.  
  6. Switch Genres.  Let's say you write how-to articles for a web site.  Even your conversations now take place in numbered lists.  Switch tracks and write some poetry.  We're not trying to be good here, we're just lubricating the pen because if you don't use it, the ink will dry out.  Poetry is a great genre if you haven't tried it before, especially limericks.  The point here is to get you writing.  By doing it in an area that is not your usual playing field, you won't have the expectations, fear or whatever it is holding you up in the first place.
  7. Stop Feeling Sorry for Yourself.  I know that this is sometimes easier said than done, but self-pity will get you nowhere fast.  I don't know what your circumstances are exactly, but whatever they are, focus on the positives.  Whether you can't get your expository writing assignment finished or your Broadway play didn't receive the accolades it deserved, I promise you there are positives.  Or if you really must have a pity party for yourself, get it out of your system, and then move on.
  8. Remember The Confederacy of Dunces.  Although thanks to the perseverance of author John Kennedy Toole's mother, this book was published in 1980 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, that was too late for Mr. Toole, who offed himself in 1969.  I see him in my mind's eye atop a cloud (probably in purgatory) with a giant bullhorn yelling, "Persevere."  Remember that everything can change in an instant.
  9. Suffering.  If you are really suffering-maybe your marriage just broke up-cut yourself some slack.  You may need a counselor, an anti-depressant or just some prolonged quality time with friends, but if things are really bleak for you right now due to depression or grief, don't try to force yourself to write.  Chances are that as you begin to heal, your enthusiasm for all things-writing included-will return.  Meanwhile, may I suggest Heartburn by Nora Ephron, an account of the breakup of her marriage to Carl Bernstein?

OK, enough generalities, now on to the specifics:

  1. Start where you want.  If you're stuck at a certain point in your writing, move to a different part.  Beginnings can be especially challenging because they have so much inherent expectation built into them.  Write the ending first, and then move to the beginning.  Dialogue is always a fun place to start.  If you can't generate any yourself, sit at a coffee house, and use the cues provided.
  2. Go over the top.  Have to write a wedding poem and you're worried about being cheesy?  Go over the top in the opposite direction.  "She liked Camembert while he preferred Muenster." Sometimes you need to jar your sensibilities a bit to loosen things up.
  3. Write in longhand.  If you're used to typing on the computer, then write in longhand.  This is a great way to get out of the circuitous loops in your brain and back into your body as you focus on the pen or pencil in your hand and the feel of it as it moves against the paper.  Try cursive or ITA or write in longhand using your opposite hand.  This practice is meant to disrupt your usual habits, and get the other side of your brain working for you.
  4. Change your environment.  There's nothing like sitting next to moving water.  Or visit an animal slaughterhouse if that's what it takes.  The goal here is to shake up your status quo.  As you move into the new environment, observe.  The simple act of focusing your attention can be a mind-altering experience, and it is often easier for us to do this is a new environment.     
  5. Yuk it up.  That's how we handle writer's block around my office.  Thanks to one co-worker in particular, discussions about flatulence are common.  When battling illness, Norman Cousins watched Marx Brothers films to try and prolong his life.  While maybe laughter won't prolong your life, chances are it will help you to at least shift gears.
  6. Do something physical.  Take a walk, garden, or participate in any other activity that gets you out of your head and into your body.  Your head is where the circuitous loop is happening, your body is in the here and now.  So get back into it and engage in some mindless fun.
  7. Speak into a tape recorder and then transcribe.  The cat hasn't got your tongue, too, has it?  If you can still speak, that's a good sign.  Speak into a tape recorder, and then transcribe.   When you're transcribing, don't pay close attention to your words-just write them down. 

OK, that's it.  Good luck.  And if after this, you still can't write, stop trying and just go enjoy yourself for a while.  Because that's what it's all about.


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