Writer’s Block

I’d be willing to bet that any writer you could possibly ask–from Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare on–has at some point experienced writer’s block. Anne Lamotte addresses it with typical good humor in her wonderful book Bird by Bird, and various other authors have talked about it.

That doesn’t make it any the less terrifying when it happens.

But there are ways to get past it. My own personal favorite is just to start writing anything at all. Here’s a true story, from when I wrote my dissertation. (For those who may not know, that’s the book I had to write in order to get my Ph.D.) I had created a prospectus–essentially a mini-paper on its own, setting out what my chapters would be–and I had done all sorts of reading, so it was time to write one of the chapters. I sat down at the computer and … nothing. I stared at that blank screen, feeling like my mind had just become a big, empty room: nothing was coming out. Mercifully, however, I did have the prospectus, so I just started typing something like, “I know I have to say something about X. I thought it was important to talk about X because….” and after stumbling around like that for a while, ideas started tumbling out almost faster than I could type them (and I can type pretty fast). Of course, what came out was disorganized and chaotic, but once there were words on the page, I could start to shape them; I just needed to get the words out of my head and (metaphorically) onto paper.

So, my advice about addressing writer’s block is just that: start writing, even if you’re saying, “I have no idea what I want to say”–but then start “talking” about what you do know: what the assigned topic is, or what you want the chapter of your novel to be about, or what your research has shown you. Whatever. Doesn’t matter.

I think there are several reasons for writer’s block. For students, at least, probably the most common is that you have to write about a topic that is simply not very interesting to you, and it’s hard to generate enthusiasm–on top of which, students have a very loud inner critic who is telling them, before they even put the first word on paper, that whatever they do won’t be good enough. Lamotte specifically talks about that inner critic, and that writers need to find any possible technique to get that voice to shut up, or at least talk so softly the writer can ignore it. But my problem with that chapter of my dissertation–and maybe yours, when you’re writing an essay for a class–is that I had so many ideas, they created a sort of log-jam in my mind.

The image I’ve used with my students in the past is to imagine that your brain is like a big fish tank, with all kinds of colorful fish in various sizes swimming randomly around in it. While they’re swimming around in the tank, you can’t put all the purple ones in one place, or all the small ones, or whatever. You have to pull them out of the tank–that’s the writing down anything idea–in any kind of sloppy order, and then you can sort them out and create the needed connections to lead from small, purple ones to big, blue ones, or whatever. Ideas don’t hold still when they’re in our minds, but when we commit them to written words, they will stay just as we grabbed them until we go back to them and deliberately move them around or polish them up. That’s the revision process, which I’ve talked about elsewhere.

But first, you need to have something to revise. So just grab an idea, any idea, as it swims past, put it into written form, and then grab another: no judgments, and fully confident that you can figure out what to do with them later. Just write. I’m sure you’re thinking, “It’s not that easy! Nothing will happen when I’m blocked!” but trust me on this: just put words into writing, and keep doing it until that block unblocks itself, the log-jam clears, and things start to flow again. It will happen–but you need to just write.