Dreaded is the writer’s block.
Whatever it is you should be writing refuses to flow forth, leaving a blaringly blank page glaring back at you, teasing, taunting.
Creative juices run dry, resulting in an inability to produce anything (seen as) valuable and worth sharing. Frustratingly, time trundles ever onward despite this creative inertia.
It is frustrating at best. It can jeopardise one’s income, life and happiness at worst.
With many millennia of writing behind us – bored into ancient stones beneath us, bound within books on our shelves, imminently retrievable on the internet – surely humanity, having written so much, has devised a way to surmount writer’s block?
What follows are some answers to that question coming in different packages from some great minds and my not-so-great own.
Before I give you six suggestions as to how you can break through writer’s block and get those creative juices a-flowing, I should stress the following point.
These suggestions are not just for certain writers, nor are they for just for writers generally.
These suggestions are for more than people who work with words.
Our definition of writer’s block – a creative standstill – extends from writers to all creatives, be they students, artists, chefs, coaches, musicians, teachers, entrepreneurs, fashion designers – whoever.
Creative endeavours all occasionally hit the similar dreaded block, which must be outmanoeuvred for a return to productive flow. All require some steady amount of creative juice to remain alive and vital and meaningful.
Though some of the below suggestions are writing-specific, some can be applied within other domains, be that in art, academia, sport or business.
So, here they are, six suggestions for you to surmount and surpass the dreaded writer’s block, and write off happily into the sunset as if it never existed.
1. Mix Up Your Process
Why flog a dead horse? (Non-English readers of mine: look that up, please!)
Change your writing process and environment. If you usually write in the evening, try writing in the morning. If you usually write at home, try writing at a coffeeshop or the library. If you usually write on an empty stomach, try eating or drinking something beforehand. If you usually write free-flow without a plan or intent, try planning out what you will write before starting; if you are a rigid planner, try writing freely and aimlessly. You get the gist.
Small things matter. Many small things matter a lot, so try a combination of new things, maybe some of the above examples, and see if something changes. Change and combine again as necessary. You might be surprised how much being hangry detracts from your productivity, or distractions impact your concentration, or brainpower escapes you come nighttime.
If you like structure and are oriented around a strict or tight routine, this may not be a welcome suggestion. If breaking the block matters to you, changing up your routine and shifting things around, even a bit, will be well worth the momentary discomfort. Like I say, the little things may well surprise you.
The above of course assumes that you have a writing routine to begin with. Routines work for some, not for others; horses for courses. Some can confidently wait for inspiration, as we see in suggestion 6 below, but others will be waiting until the cows come home.
For me personally, routine and regularity works wonders, because I am laid back to horizontal by nature. Irresolute students don’t graduate, irresolute entrepreneurs don’t succeed, irresolute musicians don’t make it – is it the case that irresolute writers are different? (A genuinely open question.)
2. Try Something New
We have covered mixing up the writing process itself. Here I want to cover mixing it up in other areas of life.
Do you read only non-fiction? Start reading fiction, and vice versa. Don’t read? Start reading, stupid.
Only watch this or that show? Watch something else. Go for a documentary instead of a series, or an epic instead of a romantic film. Watch something old, in black and white. Feel something different, appreciate something out of the ordinary and unexpected.
Listen to different music. Turn off the radio and listen to an album by the best artist of a genre about which you are indifferent. Listen to some classical music, dare to see out a piece, see what you take from it.
Listen to a podcast on a topic about which you are ignorant. Learn something, not necessarily relevant or useful, just something new and interesting.
Or, if you are one to listen to music and radio from dawn until dusk, have a break. Soak in some silence, see if something arises or erupts therefrom.
Do something different. Little things are not insignificant. Ride a bike or take a bus. Try a sport. Make a present instead of buying one. Paint a picture! See a sight you haven’t seen before. Do something you don’t currently. New situations and new stimuli give you new insights and new ideas – new material. If your life experience remains on a closed loop, so too will your writing. So too will your life.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”Lao Tzu
Step outside the box, throw some new stuff in the box, and mix it the hell up.
3. Walk It Through
“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
Walking has been heralded by many great philosophers and scientists as the key to their flow of ideas.
Socrates was described by his greatest pupil, Plato, as regularly walking several miles to the Piraeus Harbour while philosophising with his peers.
Plato’s greatest pupil and arguably humanity’s greatest philosopher, Aristotle, was an avid walker whose ideas birthed the peripatetic school in Ancient Greece. A peripatetic refers to a follower of Aristotle – marginally nicer sounding than ‘Aristotelian’ – and is derived from a Greek word meaning “walking up and down”.
Springing to mind comes the agitated inventor, the worrisome writer, the mad scientist, pacing their studies and stalking the corridors of academia with head arched down, muttering incomprehensibly.
Walking through things seems almost a natural reaction to stasis, mental or physical. Walking sets in motion cogs that turn something upstairs as well as down. If you are stuck, it stands to reason that you should move. When Forrest Gump hit a hump in his life’s path, the man just ran. And ran, and ran, and ran. It took Gump a while, but he got where he needed to be, notably not by being still or (over)thinking through things.
Bertrand Russell spoke of how he would go for long walks, ten or twenty miles at a time, giving his brain a break and allowing deeper thought processes to run and breath.
A friend of Bertrand Russell wrote that,
“Every morning Bertie would go for an hour’s walk by himself, composing and thinking out his work for that day. He would then come back and write for the rest of the morning, smoothly, easily and without a single correction.”Miles Malleson
Old Bertie Russell made it to the grand old age of 98. I don’t believe in coincidences.
If it worked for Socrates, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Russell and Forrest Gump – it will work for you.
4. Pen to Paper
A friend asked me whether I write pen to paper or on a computer. Only somebody with a typewriter would think to ask such a question.
Why? The medium matters, with writing. On a laptop, you can rewrite a sentence several times without giving it a second thought, a great thing for speed and efficiency. However, giving sentences a second thought before writing them may be a good thing.
As I told this friend, I like to write pen to paper. You write differently through different mediums, engaging your brain differently and at a different pace. It is this change of pace that can be crucial in surmounting writers block. The physicality of writing pen to paper, the way you have to cohere your thoughts more assuredly before putting them to the page, the relative permanence and uniqueness of written words compared to the ethereal, identical letters manufactured by a word processor. You will think and write differently.
Camille Paglia, a stupendous writer and thinker who manages to produce academic texts that dazzle and delight, speaks highly of writing pen to paper.
“Never”, Paglia declares,
“Never would I write an important piece of writing on a computer or a typewriter. Never! It has to be longhand for me, I have to engage with the paper, I have to be able to manipulate the paper, I have to see what I’ve crossed out, I make arrows, circles, and so on”.Camille Paglia, Camille Paglia Talks About Her Writing Process
Does this not sound conducive to overcoming the stasis of writer’s block? You can doodle, you can connect, you can cross out; you can engage with and manipulate something real, rather than watching a word processor and waiting until a sentence forms itself. You can create something with your very hands.
Once you have manifested some words, probably a woolly web of words, criss-crossed with arrows and erasures, then you can transfer it to a word processor, which will then feel warp-speed and give you a different angle on the raw material you have just produced. Edit and enjoy the results.
5. Silence Your Self-Critic
Self-criticism is a necessary part of mastering one’s craft. Without it, everything you produce becomes great and worth sharing – which, trust me, it isn’t. Like other virtues, when self-criticism is taken to the extreme it becomes destructive rather than constructive.
Suddenly anything you write is worthless, and eventually you stop writing. Paralysis by analysis, they call it; over-analysing something to the point where you stop synthesising, you stop constructing and creating something. Ideas are stillborn, for you daren’t grant them life.
John Cleese, who wrote a delightful little book on creativity, says,
“New and ‘woolly’ ideas shouldn’t be attacked by your logical brain until they’ve had time to grow, to become clearer and sturdier. New ideas are rather like small creatures. They’re easily strangled.”John Cleese, Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide
To surmount this paralysis, you need to let go of the unhelpful and unnecessary inhibitions that block your writing.
I know a scuba diver who was paralysed the waist down from the bends after a botched ascent from a dive. He had to learn how to walk again.
Tell me, do you think he would have walked again if he criticised every attempt to stand and step and walk due to his unrestrained self-criticism? He did indeed learn to walk again, in his seventies, too.
Not to go forward is to go backward.Charles Haanel, The Master Key System
Inhibitions like this did not and should not impact one’s recovery from paralysis of the body or mind. Failed attempts and stumbles are all necessary parts of the process, without which the ability to walk or write again would be impossible.
John Cleese says he and his Monty Python colleague would get enormously frustrated when they felt their writing process had been blocked, which they very often did.
“We came to understand that the blockages weren’t an interruption in the process, they were part of it… When the juices are not flowing, don’t beat yourself up and wonder if you should retrain as a priest. Just sit around and play, until your unconscious is ready to cough up some stuff. Getting discouraged is a total waste of your time.”John Cleese, Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide
Take this attitude to the page, write, write, write away – play, even. Judge not – lest you be judged! – come whatever may. Worst case scenario, you write a ream of rubbish and learn from it; best case scenario, you write something worthwhile. Ta-da! What writer’s block?
6. Don’t Force It, Be Patient But Perceptive
I mentioned to my friend Jules, of Buffalo Huddleston fame, that I am writing an article on writer’s block, and asked him what his thoughts were on it.
“Songs,” Jules tells me, turning slightly, looking sagely into middle distance, “Songs are like farts.”
You can’t force farts and inspiration, not productively – or safely. They come of their own accord, unsolicited, often at inopportune moments, so you best be prepared for their arrival. This is why you keep a pen and paper on you at all times, especially next to your bed and Dutch Oven.
Jules echoes Cleese in saying that these periods of ‘blockage’ are necessary. He doesn’t get frustrated with them, they are part and parcel of the writing process. You may not be producing something now, but that certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t brewing something for later.
In another apt and rather more beautiful analogy, Jules likens these fleeting moments of inspiration to passing trains, rattling over yonder hill. You don’t know when they are due to pass, but when you hear the whistle and feel the rumble, as with his other analogy, you need to be receptive, you need to be prepared.
As you raise your gaze to the tracks above, splashed across the passing train of inspiration are just the words you were hoping for, precious words of which you must take heed, lest they pass back irretrievably into the ether.
Like a fart in the wind.