Working through Writer’s Block

For a long time, I thought writer’s block didn’t exist.  It always seemed like nothing more than a convenient indie-movie character trait meant to show someone as a very deep thinker with the oft-denied desire to produce.  Paper Man, for instance, has Jeff Daniels’ character’s writer’s block (holy possessives, Batman!) signify the entire character arc from dependent to adult.  Instead of confronting the irony of Daniels’ writer character not “know[ing] what to do with [his] hands,” the film seems satisfied to conflate all types of creation together–from creating a baby to creating a novel to creating a couch.  But Richard (Daniels) can’t do any of these things because he has writer’s block.

What then, is writer’s block?  Most say it’s fear.  Fear of producing trash and being disappointed that you’re not Hemingway or Fitzgerald each time you try to get something down.  I think this is very true, and that’s why writer’s block has gained a wide reputation as a debilitating and very real dysfunction.

Psychological writer’s block

But let’s think about it another way.  If I buy a lottery ticket and never look up the winning numbers to see if mine match, I might have won.  For as long as I hold that ticket without checking it against reality, there’s a chance I’m a millionaire.  Writer’s block is the same.  For as long as I continue to not write, I might sit down one day and have a Pulitzer winner on my computer screen.  If I don’t sit down, though, I also don’t have to see myself write poorly.  It’s a win-win writer’s neurosis.  I can keep feeling like a genius while doing nothing at all.

That may not be the rational justification of writer’s block, but that’s why it’s so common. But there’s another type of writer’s block.

Physical writer’s block

Your brain works by talking to itself through synapses.  Synapses are like the telephone wires of the brain, and you must have them in good shape for your brain to do specialized work on demand.  Anything that causes your synapses to be sluggish, redirected, or interrupted is going to make creative work more difficult, and should be avoided.

Sometimes, however, these things can’t be avoided.  Having a cold, for instance, isn’t going to do you any favors in this department.  Being sleep-deprived won’t help either.  But these things do happen.  The good news about physcial writer’s block is that it passes quickly unless you let it evolve into its ugly cousin, psychological writer’s block.

How to avoid writer’s block entirely

  1. Make rules about your writing.  Have a set time to write and stick to it.  During that time, you don’t have to produce, but you can’t do anything else.  You can sit at the computer and stare at it, or you can write.  You can’t check facebook or your bank account, (egads) and don’t play with your phone.  It’s writing time.
  2. Stay healthy.  Get enough sleep, wash your hands, eat your vegetables.  We hear about heart, lung, liver, and breast health, but no one seems to think about keeping the brain organ healthy until the brain is malfunctioning.  Play word and number games to keep your mind sharp.  Spend time thinking every day.  Your butt isn’t going to get in shape by itself, and neither is your brain.
  3. Put down the booze.  Alcohol may not kill brain cells, but it does interrupt synapses.  That’s why hangovers are brain-dead hours.  Avoid it if your writing matters to you, and remember that many of the greats were rewarded for their heavy drinking with early deaths.
  4. Examine drafts of the greats.  If you’ve got a nasty case of WB, look up some draft copies of your favorite canonized authors and see how many times they went over their words and sentences.  It helps to know that they weren’t perfect the first time either.
  5. Have fun.  Writing a book is like reading a book; if you hate it, choose a different one.  Don’t write a story unless you need or want to.  This isn’t contradicting #1; this means that you should write about something that excites you and take the time to discover that subject.
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