Writer’s block is a state of mind, not a state of being. Meaning, it can be conquered. It is only momentary. There are so many different kinds of writing; fiction, non-fiction, short stories, poetry and novels. Not to mention personal and academic essays. Professional writing such as CVs, cover letters, application forms... the list goes on. Our creative process can get blocked when attempting any of them.
We can also push on and conquer writer’s block. We can keep writing.
Conquer (verb) to overcome and take control of.
Momentary (adjective) to last for a very short time; brief.
Challenge (noun) a call to someone to participate in a competitive situation or fight to decide who is superior in terms of ability or strength.
Anxiety (noun) a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.
Overwhelming (adjective) very great in amount.
Creative (adjective) relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something.
Introspection (noun) the examination or observation of one's own mental and emotional processes.
Portray (verb) depict (someone or something) in a work of art or literature.
Solitary (adjective) to exist alone.
Subjectivity (noun) the quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
Familiarity (noun) close acquaintance with or knowledge of something.
Reverie (noun) a state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; a daydream.
Prompt (verb) (of an event or fact) cause or bring about (an action or feeling).
Here are five of my own, tried-and-tested remedies for writer's block, and some words of inspiration that have helped me along the way.
- To do lists
There was a study conducted by two professors, Baumeister and Masicampo, at the Wake Forest University. Their study showed that uncompleted tasks will distract us, but by simply writing a to-do list we can free away some of the anxiety. There have been many studies into the power of to-do lists, and they all seem to tell us the same thing – that it cleanses the mind, it moves the anxiety aside so that you can visualise what you need to do. It becomes less overwhelming.
- Small Challenges
I went to Finland last year to work as a writer in residence. Meaning I had time to work on my novel. I had a whole month – which seemed like too much time; time I could waste if I wasn’t careful. So I decided to set myself challenges each day, short goals that pushed me to keep writing and not get blocked. My challenge was to complete 1000 words a day. Yours may be 2000. Or 200.
Maya Angelou said this: ‘I suppose I do get ‘blocked’ sometimes but I don’t like to call it that. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is not, a rat’ you know. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing. I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”’
- Be creative
Dan Brown hangs himself upside down to defeat writer’s block. That’s right. The guy that wrote The Da Vinci Code hangs himself from a special frame so he may relax and concentrate on his writing. This is called inversion therapy.
Now, I’m not advocating that we all do this. It seems a bit extreme. But what I am saying is that we all need to be creative when it comes to addressing writer’s block. Several writers stand up to write. Others do sit-ups or push-ups in between pages. Find your way. But be creative in doing so.
Virginia Woolf was a walker. When the characters weren’t talking to her or the words weren’t flowing, she’d take to the streets. I urge you to do the same. Just getting away from the house, from the desk, can help. It can free up your mind, you might say.
Rebecca Solnit said it better in her superb essay ‘Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable’:
‘Walking the streets can be a form of social engagement… but it can also be a means of inducing reverie, subjectivity, and imagination, a sort of duet between the prompts and interrupts of the outer world and the flow of images and desires ‘and fears’ within. At times, thinking is an outdoor activity, and a physical one.”
- A Side Note On Getting Blocked:
When I returned from Finland to Edinburgh, to my full-time job and the chaos of everyday life, I cut my daily word-count target to 400 a day. It’s not really about the amount you complete – unless you have a strict deadline – it’s about sticking to your challenge. If you’ve told yourself you need to complete 400 words a day, you must. You can be at the desk for five minutes, an hour or six hours, as long as the words are done. It's amazing how quickly those words add up.
Just write. And when you have a little time, read. Read novels, stories, poetry, articles. Read quotes. Write them down. Build reading and writing into your daily routine, make it the new normal.
As Malcolm Bradbury said, ‘Everyday you must write a short story, an essay or a poem.’
These are books that have helped me through a writer’s block phase. For me, the best way to do this is to read about the writers who have inspired me... and read the poetry and prose I love.
On Writing, Stephen King (non-fiction)
I Must Be Living Twice, Eileen Myles (poetry)
The Paris Review Interviews (non-fiction)
Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas (fiction)
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott (non-fiction)
The Red Tree, Shaun Tan (picture book)
By The Book, (New York Times article series)
My Writing Day, (The Guardian article series)
Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home, by Susan Hill (non-fiction)
Howl, Allen Ginsberg (poetry)
The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy (poetry)
There’s a quote I once read from a writer called Burton Rascoe, which sums up what it means to be a writer, the risks and the joys. Here it is: ‘What no (spouse) of a writer will understand is: when they’re looking out of the window, they’re working’.
Of course, for many, writer’s block comes from a place of insecurity. You feel like what you’re doing is pointless or a waste of time. This feeling is a part of any creative process. But remember that writing is not a waste of time. It simply takes time.