The subject of writer’s block came up a few times this week. One friend is writing again after a long bout of being blocked. Another writer asked a group of us for our suggestions on overcoming writer’s block so she could compile a list for a writing course she is teaching. I also had a conversation with a third friend about the gifts inherent in writer’s block.
Taken in literal terms, writer’s block is an inability to get to the writing, to move forward with it. But that’s not my personal yardstick. There have been times in my life when I’ve put the writing aside, sometimes willingly, sometimes with regret. A few years ago, I was ill for three months and couldn’t do much of anything, never mind write. I took time away from writing in those months after both my children were born too . . . and before and after the death of my stepfather as well. Even though I may have wanted to write back then, circumstances made it difficult. I wasn’t blocked. I chose to put my attention elsewhere. Life comes first for me, then writing, otherwise there’s no life in the writing.
Having said that, writing is my job, and barring illness, birth or death, I show up pretty much every day.
My writer’s block is when I show up and the words don’t flow. Luckily it doesn’t happen very often, maybe because of my training in journalism. As a reporter in the field, I’d sometimes have fifteen minutes to put a story together. As a news announcer I was on air hourly, and I needed fresh content for every newscast. I wrote or I lost my job. It’s amazing how unblocked you get when the clock is ticking and you need to eat.
That training comes in handy. Still, there are times when I’m working on a novel and I get stuck. Blocked. Sidelined. Enticed by Twitter, the squirrel outside my office window or the oven that suddenly needs cleaning.
Dennis Palumbo, author of ‘Writing From the Inside Out’ suggests writer’s block isn’t always bad. It might be a signpost, he says, of something we need to pay attention to. He explains it in psychological terms as a call from our subconscious.
I agree. And my subconscious usually calls because something in the story isn’t working. When I step back, I’ll often realize something’s off in the plot or the pacing, or I’m missing something about the character. The block is a blessing, a gift, a way of calling my attention to an issue that needs addressing. It’s an amber light that says, ‘slow down, wait a second here.’
But waiting can be hard, especially when you aren’t sure why you’re waiting in the first place. So, while I wait and ponder and try to uncover what this particular gift means, here’s what I do in the meantime (aside from whining, moping, cleaning the oven or spending too much time on Twitter) :
Work on another piece of writing for a day or two.
Do something with my hands – dig in the garden, cut vegetables, paint a wall.
Get physical – walk the dogs, ride my bike, do yoga.
Feed my muse by watching a movie, reading a book, listening to music.
Reread what I’ve written, paying careful attention to the small details I’ve randomly thrown in. There is gold in the details. Perhaps something can be fleshed out that will add depth or new perspective to my story.
Interview my character. Or write stream of consciousness stuff, in long hand, from the main character’s point of view (and sometimes the secondary characters too). What are they trying to tell me that I’m not hearing?
Finally, if all else fails and I still can’t fathom why I’ve come to a sticky place in the manuscript, I make myself write anyway. Even if it’s garbage. Garbage can be turned into compost. Words can be revised. Remember the words of Natalie Goldberg: “The only failure in writing is when you stop doing it. Then you fail yourself.’’