I have only one fear in life, and that is of writing.
Up until the point that I got my first actual writing job, I loved to write. I wrote all the time when I was a kid, and when I was a teenager. But the second I got my first $10 writing assignment from a tiny, tiny newspaper, suddenly I hated to write. Part of it is that I just hate work. I am by nature a sloth—I am really lazy, and I really don’t like to work. I have never had any work that I’ve enjoyed.
I’ve spent most of my life reading, and I have probably never read without feeling guilty. I always feel that I’m supposed to be doing something else—and I always am supposed to be doing something else. When I was a kid, I was supposed to be doing homework; as an adult, I’m supposed to be writing. If I tell myself, “Fran, you have to write,” I will not do it. I am so resistant to authority that I am resistant to my own authority.
Writer’s block is painful. There are painful things in our lives that we don’t seem to be able to fix. Things that you know the origin of, you have a high chance of fixing. Obviously, if I knew exactly what this was, I would fix it. I do not know what it is, exactly. I have my theories, but I don’t really know. However, I do not believe that I will never write again. And since no one would ever accuse me of being a cockeyed optimist, probably I will.
II. Helpful Tips and Sympathy
I wasn’t sure how to start this, so I did anyway. I’ve faced plenty of writer’s block in my time, though maybe less than some. I’ll lay out whatever rules for dealing with it that come to me. I think I’ve already laid out the first.
Control your environment. No one comes or goes. You’re alone, with enough time not only to write but to fall into the place of writing, which can take a while. No internet, no phone. Play music. It can amp the mood and separate you from the people on the other side of the door. (I listen to movie scores when I write. Nothing with lyrics—too distracting. Modern movie scores are very drone-y, in a good way for writers. Just sustained emotion. Hans Zimmer, Rachel Portman, Carter Burwell, Mychael Danna…there’s tons.) Make sure your desk faces the right way. (I have to face the room, not the wall.) Not too much clutter…it all matters.
Start writing. You can overthink anything. You can wind yourself up into a frenzy of inertia by letting a blank page stay blank. Write something on it. (Don’t draw something on it. The moment I doodle on a page I know nothing else will ever go on it. The blank page is scary, but it’s also sacred. Don’t mar it.) Anything can be rewritten—except nothing.
Be specific. You want to write something. Why? What exactly are you going for? Whether you’re at the beginning or the middle or the last damn sentence of something, you need to know exactly what you’re after. Verisimilitude? Laughter? Pain? Something that rhymes with orange? Whatever it is, be very cold about being able to break it down, so even if you walk away, you walk away with a goal.
Stop writing. Know when to walk away, when you’re grinding gears. This is tricky, because it’s easy to get lazy, but sometimes straining for inspiration when it’s not there is just going to tire you out and make the next session equally unproductive. I believe that Stephen King once likened it to kissing a corpse. But then, he would. Walk away, relax, and best of all…
Watch something. Watch, read, listen—it fills the creative tanks, reminds us why we wanted to write in the first place, and often, it’ll unlock the thing that’s missing. That doesn’t mean you’ll see something and subconsciously steal from it (though it doesn’t 100% NOT mean that), it just taps into the creative place a blocked writer can’t access. Very often I’ll see a movie that’ll completely inform what I’m writing, which will bear no resemblance of any kind to that movie. I’ll just know how I want to feel when I’m writing it. (Episode 10 of season three of Buffy: totes indebted to The Last Temptation of Christ.)
Have a deadline. I would probably never get anything written if it weren’t shooting next week. I’m a terrible procrastinator, which means the adrenaline of last-minute panic is my friend. (It’s all that kept me afloat in school, I’m sad to say. My attention has a disorderly deficit. There was no acronym for that when I was little.) But you can create deadlines of your own. Friends are good for this. Make yourself mutually accountable—you have to deliver such-and-many words by this-or-then time, as do they. You might not always (or ever) hold to these, but they can help you remember that your writing may matter to someone besides yourself.
Have rewards. I’m talking about cookies. Actually, I’m finishing with cookies. What matters more? Earn them, then enjoy them.
OK then. Good luck!
No, wait. Good writing! No—happy writing.
Ack. No! Um…and thus I have argued that the main causes of…blech.
This is Joss, signing…what? No.
Bon appetite! Rosebud! Nobody’s perfect! To infinity, and…I give up. I’m never gonna find the right ending.
I’m gettin’ a cookie.
I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent—and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.
1. If you think you are suffering from writer’s block, stop writing immediately.
2. Walk away from your computer.
3. Remember this: writer’s block doesn’t exist. What does exist is a condition in which you don’t really know what you’re trying to say, and therefore are having trouble saying it.
4. Don’t try to think of what you’re trying to say—yet. Go do something other than writing or thinking, preferably something where you’ll sweat (running, weeding the garden, walking the dog) or be pleasantly distracted (cooking, going for a drive).
5. When you’re done with that diversion, start thinking about what you still need to learn before you know what you’re trying to say. Don’t start writing yet.
6. Usually this will require making some phone calls, or doing some research. DON’T START WRITING YET.
7. Once you’ve done that additional research and thinking, start composing in your head the idea that got you stuck.
8. Find someone whose opinion you trust. Explain to her what you are writing. Listen to yourself as you’re talking. You’ll be sorting out your thoughts as you’re talking.
9. NOW sit down and try writing that down. If you’re still stuck, maybe you still don’t know what you’re trying to say. Repeat steps 1 through 9. If necessary repeat again. And again.
10. Celebrate getting past a hard part of your writing!
The worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever experienced struck when I was 14, before I’d actually written anything. I knew that I wanted to be a cartoonist more than anything, but thanks to a childhood spent reading superhero comics and science fiction novels, I’d gotten it in my head that you needed not only an idea, but also a plot and even an entire fictional “universe” before you even started, so instead of actually writing or drawing, I sat around wishing I was writing or drawing. And when I did eventually stumble upon what I thought was a suitable idea (e.g., Elric of Melniboné mixed with Neuromancer, only it’s set in an alternate, futuristic version of the 1950s, and all the characters are robots…or are they?), it was so ambitious and convoluted that I would get frustrated and give up before I had completed a single page.
Fortunately, I soon discovered comics by people like Chester Brown, Harvey Pekar, Julie Doucet, Seth, and Joe Matt—people who made comics about themselves, about everyday life. At first I was like, “You can’t just do a story about waking up and making a can of soup for breakfast!” But then I’d find myself thinking about that story for a long time after I’d read it, and going back to those comics and rereading them, trying to figure out what made them so compelling. I wasn’t smart enough to work up any big theories about the true nature of art or anything like that, but I did feel, admittedly arrogantly, that if they could do stories like that, so could I.
I felt like I’d been trapped behind a massive roadblock for years, and suddenly I was able to just hop right over it. I could write and draw about anything, even the most mundane occurrence in my generally mundane teenage life. The ideas had been there all along, I just didn’t realize that they counted.
Then, of course, I was faced with the realization that making comics was about so much more than just coming up with an idea or a story. Contrary to what I’d believed when I was sitting around endlessly brainstorming (“I’m an amazing cartoonist…all I need is an idea!”), I was terrible. It was obvious that I had a lot of practice and learning ahead of me. But I was actually, finally, writing and drawing; and I was surprised to discover that once I started making comics, those elusive ideas came to me with much greater ease than when I was sitting there staring at a blank sheet of paper. They weren’t high-concept blockbuster ideas, but they were stories I was eager to tell, and that’s a great feeling.
Writer’s block is hardly ever a symptom of having nothing to say. It’s usually just your dumb lizard brain beating yourself up because you’re afraid of (in this order, at least for me):
1. Discomfort/ boredom
2. Not knowing exactly what it is you want to say yet
If you can push through the squirminess and clock the hours at the computer like you’re doing brain cardio, puking out whatever it is you MIGHT want to say in a fixed period of time, you’ll be OK. Because once you get ANYTHING on the page, you’ll be able to return to it later and make it better. If you leave and you have nothing, you’re not being very nice to your present OR future self.
The good news is that, even if you’re judging yourself while you barf out that crappy rough draft, what you write is usually not as bad as you think it is! Just make sure you sit on it for a little bit of time before returning to it and editing the shit out of it. It’s always easier to shape something from something than to make something from nothing. So try as hard as you can to blurt something out, even for 10 minutes, and know that once you’re done, the hardest part is behind you.
Writer’s block isn’t magically ordained, or sent down as a decree from God or whatever. It’s not external—you’re the only one doing the blocking! So please try to be gentle to yourself. Being hard on yourself is the #1 cause of misery and wasted time and keeping yourself back. I’ve never heard of anybody who’s bullied themselves into being more prolific or successful.
Give yourself the gift of letting yourself put something down that isn’t perfect. You will return to it later and make it wonderful.
The hardest thing for me has always been the beginning of a project—just getting started.
I went to painting school, and I learned all about how to stretch canvases in all of the olden-times ways, with hand-made stretchers and millions of layers of rabbit glue and sanding (so much sanding). All of this fussy craftsmanship shit. I’d think about painting, but the idea that everything had to be perfect and gorgeous and “right” had been drilled into my brain, and I wouldn’t even be able to start. Any ideas I’d have would immediately be second-guessed (by me) and would evaporate.
After college I decided to make comics, but at first I didn’t really know “how” to make comics. I’d never thought of myself as writer—I didn’t know how to structure a story. I didn’t know how to plan out my pages. I didn’t know how to draw my characters.
I thought back to a painting teacher I had when I was 16, who did one tiny painting a day, just as a way to always have something going. Like a diary. When our class visited his studio, he had thousands of paintings on his wall—the last five years of his life displayed all at once. It was so moving, so cool. I decided to do something in my sketchbook every day. I told myself I wouldn’t to show it to anyone. It could be big or small, a cop-out or an ambitious project.
There’s always something that happens in a day, something worth remembering or noticing. Putting those moments together started to form a story, without my even trying to write one. It was reassuring, but also humbling—it meant that I didn’t always have control over everything I made. And you don’t, either. Sometimes what makes something good is something you improvised, or something you weren’t even conscious you were doing, or something you thought was a bad idea. If you go into a project demanding perfection, you’ll never have a chance to be pleasantly surprised by those lucky “accidents.” But if you leave yourself room to figure things out as you go, you’ll not only have an easier time starting a book/poem/article/diary entry/whatever; you might also end up with a better end product.
I did eventually show people my sketchbook, and those sketches became my first graphic novel, Spaniel Rage. Since then, my process has changed—I found that I do like to do some pre-planning now. But when I just don’t know where to start, I stop and look around, and write and draw whatever I see around me, whatever I’m thinking about. It’s my start button. You can find yours, too.
(Also, I have put a waterproof notepad in my shower. All those good ideas you get in the bathroom go right down the drain if you don’t write them down!)
I have been telling stories and making up nonsense words for as long as I can remember. But around the time I started high school, I started to realize that for me, writing wasn’t just a hobby. It was my freaking life. I knew I wanted to write and not just wanted to write but wanted other people to read what I wrote and not just wanted other people to read what I wrote but wanted other people to read what I wrote and like it and not just wanted other people to like my writing but wanted other people to read it and like it and be transformed by it.
Do you see how if you go down that path you will (a) seem full of yourself and (b) scare yourself into doing nothing by placing outrageous expectations on your writing? So let’s you and I take a step back, and try to remember a time when an afternoon of writing was something to look forward to, not something that caused us crippling anxiety and agony. Here are some tips to get you there:
The internet is not your friend. The internet wants you to do excessive online browsing. The internet wants you to scroll through Tumblr until your wrists hurt. The internet wants you to read other people’s writing. The internet wants you to have 30 tabs up at once that you can’t possibly close until you’ve read every single link from the Wikipedia page on zombies. You have to peel yourself away from the internet.
You could do what Miranda July does here, or you could download an app like Freedom or Self-Control, both of which block you from going online for whatever amount of time you specify. I personally prefer Self-Control, because even if you restart your computer, you still can’t get online as long as you are under the time limit you’ve set for yourself. Also, the app allows you a “whitelist”—a small number of websites, pre-ordained by you, that you can still access. I like to keep one tab open for Dictionary.com and one for Poetry.org, so I can look up words and poems as little breaks between writing bouts.
Give yourself small assignments and projects. I’m the first one to resist any kind of writing exercise because I’m all like, I am far too complex to submit to a lowly writing exercise. I will come up with my own inspiration, thank you very much. And then I go online shopping and spend three hours finding 45 items to add to my shopping cart until I have the equivalent of a down payment for a house in the ol’ cart. So, no, I am not too far advanced, and, yes, I do need a kick in the ass sometimes. So kick yourself. Tell yourself that whenever you get a paper receipt from a store, you will, by the end of the day, write a poem on the back of that receipt, or the first few sentences of a short story.
Take an old book that you don’t care about and a black Sharpie and make an erasure poem, which is where you delete entire chunks of text to create a new poem. It’s way more satisfying to do it to an actual, physical book, but if all of your books are precious, you can check out Wave Books’ online portal for creating erasure poems here.
Keep a notebook at your bedside, and every morning write down whatever you remember of your dreams the night before. If you don’t remember your dreams, make them up. Dream up your dreams.
Go to a café and eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. Write down what you hear, then go back over it and scramble it up, take stuff out, add what you want, and turn it into an absurdist play.
If the physical act of typing or using a pen on paper is somehow a block for you, get a recorder and record yourself telling a story. Transcribe it the next day.
Be curious about other people. You know who has a million and one stories to tell? Your parents. Your grandparents. Your weird uncle. Your weird aunt. These are people who have lived through a lot of shit, and what’s more, they know other people who have lived through a lot of shit. Yes, some of the stories are boring, and some are about how cute you were when you peed yourself at the movies, but there are also amazing, incredibly sad, and incredibly hilarious stories to be uncovered. Gabriel García Márquez’s inspiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude was just sitting around his kitchen table listening to the women in his family gossip. He turned that gossip into gold. You can too.
Read, like all the freaking time. I meet young writers all the time who don’t read, and I’m always like, “What are you doing? Stop writing so much! Read more!” Be a better reader before you start worrying about being a good writer. Reading George Saunders in college inspired me to write better short stories; reading Kafka and Babel and Gogol and Kharms inspired me to write with more imagination. Reading Chelsey Minnis in grad school got me writing poetry again. Ariana Reines’s first book, The Cow, encouraged me to keep writing poetry and eventually to emerge from my writing hole with my own book of poems. Read other writers. Develop your tastes as a reader and eventually, just as Ira Glass says in this video, your writing abilities will catch up to your high standards as a reader.
Dreaming counts! We’re all told that we’re supposed to be “productive.” There’s a glut of things to know about, memes to forward, hashtags to create, instagram photos to take, etc., etc., etc. There’s not a lot of time in our lives to dream. But being a writer is saying that you want to see beauty in places that other people often overlook. So give yourself a day or a week off, or even a few months off, to daydream. But don’t let your brain get comfortable. Make it spin. Give it time to gather strength from ideas.
A lot of writers swear by routine, but I swear by chaos. There’s enough fucking routine in my life. Every day I have to brush my teeth. Every day I have to smile at strangers. Every day I have to worry about money. Every day I want something I can’t have. Every day I find some way to go on! I know that writing every day for an hour would help me tremendously with writer’s block, but I also know that I need an element of wildness in my writing. I need to know that writing is something I do because it sets me free. It makes me feel golden with confidence. It gives me the gift of gab. I feel like a god. I feel like an entertainer. So write when you damn well please.
No one is going to die if you don’t write. The world will find a way to go on. But you might find your soul shrinking the longer you go without writing. The thing about writer’s block is that sometimes it’s real, and sometimes it’s just your brain taunting you: What if you’re not a good writer? What if once you put the words down on the page, it becomes evident that they are not so brilliant after all? And then there’s the fear that if you do write the most perfect story or poem in the whole world, will that mean you won’t ever have another good idea? What if you run out of ideas? Well, then you…
GO OUT AND LIVE YOUR LIFE, BECAUSE AS LONG AS YOU DO THAT YOU WILL NEVER RUN OUT THINGS TO SAY.
The best way to avoid living your life, as a writer, is to spend your time worrying about writer’s block. So, live your life for a while. Your talent and your instincts as a storyteller won’t die, I promise. And then when you’re ready, hole the eff up, and write, write, write.
III. Tough Love
“Writer’s block” is a term invented by very spoiled and whiny writers to refer to periods in which they do not feel inspired. The assumption hidden behind this term is that creativity is an everlasting, full-powered fountain, so that if at any given moment we wish to write but nothing exceptional comes out at the other end of our keyboard or pen, there must be some malfunction obstructing the natural cycle of everlasting creativity.
I’d like to offer an alternative perspective. Creativity, very much like love, is a gift. And you don’t get to get gifts all the time. If you go on a date and you don’t like the guy or girl you are meeting, you are not experiencing “lover’s block”—you simply don’t love at that moment, and if you’re patient enough you’ll experience love in the future (probably in the place and the time you’d least expect it). If you don’t write well, keep writing bad stuff (don’t worry, bad writing is completely ecological—it doesn’t damage the ozone layer or give you cancer). If it gets too frustrating, stop doing it—move on to badminton, collect airplane models, or do all those other things that people who don’t write do. But mostly, wait patiently. (Patiently as opposed to impatiently, or angrily, or bitterly—because those kinds of waiting don’t breed future good writing. Patience does.)
Writing isn’t a habit. It’s a unique form of expression. And nobody owes you that special experience on a daily or a weekly basis. But if you make an effort, when it’s gone, to keep living your life and experiencing new things, it will eventually return. And when it does, enjoy it as much as you can, before it goes away again.
I had writer’s block today. Here’s what it looked like:
I woke up late and sluggish, a result of having spent last night watching a six-episode marathon of Say Yes to the Dress. Too logy to work, I lingered over my oatmeal and tea, reading the New York Times on my phone despite the fact that the actual paper paper was lying on the kitchen table, next to the sugar bowl. Convinced that I would never be able to focus on work without a dose of endorphins, I headed to the gym. An hour later, I was far too physically exhausted to even contemplate opening my computer, let alone work. Ever the taskmaster, I forced myself to it—and spent an hour pinning wool blankets and linen throw pillows to my Pinterest wall.
Then I was hungry. So I ate lunch. Afterwards, I considered what a challenge it is to concentrate on a full stomach, but I forced myself back to the computer. Isn’t it remarkable how an hour of web surfing passes in the blink of an eye? Before I knew it, it was time to pick up the kids.
Another day lost to the torment of writer’s block. Right?
No. Wrong. There is no such thing as writer’s block. There is only procrastination, and laziness. Had I just turned on Freedom and sat the hell down, I could have written at least 1,000 words today. They may not have been good words. In fact, they probably would have sucked. But that’s not the point. The point is not to produce lyrical perfection—that’s what rewriting is for. The point is to sit your ass in your chair and write, even if all you write is a paragraph about what a lazy cretin you are.
Writer’s block is a myth. Get to work. ♦