As creative types, we’re all familiar with writer’s block—when we open our notebooks or documents and stare at a blank page because the words won’t come to us. Sometimes we do find ourselves procrastinating writing: we tackle the backlog of laundry, mow the lawn, re-grout the shower—anything to avoid looking at that blinking cursor. Or we’ll binge-watch TV shows, take up yoga, commit to a new diet, all in the name of doing Something Else.
It’s incredibly frustrating. We chisel words out of stone, chipping away at the block in the hopes it will go away. Or sometimes we simply refuse to look at the current project. We might even start a new project. We want to create. We hate being idle. We want the block to go away.
The advice out there to deal with writer’s block is legion. Work through it. Take a break. Take a break but not too long a break. Write every day no matter what. The problem is knowing the right way to proceed.
In order to do that, we have to understand why we’re blocked.
As I see it, there are three basic forms of blockage. The first comes after you’ve finished a major project. You’re riding a high from successfully completing a draft, or turning in revisions. A day or two goes by but you can’t seem to settle to starting a new project or picking up on an old one you’ve set aside.
Give it some time. Farmers know they can’t keep planting the same fields over and over without allowing the soil to rest and replenish its nutrients. I know in today’s publishing environment, we’re supposed to be producing a story a month—heck, we’re supposed to be writing in our sleep—but creativity needs a chance to rest and replenish, too. Honor that. Read some books. Watch television. Take the dog for long rambles in the woods. When you’re ready, the next project will speak to you.
A subset of this type of blockage is when you’ve submitted something to a publisher and are waiting for the acceptance or rejection letter. While you should rest your mind for a bit because of the successful completion of a project, putting everything on hold for weeks or months while you wait and see if your book is contracted is a huge waste of time. Give yourself a week to recharge and then put the submitted story out of mind. Get the next one in the queue.
The second kind of blockage comes when your well of creativity is dry. This is NOT the kind of writer’s block you just plow through. You can’t pump water out of an empty well. Take a hard look at why your creativity has dried up on you. Are you burned out? Is your day job or personal life taking its toll on you? It’s hard to write a love story if your own love life is on the rocks. It’s hard to be creative when the world is falling apart around you or you’re working twelve hours a day. The words you drag out of an empty well will be just as dry and lifeless as the source. Author Louis L’Amour once advised, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
To a certain point, he is right. I’ve been telling myself something similar for years without knowing the origin of the original quotation until recently. But there are times when that well is dry. You have to either wait for the water table to rise or drill a new well. You have to figure out how to solve the root problem. Sometimes there’s no easy fix. In which case, see if there is something you’re going through that can be incorporated into a story someday when there is more distance between you and the problem. This is also a great time to explore other areas of creativity. Write some no-pressure fanfic. Recount memories from your childhood. Keep a journal. Paint. Learn a new craft. Take photographs. Remember what it is like to play, to have fun. One time I created storyboards for action figures and photographed them in a series of scenes to tell the story I wanted to tell. Creativity begets creativity. It all counts in the end.
I think the third type of blockage is the kind most of us think of when we picture writer’s block. There’s an old Joe Flanigan movie called Farewell to Harry in which Flanigan has decided to ‘become a writer’ and travels to a small town looking for a story. He goes through all the classic moves of the blocked author: he sits in front of a typewriter staring at the blank page. He ripped the paper out of the machine, balls it up and throws it away. He drinks too much. He smashes a glass against a wall. His frustration is there for us to see.
But the real problem is he doesn’t know what story he wants to tell. He’s unable to write because he doesn’t know what he wants to write. It isn’t until he becomes involved with the titular character that he finds the story he wants to tell.
To be honest, that’s a very romanticized version of writer’s block. Most of us know the story we want to tell. We just can’t find the words to do so. If you can’t move forward on a story and you feel blocked, it’s a sign something doesn’t feel right to you as an author. You’ve gotten something wrong. There’s either a plot problem or you’re asking your heroes to do something out of character for them. Many times you can’t become unstuck until you figure out what that is.
Sometimes the answer is to write a different scene, the one you see clearest in your mind, and worry about how you bridge the two later. Sometimes the answer is to slog through it, tweaking and revising the scene until it falls into place. Sometimes you need to set the thing aside and do something mindless and physical to allow your brain to work through the problem without the blank page teasing you.
The hard part is knowing which to do when. But eventually, the writer in you will break through and the solution will be clear.
There’s no better feeling in the world than when that happens.
About McKenna Dean
McKenna Dean has been an actress, a vet tech, a singer, a teacher, a biologist, and a dog trainer. She’s worked in a genetics lab, at the stockyard, behind the scenes as a props manager, and at a pizza parlor slinging dough. Finally she realized all these jobs were just a preparation for what she really wanted to be: a writer.
She lives on a small farm in North Carolina with her family, as well as the assorted dogs, cats, and various livestock. She likes putting her characters in hot water to see how strong they are. Like tea bags, only sexier.
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/McKenna-Dean-Author-262328784224302/
Wonderful post, tons of excellent insight/suggestions, and perfect timing. I’m just finishing a major 5 book series, and am brain storming a new book/series. So far, lots of wheel spinning going on, and I loved your comment on this topic. Thanks. Excellent reminder.
I agree, find an additional creative venue to keep your juices flowing. For me, it’s photography.
Wow, what a wonderful background to draw on for your stories. Again, thanks for this terrific post, and I wish you every success.
Diana! I got swamped at work this week and completely forgot this post was up–my apologies for the delayed response! I’m so glad you enjoyed it–even better that you found it timely. Finishing a major series is a big deal and wheel-spinning is understandable. You need that brainstorming time to figure out what you want to do next. I’m sure it will be fantastic!
I’m a bit of an amateur photographer myself but only on a small scale with a simple point-and-shoot. I’ve been considering upgrading. 🙂 It’s funny how our own backgrounds seem less exciting than someone else’s, but you’re right. I do have some lovely things to draw on. So thank you for reminding me of that!