What Causes Writer’s Block
Ever sat down at your desk, rested your hands on the keys, thought, “Here goes!” and then didn’t move? Of course you have–because it happens to everyone.
The best thing to do when that happens is to start typing anyway. It doesn’t matter what, just get your fingers moving. You may have a scene in mind where your character learns some big life lesson, realizes who her father is, or hears the dire diagnosis from the doctor/witch/oracle/whoever… and you don’t know the best way to get it out, so you do nothing.
I know this feeling all too well. I don’t freeze up on big emotional scenes though. Someone’s about to die? My fingers are flying! I need to lay down clues for something that’s going to happen four chapters later? There’s smoke coming from my keyboard! I need an action scene where there’s a chase, gunfire, and dark alleys? Nothing… absolutely nothing. I can rip your heart out with grief, I can make you laugh, but when it comes to pulse-racing action, I suck.
Those things used to slam me into at least a week of not writing. Now, I know I’ll have to fix everything in edit anyway, so the first draft of my action scenes look something like this:
We ducked into an alley. Dead end. Rustling from dumpster. Cat jumps out. (wait, too cliche-cut). Footsteps coming from the street. Pull gun out. Malia gets my attention and points to fire escape.
All right. You get the idea. It doesn’t matter how bad it sucks or how many times I change my mind. The key is to just write it. Get through the scene and fix it later. Don’t know how to fix it? Ask for help… LATER.
We’ve all heard that first drafts are supposed to suck. So, intellectually we understand it. But, when it comes to actually writing like sh** on purpose just to move forward, it physically hurts.
I would like to add that I too hear a few people talk about how polished their first drafts are. Those people are either lying sacks of (that word I used in the last paragraph) who revise as they go, or they are evil and need to be cast back into the underworld.
That’s one of the manifestations of the dreaded ‘writer’s block.’ I say ‘manifestations’ because what I just described is a symptom, not the disease.
More symptoms are:
- Not knowing what’s going to happen next, so you freeze. That seems to happen more to pantsers… (that was aimed at one person in particular who is going to call me as soon as she gets to this part and chew me out)
- I’ve heard people say they have no story idea–which is beyond my understanding, but there it is.
I could go on forever. But you get the picture. Freezing at the keyboard is painful. It makes us doubt our talent, wonder why we every thought we could tell a story, and why our mother and father bothered to bring our no-good carcasses into the world. But, I have good news. In the case of everyone I’ve ever talked to about this–it’s not ‘writer’s block’ that’s the problem. It’s how we view our writing.
Your Words Aren’t Precious!
That’s the disease. That’s the cause for every case of writer’s block I, and everyone I’ve spoke about it with, have ever had. We all want our every word to be gold. We don’t want to waste our time taking our story in a direction we will have to change later. We want our every word to be saved for posterity like little golden nuggets of genius. Or, sometimes we only have thirty minutes a day to write and we really have to make them count. Either way…
If we aren’t writing, that’s when we really suck!
And, I have a cure. The doctor is here with the medicine. Unfortunately, it’s not orange flavored and won’t make you a little high. It’s more like a shot with a big needle, followed by a horse pill–but I swear on the graves of all my favorite authors (even the ones who aren’t dead yet), it will work!
Now, there’s a lot of woo in The Artist’s Way. I know she couches everything to make it more palatable to those of us who don’t believe in a ‘universal creative power,’ but it still permeates the books and I have friends who refuse to make it past week two of the program. They’re missing out on the one thing that will kill writer’s block forever. I’ve taken one of the exercises from The Artist’s Way, added one little twist, and I haven’t been stuck since.
You may have heard of the Morning Pages. One of Cameron’s exercises is to sit down every morning and free-hand three pages of anything and everything. A pen and paper brain dump. It’s amazingly freeing, but one little thing makes it even more freeing.
Adding one little step that takes one second a month will help you feel okay about taking your story in an unexpected direction that you may not end up using (aka. exploring). It will make you okay with writing your first draft quickly. It will kill writer’s block forever.
Filling out three pages of one of those goofy, black and white composition books (sometimes you can catch them on a ‘back to school’ sale at the Dollar Store $.10 each) takes a little less than twenty minutes. You can fit that into your morning. Actually, you should look into Elrod’s Miracle Morning for Writers and work it into that routine… but that’s a post for another time.
Those notebooks have 100 pages, so for 33 days, write three pages every morning. It doesn’t matter what you write. How was your day? What are you going to cook for dinner? How angry/happy/ambivalent are you about whatever happened whenever? It doesn’t matter what you write. That’s Cameron’s Morning Pages, and they are awesome, stimulating, motivating… every good ‘ing you can think of. But, she left off one step that I think writers need. The one thing that will free you up to explore without limits in whatever world you are writing in.
When you fill up a notebook… THROW IT AWAY.
If you want to lay on your canopy bed, listen to Joni Mitchell, and write flowery, permanent words in a diary, that’s great… but that’s separate from this. (And don’t think I’m disparaging Joni. I make Alexa put Both Sides Now on repeat pretty often.)
And don’t think I don’t know you. When you saw the words “throw it away,” you recoiled in horror. If you cut a paragraph from a story, I know you keep it somewhere. Hell, in every single story or book I write, there’s a ‘remnants’ folder in the research section of my Scrivener file. That’s fine and normal. But, if you want to be free. If you never want to suffer from crippling writer’s block again, learning that it’s okay to not be perfect, that your words aren’t precious and there aren’t a finite number of them is the one thing that will do that. And, what I’m telling you to do is the quickest way.
Once a month, tossing a hundred handwritten pages in the garbage will kill writer’s block. I swear.