Reading to Writing: Unlock the Block

How tales of writer’s block can help get you to the page.
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

There I was…staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor like some cliché from a paperback potboiler.  Ahead of me, I could see the many signposts I had yet to cross: my morning pages… my Daily Creative Writer post…my NaNoWriMo word minimum.  I knew I had to hit those mile markers, but I couldn’t seem to fire up my engines – I needed fuel, and an ignition spark, and a guy with a checkered flag waving me down the lane.

Happy coincidence (though, wasn’t it Carl Jung who said there are no coincidences?), over at Flavorwire I found a great piece: “Famous Writers on Overcoming Writer’s Block” buy Emily Temple.
As Temple notes in her introduction, NaNoWriMo is designed to get participants to churn out 50,000 words by November 30th, but it’s just as likely to trigger crippling writer’s block.

“The philosophy behind NaNoWriMo is pretty simple,” Temple writes, “get the words – 50,000 of them, to be exact – on the page.  But what if you experience that dreaded writer’s block while you’re chipping away at your ‘Great Fanfic Novel’?  Never fear, you’re not alone.”

Sadly – but thankfully – we’ve all got travel companions on the road to writer’s block, and many of them are famous, successful writers and essayists.

Maya Angelou reiterates what I’ve said here many times (though it may be painful to hear) writing begets writing.  Even boring, repetitive prose can work magic if you just keep going.

“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.”

Neil Gaiman’s advice – like most his stories – is not for the tame of heart.  Gaiman suggests setting aside your work for a few days, and then revisiting it with fresh eyes, “as if you’ve never seen it before.”

“Start at the beginning,” he advises. “Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change.  And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are.”

Just make sure you’re ready to confront your past. Sloppy prose, bad grammar, clichés and the like can sometimes make you wonder why you ever thought you had anything worthwhile to say, or any skill to get it all on paper.  If you can be gentle with yourself, though, rereading can work wonders – just use the kid gloves on your little seedling, remember that all great stories must be gently pruned and regularly watered.

Anne Lamott suggests you just aim for one page of anything.

“I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing – just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day.”

Thanks, Anne – this is pretty much how I’m getting through my first NaNoWriMO.  Just yesterday I wrote about 1000 words based on an encounter I had with a stranger at the deli counter.  Will it end up in the final draft, who knows?  But taking that real-world moment and just getting it down on paper led me to end up – two hours later – 3000 words closer to my 50,000-word goalpost.

Ray Bradbury opines that if you’ve hit a block, it might just be your subconscious telling you it’s time to move on.  Writing should be fun and energizing, and if you aren’t feeling your mojo, maybe it’s because your writing about the wrong thing or with the wrong motivation.

“If you’ve got writer’s block,” said Bradbury at the Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea (2001), “you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else.  You picked the wrong subject.”

One of my friends always leaves the party too early.  When we were younger, it used to bug me to no end to see her winding things down and saying her goodbyes well before midnight.  Why curtail the fun?  Why beg-off just when things were starting to get good.  A couple of decades – and many, many hangovers later – I finally get it: it’s not just about leaving them wanting more, it’s about making sure you leave yourself with an unfinished feeling and a desire to participate again, to see your friends again, to manage another round of margaritas without bile rising up uninvited because of too many tequila shots the night before.  Cultivating anticipation and unresolved desires can get your far – something Hemmingway also understood, and applied to his writing life.

“The best way is to always stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next,” he recommended. “If you do that every day…you will never be stuck.”

All original content is the sole property of Elizabeth Cutright and The Daily Creative Writer. If you are reading this blog on another website, it has been reposted without the author’s permission in violation of the DMCA. © 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

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