I’ve never really suffered from writer’s block. That’s not me bragging as if I’m too smart and too talented to ever fall victim to the same issues experienced by nearly everyone who’s ever attempted to arrange one word after another into a meaningful and engaging sequence.
It’s more me saying I’m not sure that writer’s block is a universal affliction. Instead it’s always seemed to me to be a generic label applied to any of a number of circumstances.
When I’m unable to write it’s more because of a lack of inspiration. It’s not that I can’t write, it’s that I’m not sure what I want to say or how to say it. I can be sitting here looking at a full list of things I can write about, but I’m not sure where to begin. What’s the first word? What’s the narrative? What’s the conclusion I’d like the reader to reach along with me?
Sometimes I’m just not feeling it deep down in the part of my body that usually drives me to write at all costs. It’s like the pilot light has temporarily gone out. It’s not even a universal outage, though. I might be able to write 800-word blog posts without batting an eye but my novel will sit untouched for a week or more. Or vice versa.
While your mileage may vary, here are the tactics I’ve used when lack of inspiration drags on for more than a day or so.
Just Start Writing
This is perhaps the most cliched advice that can be given but that doesn’t make it any less true. I’ll pick something and start somewhere. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be there. Even “I’m not sure what I want to say about this but I was thinking about…” is better than nothing. It’s the proverbial snowflake that could become an avalanche, unleashing the creativity and getting my writing back on track.
I recently read “Draft No. 4” from writer/author John McPhee. Among the other advice he has for writers, he recounts the response he usually gives young writers who are feeling blocked. Take out a piece of paper, he says, and begin a letter to your mother about how you can’t write. Tell her about the hard time you’re having getting started on this story about a bear (or whatever the topic is). Eventually you’ll tell her about how the bear has a X# inch neck and an X# inch waist and can run as fast as a cheetah for short distances. Now go back and cut out everything except the bit about the bear. You’ve started your story.
Do Literally Anything Else
Sometimes you kind of need to just not write. That’s the simple truth. Sometimes I feel that because I call myself a “writer” I need to be writing all the time. But actors aren’t always acting and athletes aren’t always training or competing. Sometimes it’s alright to not be doing what it is you think you need to be doing.
In baseball a batter who’s going through a slump may be said to be “gripping the bat too tight” and I like that phrase. It means they’re trying too hard and are making changes to their approach that’s doing more harm than good. A batter needs to have a firm but loose grip on the bat to turn it around at the speed necessary to hit that ball coming at them. Similarly, writers need to not put too much pressure on themselves to be delivering at all times and in all ways. Blow off some steam on a video game, relax with a book or movie. Let go of the bat so you’re not just building up more frustration. Nothing good comes of that.
Engage In a Brain-Dump
Just because I don’t know what I want to say doesn’t mean I don’t know what I want to write about. That’s not the problem. Sometimes it’s the fact that the list of possible topics is too large, or that I’m carrying too much of it my head to allow anyone topic to come into clear focus.
When I feel that might be happening I’ll step away from the computer and pull out a legal pad or scratch piece of paper. I’ll sit down and list everything that’s on my mind, all the projects that are swirling around my conscious and subconscious. Personal writing topics, freelance projects I’m on the hook for, home repairs that are needed, topics I want to learn more about. It all gets out of my head and on paper.
It’s akin to defragmenting a computer hard drive. Memory space is limited and it can’t do anything more because it’s spinning too hard on what’s already trying to keep running. It doesn’t need to work that hard. Defragmenting your own mind can free up the mental space that allows one idea to more clearly come into focus and be executed.
A lot of the RSS and email reading I engage in is done with the expectation that they will inspire or inform a future writing topic. It’s very purposeful, with specific intent and the belief that it will be used in a particular manner. That’s fine and it’s a useful way to keep up with the current news and conversations around topics that are important to my career and life.
Sometimes those expectations wind up backfiring. I’ll read all those stories and think “Oh, that seems relevant and useful” and save it and then spin my wheels on what I have to say about that topic or what perspective I have to add to the conversation. A story will sit in Pocket for days as I review and reread it, searching for an angle and feeling as if I need to address this before I move on to anything else.
At that point it’s not a source of inspiration but a roadblock to progress. I’ll eventually realize it’s not important that I do something – *anything* – with that story (or an original idea) and let it go. I’ll move on. I’ve freed myself from the expectations that I’ll use everything, or at least that specific item, and the world will continue to spin.
Do you encounter what’s commonly referred to as writer’s block? How does it impact you? What do you do to get around it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and tactics.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.