Writer's Block Remedies
     Victoria Grossack

There are the marvelous hours during which the words and pages flow like beautiful music from my fingertips. But there are other hours, too, when each word is like a note sung off-key, or when words simply donít come at all.

This condition is known as writerís block. Writerís block arises from many different situations, so although the result may be the same Ė your writing is either absent or poor Ė the treatments vary. Below I give you a list of some of the remedies I have encountered or developed for writerís block.

Send your judgmental you on vacation

Years ago, I read a marvelous article by Nancy Kress1 in Writers Digest, which talked about how a writer needs to be two people. The first person, responsible for the first draft, is a creative type, who needs to be encouraged. The second person is the editor, who makes all the corrections, who refines and polishes and even engages in major surgery. This creature is also necessary Ė but not in the beginning.

My judgmental me can paralyze my writing. I particularly notice this after finishing a long project, which, in its final stage, was sheer delight, because the story thrilled, the words sang. I could actually sit back and admire my own talent.

But my confidence is shattered when I start a new project. Each word feels like lead; the story stinks; everything Iím writing is bad, bad, bad, and that voice in my head keeps telling me so. My previous satisfaction with my abilities was obviously misplaced and delusional. The phrase ďpride goeth before a fallĒ comes frequently to mind. Sometimes I wonder if aliens replaced me during the night with some other person?

My problem is that my judgmental me, who was necessary for the polishing stage, blocks me with too-early and too-harsh criticism during the difficult, sensitive, creative stage of the new work. I have to accept that my first draft is after all, only a first draft, and that the words can be rearranged, deleted, replaced. I have to turn off the carping voice in my head and instead encourage the words to flow, no matter how poor they are. Besides, itís often easier to re-write than to create the first draft.

Write when youíre at your writing best

I like to write first thing in the morning. Actually, thatís a lie. I like to write second thing. I need to have coffee first, and I need to stop beating myself up for the initial twenty minutes of unproductivity while the caffeine takes effect.

I have also recognized that with the schedule of my day-job, I canít expect to write every day. Mondays and Tuesdays are usually too demanding in the office for me to expect much of myself at home. During some parts of the year, the work intensity continues the entire week. My goal is to hit five days out of the week Ė usually Wednesday through Sunday - and stop chastising myself for missing the other two.

You should study your own rhythms during the day and the week and find when youíre best suited for writing. If you need to reorganize your patterns, do so. One writer told me he used to exercise in the morning and write in the evening Ė but then switched them, so that he could take advantage of his morning mental high. Night owls will be better in the later part of the day.

Writing rituals

Sometimes it helps to engage in a ritual which helps you settle down to write. Many people like a cup of tea or coffee. I read one article where a fellow put on a business suit, drove around the block, and then entered his office to start his work day as a writer.

Lighting a candle is how I summon my muse. Classical music is also good, as long as itís not too intense. I have written thousands of words while listening to Beethovenís Pastoral Symphony. Pachelbelís ďCanon in DĒ is another favorite, as are many pieces by Bach.

Defend your time from others

Once you have found a peak writing time, you have to keep other people from intruding. This may mean shutting the door, hanging up the phone, explaining to people that you really are busy.

Defend your time from yourself

I donít need other people to help me waste time; I can manage this all by myself. I have to turn off the television and unplug the internet, or even disable my wireless connection.

I also have to keep myself from doing things which are not exactly time wasters. For example, aerobics and straightening up the house are both worthwhile activities Ė but they keep me from writing. Itís very hard to do it all. Itís even harder to do it all simultaneously.

Take care of yourself

Often, other things take priority over writing. Something physical or emotional may prevent you from putting good words into your story. Although writing can be therapeutic of itself, or simply a pleasant escape into a fantasy world, real life demands attention.

Figure out where your story goes next

Often, you donít know what to write next because you really donít know what happens next. Recognize this and figure it out. Perhaps itís time to end this scene and move on to the next.

Write out of sequence

Computers allow us to write in any order that we like. So, when you donít know what happens next in your story, write a scene that you do know and worry about creating the transition between those scenes later.

Outline your story

Sometimes, when youíre blocked, it helps to take a big picture view. I will write out brief summaries of what is happening, either scene by scene or chapter by chapter. This allows me to get a better for feel for the big picture, to see where I am repeating myself, to see what is missing in the story, to see which threads need to be worked on.

Use pen and paper

When I am really stuck, I sometimes revert to the old-fashioned way of writing: pen and paper. This is annoying, because it means that I am doing everything twice: first on the page, and then typing it into the computer. On the other hand, pen and paper are more mobile than my laptop, and sometimes the words flow better through the pen than through the keyboard.

Prime the pump

I feel that I should write after my day job as well as before Ė but often itís not easy to get myself sit down when I get home. Occasionally I write a few sentences before leaving the office, or perhaps, work schedule permitting, during my lunch hour. Then I e-mail these words to myself. That means thereís something fresh to look at, a little bit of progress, when I get home.

Another way to prime the pump is simply by thinking about what I want to write next when I have a few extra moments Ė for example, when riding in a car, or sitting on a subway or tram, or standing in line at some cashierís. I need to concentrate on specifics, though, not on global generalities. When I have imagined a scene, or worked out parts of an article, the words flow much more easily.

Use small amounts of time

Even though there is little more rewarding than sitting down for hours with the knowledge that I can write for a long, uninterrupted while, when I have only a few minutes they can be useful too. I can use these minutes, not to always write with elegance, but to jot down what I want to happen in the next scene. Sometimes, twenty good minutes produce 250 good words. Moreover, when I donít have a lot of time, these small increments make me feel less alien to my writing when I finally do get back to it.

Break up large amounts of time

Sometimes I have managed to have some time on my own Ė perfect for writing Ė yet instead of being productive, Iím squirming in my chair. It helps to break up the time or the writing. I might break up the time by putting on a CD and writing during it. I might want to write 1,500 words that day, but give myself points for each 250 words achieved. I use 250 words as my usual block, because it more or less represents a page, or at least it used to. Sometimes I will write for a spell and then do some aerobics Ė or, I confess, take a nap.

Vary your approach

Once, when I was struggling with a chapter that was in bad shape, I printed out the relevant pages and put them in my knapsack with some paper and a pen. Then I went to a place where I often walked, and began my usual hike. But this time I walked for twenty or thirty minutes, then took a break and forced myself to write a page. When my route allowed it, I stopped for tea and pie and wrote in a tea shop. This turned out to be one of my greatest writing memories.

Sometimes, there is no cure

Occasionally I work on a piece that is not going anywhere and really should not go anywhere. Itís time to put that piece away and work on something else. Maybe I will get back to it; maybe not. Hopefully I console myself having learned something.

Conclusion

In short, if you want to overcome your writerís block, it helps if you understand what causes it. Your reasons may be purely physical, such as exhaustion, or that being so busy that you have no time. Your problem may be that something in your life requires so much emotional energy that none remains for your writing. Or your difficulties may arise from your relationship with the story that youíre working on, in that you donít know what happens next or that it doesnít really inspire you. If you write for years you will encounter many variants of writerís block, and will have to resolve them by different means.

How do you manage it?

Iíve given you many of the techniques which I use to combat writerís block. If you want to share how you overcome your writers block, then drop me a line at Grossackva at Yahoo dot com. Iíll collect responses for a future article.

1I could not remember in which article Nancy Kress used that idea, so I contacted her and asked. Although she remembers writing it, she could not remember which article either.

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About the Writer:

with Alice Underwood, the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which, by the way, is a great way to spend your time if you have writer's block. There's exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks are reading it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at  at Tapestry of Bronze.

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.