“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”
Google “does writer’s block exist” and you’ll be bombarded with heaps of arguments screamed from both sides of the aisle. On the one hand there are those who say that writer’s block undoubtedly exists, that it’s a real condition, like cancer, that affects millions of people. Then there are those who say that writer’s block is merely an excuse. They argue that because there wasn’t a term for it before the 1900’s it can’t possibly exist. They say you’re just being lazy, preferring to eat Jell-o and watch the TV guide channel than to get down to business with your writing.
And then there are those who think writer’s block is Satan incarnate. That it is a malevolent troll-like brute that steals candy from children and trips old women on the street. It crawls into your ear at night and throws out all of your highfalutin word know-how so that when you awake and try to write you are merely a listless void, and can do nothing but emit a high-pitched squeaky sound…
But we, dear reader, are not gathered here today to debate the minutia. We’re above all that. We’re here to get down to business and provide you with actionable advice for confronting the blinking line of doom. Because, whether it exists or not, writer’s block is a pain in the ass that you simply don’t have time for. Read on to equip yourself for battle against the beast!
Please excuse the giant quote box, but I can’t resist sharing this excerpt from Anne Lamott’s incredible book Bird by Bird. She explains the concept of shitty first drafts in a far better (and far more hilarious) way than I could ever hope to…
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts….
All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)
Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do — you can either type, or kill yourself.” We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time….
Bird by Bird was incredibly impactful to me. Not only is it informative, but it’s totally hilarious as well. If you haven’t read it I strongly suggest you pick up a copy.
Occasionally I come up with a title that is so perfect, so hilarious and amazing, that I go ahead and put it up there before I start writing. Then I try to write an article that lives up to it.
This almost never works out.
The title sits subversively at the top of the page, sighing loudly and making snarky comments…”Are you really going to use the word ‘very’ again?”…… “Ugh, that is such a shitty paragraph, kiss your career goodbye buddy because as soon as people read it they will all hate you.”
So, to make things easier on myself I leave it off, and I usually go ahead and leave off the intro as well. While I’m writing the body something will fall out on the page that feels right, I will know it’s supposed to be the title. It will be a nice title, one that works with the content. It might not be the best title in the world, but at least it won’t bad-mouth my writing.
Then, I read through the body and find pieces that stand out. Sometimes they simply don’t fit, sometimes they are saying something that should have been said earlier. Occasionally, I will chop them up and build an intro around them.
Some will advise you to lay out the article’s contents in the intro… ” In this article you’ll learn Header, Header, Header, and Header.”
Lame. I suggest that you instead try to craft an intro that catches the reader’s attention and makes them want to read on. If they can’t wait until the body of the article for a layout then they probably shouldn’t be reading it anyway.
We use a different part of our brains to edit than we do when we write. (I don’t know if that’s really true, but it sure sounds good.) Constantly switching back and forth between the two will cause you to fatigue much faster.(That part is definitely true.) This doesn’t mean you can’t backtrack a paragraph or two to make something clear, but try to avoid checking for spelling, grammar, and flow while you’re writing.
When you’re in the zone for writing, you’ll undoubtedly miss some spelling and grammar mistakes anyway. So keep to momentum going, and save it all for the end. It is always best to come back later, ideally a day or two, and read through your content with fresh eyes.
From my experience, methods like the Pomodoro Technique can be HUGELY beneficial with some tasks, but totally counterproductive with others. In fact, I utilize a version of this when I’m checking email, doing outreach, phone calls, and pretty much everything… except writing. This doesn’t mean that you can’t get up to pee or eat, but I don’t suggest stopping the middle of your Flow to work on your taxes or paint your dog’s toenails.
When I’m writing, quality is the number one goal, not speed. Articles always take longer to write than I want them to. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write amazing 2,000 word articles in 20 minutes, but today is not that day.
As a general rule I spend how ever long it takes to get into Flow. Sometimes it takes 5 minutes, sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes it just won’t come. When it does, I write until it ends or until I’m done. Sometimes this means writing for several hours non-stop. Occasionally I stay up until 3 am writing, not because I want to, but because the Flow is there and I don’t want to let it go.
Yes, I do capitalize the word Flow as if it were some ethereal being hovering just outside the realm of consciousness, because it is. Duh.
Staying up all night writing may not be the best advice in the world, and your significant other might not like it, but it does come with a bit of “I’m so cool, working while all those mere mortals are sleeping” flair.
Just as we can wear ourselves out by switching tasks too much, we can let our brains know it’s time to get down to business by creating a writing ritual. (Say that 10 times fast.)
Some people I know get up and write first thing, before they even brush their teeth (eww). Some people listen to music, others do some reading of an unrelated material beforehand, for example, reading fiction if they’re writing non-fiction and vice versa.
My rituals vary to some degree, depending on whether or not I’m traveling, but there are a few mainstays that I’ve found to be effective almost 100% of the time….
1) Yerba Mate Tea- It’s an acquired taste- at first it bears a striking resemblance to old grass clippings- but it does grow on you. It has much less caffeine than coffee, but it’s packed with theobromine and theophylline, two potent nootropics. I find that Yerba Mate provides a mental edge far longer than coffee, and without the subsequent crash.
2) Stretching/Pushups/Jumping Jacks- I get stiff as hell sitting at a computer, so I get up and do a few quick exercises pretty often. I sometimes write standing up to combat stiffness as well.
3) Music without words- I don’t do this all the time, but sometimes, especially when I’m tired, it helps me to get into Flow. Words distract me, so I usually go with Glitch Mob or Lion N’ Prime Beats. I’ve tried classical music at times (they say it makes you smarter) but I apparently lack the couth to enjoy it.
Note: Unlike green tea Yerba Mate is low in tannins, so it can be made strong like coffee without becoming nasty and bitter. You can get a wicked buzz working if you let it steep for 30 minutes or longer.
Don’t underestimate the effect your surroundings can have on your writing. As this is different for everyone, the best way to find out what works for you is to try out a bunch of different environments. As you work, pay attention to your productivity; identify distractions… a messy house, stacks of paper, noises, people blabbing, whatever, and do your best to eliminate them.
Some do their best work in public places like coffee houses or parks, others can only write in complete solitude and silence. Personally, I’m more on the solitary side. I do my best writing at my office away from home, or at my kitchen table when everyone else is asleep. Writing in coffee shops distracts me and makes me uncomfortable, I get caught up watching people or unconsciously eavesdropping on their conversations (you know you do it too!). Worst of all is when I catch the eye of an attractive woman and try to look sexy. This is always a fruitless endeavor. Only writers think writing is sexy.
I travel a good bit, and I usually need the internet for research, so rather than using these public places I use the personal hotspot on my phone whenever possible and work from the balcony or kitchen table of my hotel.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”
George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons
As much as it pains me to say this, there are actually real, living, breathing people who walk the earth day-in and day-out who don’t read books. I know, crazy right?! Now I don’t know what the hell these people do with their time, but I know what they ought to do, READ.
Reading books is hands down THE #1 thing you can do to improve your writing. Don’t get me wrong, blogs are great (especially this one) but man cannot live on blogs alone. Books- those miraculous, wonderful, rigid, little paper squares have the power to change lives; to open doors to new insights and experiences, to teach us how to behave and how to love.
Books let us learn from the past, how the ancient stoics lived lives not too different from our own, how for hundreds or thousands of years we have done the same stupid shit over and over again, and how to make better mistakes in the future. Books help us understand life and why we’re here. They show us how to create a life full of purpose- how to live, and how to die.
“There is no friend as loyal as a book.”
If you don’t read, please start now. Read far and wide, not just as a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself. Not only will it make you a better writer, but a better person as well.
What do you think? Is writer’s block real or just an illusion?