Do the words make you wince?
If you belong to that blessed, miraculous group of people who can write anywhere, anytime, who are able to switch themselves on into a writing mood like a light-switch, then your answer will be No. But if you’re like me, and belong to that cursed, demonic group who kill themselves writing that first sentence, these words will make you grimace with a heartache that plunges deeper than the Cayman Trough.
But what is writer’s block, and why do many writers-damn good ones—suffer from it? Some think the reason is old plain laziness or lack of discipline, but I disagree. The reason is more complex. I can’t help remembering my creative writing professor back in college—a published author of many mystery novels who suddenly stopped writing for eight long years simply because he “froze at the computer and couldn’t put a word down. "
Only God knows the dark mechanics that kept my professor from writing for such a long time, so I can only speak for myself.
So here it goes. What is writer’s block? Following the famous editorial advice, instead of “telling" you, I will “show" you.
Picture in your mind a beautiful winter morning, snow falling from the window, the office toasty warm, the house empty and quite. It’s just me and writer’s block:
9:30 I sit at the computer, ready to write that piece of literature that will bring me fame and riches (okay, no need to be greedy, I’ll settle for riches).
9:31 I decide I better answer my emails first, get them out of my mind (yeah, right).
10:00 I’m thirsty. I better make myself some tea. Writers drink hot beverages, don’t they?
10:05 I’m back at the computer. I take a sip of my tea and suddenly remember all the things I should be doing instead of writing: wash the rabbit hutches, purchase moist wipes for my husband’s glasses, do the laundry, vacuum the bedrooms, feed the fish… somehow there’s no end to this list.
10:25 I stare at the blank monitor. I loathe myself.
10:30 I’m hungry. I’ll have an early lunch (someone should conduct a study about frustrated writers and overeating).
10:50 I glare at the sign on my desk “A Writer Is Someone Who Writes Everyday, " and try to set it to flames with my mind power.
11:00 I put Vivaldi on the stereo (studies have shown baroque music “expands" the mind).
You get the picture. This is writer’s block. This is what happens when I break the habit of writing everyday and disconnect myself from my current project. I don’t know about you, but when I don’t write, the consequences are catastrophic. I hate the world. I snap at people (my husband is my favourite victim). I feel trapped in a box, unable to breathe. If I were the sort of person who went to pubs, I would surely start a brawl.
But what causes writer’s block?
Almost always, it is fear. Plain and simple. F-E-A-R.
Fear of not being good enough.
Fear of not being able to write that perfect sentence that will impress the reader. No wonder it blocks! How can you write freely and impress people at the same time? So in order to lift the block, you need to get rid of that fear. It is easier said than done, I know, but I will give you a few practical tips that will help you overcome it, based on probably the best book on writing in the market today, Julia Cameron’s The Right To Write. If these tips have worked for me, they can work for you, too.
1. Keep a journal and write 3 pages of anything that comes to your mind each morning. Strictly stream-of-consciousness stuff. The idea is to drain your brain of all the clutter so that when you sit at the computer to do the actual writing, you’ll be able to do it with a clear head. You don’t feel like writing this morning? Your writing sucks? You feel fat? You hate your neighbour? Write it down. By the way, if you feel like clobbering someone to death with a medieval flail, add that too. Write down your dreams, your plans, your fears. The idea is to keep writing non-stop until you have fill those 3 pages. Remember to do it in the morning. If you write in your journal at night you’ll probably go over what you did during the day and this will defeat the purpose. The idea is to positively affect your day by writing those pages in the morning. By training your mind to do this each morning, you will not only make writing more approachable, but also more disciplined.
2. Don’t edit as you write. If you can’t keep your neurotic, perfectionist urges under control, then at least keep them to an absolute minimum. Editing as you write is like editing a movie and filming it at the same time. It can become pathological. Editing, re-editing, searching for that flawless sentence that will create that immaculate paragraph. Well, do you want to know something? It won’t happen. No matter how many times you try to improve it, there will be always room for improvement. Ultimately, if you want to finish that first draft, you’ll have to trust yourself and simply let it go. Remember that a first draft is just that, a first draft. Once you’ve finished that first draft then you can polish and change and edit all you want.
3. Set yourself a small quota everyday. You don’t have to finish a whole chapter in one sitting. Just write 2 pages, or 1, or even just a paragraph. The important thing here is to meet that daily quota. It’s amazing how thinking like this can affect your brain. It’s like with exercise. If you tell yourself, “Oh no, I have to exercise for one whole hour, " this will block you. But if you think, “I’ll only exercise 20 minutes, " the work becomes more approachable and you’ll stick with it. The key here is to create the habit a little step at a time. This daily quota will allow you to feel “guilt-free" for the rest of the day, making it possible for you to spend happier times with your family and do other things. In other words, if you stick to your writing schedule, you’ll be able to enjoy life.
4. Have the right sense of direction. This is probably one of Cameron’s most powerful advice. Don’t think that you have to think something up, that you have to create something. Instead, think that the words, plots, characters are already there suspended in some other dimension, and all you have to do is listen intently and write the words down as if taking dictation. Thinking like this will immediately lift a heavy load off your shoulders. It will make you feel free of responsibility and allow your writing to flow easier.
5. Find a support group. Artistic souls need artistic soul mates. If there isn’t any support group you like, start your own, like I did. As I write this article, I’m sitting at a café with 3 writer friends. We meet every Friday morning from 10 to 12. These meetings are incredibly productive, maybe for the simple reason that I HAVE to write. I mean, face it, not writing alone at home is bad, but not writing in front of your writer friends would be a disgrace. Who wants to be a loser? Also, writers need to get out of their homes and experience a change of scene. Writing at a café makes writing fun.
6. Give your brain high quality foods: Read great books on all types of subjects. I read astronomy, cosmology, history, comparative religion, physics, metaphysics. Listen to music. Music can trigger powerful inspiration. But please, not heavy metal! Put your favourite composer on the stereo, close your eyes, and let your mind drift. This can be a powerful form of meditation. I assure you scenes of future books will appear in your mind, characters will talk, ideas for your present project will present themselves. Visit museums, flower shops, go to the theatre, take walks and observe nature. All these things will enrich your life and your mind, automatically giving your writing more energy and depth.
Don’t be afraid. Just write. Just WRITE. Just describe the movie in your head and put the words down. In the meantime I’ll try to apply these wise words to myself, and not give the evil eye to the “A Writer Is Someone Who Writes Everyday" sign on my desk.
Mayra Calvani is an author and book reviewer. Visit her website and subscribe to her free monthly newsletter, The Fountain Pen: http://www.mayracalvani.com .
©2007. Mayra Calvani / All Rights Reserved