How to Beat Writer's Block

Thursday, November 09, 2017

I don’t believe in the notion of writer’s block. I think it’s too easy to end up building a twisted shrine to it—to proclaim the affliction, then festoon one’s writing life with it, saying, “I’m blocked,” over and over again, as if abdicating responsibility for creating the blockage and waiting for magical bolts of inspiration to come down from the sky and unstopper it all (which only happens in the movies, right?).

Sure, every writer faces impasses, if not outright walls, and the words don’t always flow. But there are many simple ways to overcome such moments. Over the years, I’ve led hundreds of “word sprints” during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—challenges to write as fast as possible in a set time, often with a prompt to get started—and I’ve never seen anyone who is unable to write. People tend to write at least 100 words in a simple five-minute sprint—and sometimes as many as 500. When people ask how to beat writer's block, well, if you put pen to paper and write one sentence, another sentence is likely to follow.

A word sprint invites you to turn off judgments by entering the flow of intuition that high-velocity writing taps into. As the clock is ticking, it’s important not to hesitate. Let thoughts race through your mind like whippets. Write with hurrious need. Catapult over your inhibitions and illuminate every stray, orphaned thought in your mind and allow it to erupt. Drench your page with ink.

Word sprints are an effective tool because more ideas are good for any creative endeavor. Each idea, no matter how bad or good, lays the ground for the next idea, and the next after that. Creativity is about connecting things—creating unusual juxtapositions and forming original associations of ideas. Such breakthroughs come from an approach of enlightened trial and error, of getting more ideas just for the sake of getting more ideas. You can do word sprints with a group during NaNoWriMo every November (just follow @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter or join in a local write-in) or on your own.

Ray Bradbury’s List-Making Method

There are many other ways to chop through the brambles of a creative lull as well. If I’m exploring the beginning of a story—or just want to come up with a new idea for a story—I sometimes turn to Ray Bradbury’s list-making method. When Bradbury first became a writer, he made long lists of nouns to trigger ideas. He said each person possesses a wealth of life experiences in their minds, and you just have to find a way to bring all of these things to the surface, recognize patterns, and read the tea leaves for your story. He did this by making lists of nouns. “Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness … speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page,” he said.

Once he’d written a list, Bradbury plumbed each word’s associations by writing what he called pensées about each noun, tiny prose poems or descriptive paragraphs of approximately 200 words that helped him examine each noun and dredge his subconscious in the process. “You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word?”

For example, here’s the list of nouns that sparked one of Bradbury’s more notable books:

THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.

The list looks like just a random assortment of words, but Bradbury found a pattern revolving around his “old love and fright” of circuses and carnivals. He remembered his first ride on a merry-go-round, “the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping.” As he reflected on the associations around the words, characters emerged and carried the story forward, and he ended up returning to that terrifying carousel from his youth in Something Wicked This Way Comes. The story wasn’t memoir, but one born from the friction in his life, a friction that he was only able to decipher by stitching together the pattern of the words.

I like doing an exercise like this because it offers a provocation. It’s a personal Rorschach test, a way to open those tightly shut doors of your mind and follow the surprising feather of a memory as it wafts through time’s secrets.

Exercises like these don’t have to be only focused on creating a new story idea. You might do something similar to warm up each day, just to get the pen moving on the page, or when you arrive at a patch of quicksand in your novel. Writing exercises can take you out of your usual frame, and sometimes the frame of the story is what holds it back most. The nice thing about prompts like these is that they feel like throwaway writing, so the pressure is diminished, and you can try something wild. Exercises also teach that much of writing happens on the fly. The conductor isn’t always waving his or her wand to orchestrate the symphony’s sounds. It’s good to chase your own notes, without direction, and let your ideas lead the way.

So, the next time you feel the mythological Writer’s Block creep into your mind, remember you’ve got a simple remedy. You can put your pen on the page and banish it.

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Grant Faulkner

Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He recently published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, a guide to helping people banish their Inner Editor, overcome writer’s block, and develop a lifelong creative mindset. The above is an excerpt from his book.