How to Beat Writer's Block

Thursday, November 15, 2018

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.

It’s challenging to muster such energy each day, especially when items on your to-do list clamor for attention. No one assigns us to be creative, but to be human is to be a creator, so you should make sure creativity is at the top of your to-do list and that writer’s block doesn’t become a crutch. If you’ve resolved to finally write that book that’s calling out to you, here are some writing tips to bolster your creative resolve.

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Employ Word Sprints

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. Catapult over your inhibitions and illuminate every stray 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, join in a local write-in, or on your own.

Try the List-Making Method

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.

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.

Believe in Yourself

Some writers get writers block because they think they don’t have anything important enough to say, or they don’t believe they have the right high falutin’ literary words to tell their story. Or, they fear the world will hate their work. It’s a natural fear. After all, when we tell others we’re writers, people rarely give us a warm hug of approval and praise. They usually ask something like, “Are you published?” Or, worse, they simply say, “Oh.”

Agatha Christie said that even after she’d written ten books, she didn’t really consider herself a “bona fide author.” You earn your bona fides each time you pick up a pen and write your story, however. You’re a writer because you write. There’s no other definition.

So honor the impetus that bids you to write. Tell yourself you’re a writer. Tell the world you’re a writer. And never doubt it.

Don’t Wait for Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It’s powerful enough to move mountains. When it strikes, it carries an author forward like the rushing torrents of a flooded river. And yet, if you wait for it, nothing happens.

Authors invoked the muse of Greek mythology to sing stories into their ears, but I’d like to recast this muse. The muse doesn’t sing the words of a story to you; the muse is conjured in the telling.

“A writer is either compelled to write or not,” said Toni Morrison. “If I waited for inspiration I wouldn't really be a writer.”

There's no such thing as writer's block. You are your own muse. Let the blank page be a spigot for all of the dramatic, ornery, lyrical, and shocking thoughts in your head that are eager to come out. The words you create every day are each fruit-bearing kernels of inspiration. Each word wants more and more words to follow.

Develop a Routine

It’s good to form a routine because a routine is a plan of dedication. A routine helps obliterate obstacles hindering you from writing.

But it’s even more than that. When you write during a certain time each day, and in an environment designated solely for rumination, you experience creative benefits. The regularity of time and place serves as an invitation for your mind to walk through the doorways of your imagination and fully concentrate on your story. Routines help to trigger cognitive cues that are associated with your story, cloaking you in the ideas, images, feelings, and sentences that are swirling in your subconscious. If you anoint a specific time and place for writing, it’s easier to transcend the intrusive fretfulness of life and rise above its cacophony. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.

Create Goals and Stick to Deadlines

The words goal and deadline might not ring with any poetic allure, but these two words are perhaps the most important concepts in living the artistic life. Goals are the lighthouse that guides the boat to shore. Without a clear goal, you’re likely to find a million ways of talking yourself out of committing to achievement.

Map out your writing goals for the year—big goals and all of the milestones that lead up to them. Pin a piece of paper with your goals over your writing desk.

You don’t need to write 50,000 words each month, of course, but think about what you can do each day on a regular basis. The NaNoWriMo website actually has goal trackers you can use year round. Can you revise your novel for an hour each day? Okay, then set a goal of 30 hours of revision in a month and track yourself each day. Can you write 250 words a day? Then set a goal of 7,500 words in a month (if you write 7,500 words a month, you’ll write 80,000 words in a year, which is a good-sized novel). Even a snail can travel a great distance if it moves forward each day.

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Plan to Overcome Lapses

Lapses are inevitable. Most people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions, largely because when they lapse, they quit. After a lapse, it’s important to forgive yourself and start fresh so that a bad week of writing doesn’t lead to a bad month of writing, which then turns into a bad year.

We’re most likely to set new goals at the beginning of each new year, but what if you re-conceptualize New Year’s resolutions into weekly or monthly resolutions so that if you lapse, you re-adjust your goals and start again? Don’t wait a whole year to start your writing resolutions again; restart your goals next week.

Develop a Writing Community

Solitude plays an important element in writing, but if you trace the history of literature, you realize how it takes a veritable village to write a book. Virginia Woolf ‘s singular aesthetic was nurtured during nights of conversation with her spirited Bloomsbury crowd. Hemingway fed off the creative energy of Paris in the 20s, not to mention the writing advice of Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson.

Finding like-minded creative friends is important. “None of us is as smart as all of us,” the saying goes. Meeting regularly to write with others or get feedback is important not just for your creativity, it also keeps you accountable. Your writing community can be a sounding board, and a source of inspiration and support.

Take Breaks

There’s a moment that occurs in every writer’s life when your fingers begin to cramp into a claw-like formation as you madly type toward another word-count milestone. “Perspiration trumps inspiration,” you chant, but the problem is that your brain is completely fried.

Every once in a while, it’s good to leave your writing boot camp. The mind needs to wander and feel unfettered. Answers tend to present themselves when you’ve stopped trying to figure them out. Indulge in play—on and off the page—to replenish your creative spirit.

Accept the Mess

The creative process isn’t neat, no matter how you approach it. Writers tend to write amidst stacks of paper and books. Without chaos, there is no creation. Just look at a kitchen after a feast. So give yourself a break and accept the mess—of your story and your house. You won't regret not cleaning your house more on your deathbed, but you might regret never finishing that novel. Accept the mess and clean up later. After you’re done writing.

Be Vulnerable. Be Defiant.

The urge to be a writer is a generous act at its core: we want to share our story with others, to give them a world that will open doors to insights and flights of the imagination. The only way to achieve that is through openness. A good story occurs when an author travels, or even plummets, into the depths of vulnerability in the search of truths that otherwise go untold. An artist opens the closets, dares to go into the dark basements, and rummages through the attics.

Such vulnerability requires the boldness of a defiant spirit because you have to write your story by your rules. If you put your story in a cage of others’ rules, your imagination will always reside behind bars.

“We are making birds, not bird cages,” said the poet Dean Young.

Fail Better

You might say writing is a special training ground of failure. “Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time,” said Philip Roth, who, despite all of his whiffs, won such awards as the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

The word “fail” is fraught with negativity and downright shame, but failure, especially in writing, isn’t necessarily any of those things. In fact, failure is the breeding ground of innovation if you approach it with the mindset of experimentation. It's a way to test an idea, learn from it, and move on to the next experiment. Creative thought is inherently a trial-and-error process, and failing better is just the desire to see, and in seeing, to learn.

The world is always offering us new sources of materials. We’re constantly being given the opportunity to make and remake ourselves with the aid of a story’s lens to see the world through.

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. Write. Write all year. Write all decade. Keep writing.

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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.