Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Tactical Tuesday~Overcoming Writer's Block

We've all had it. Even Anne Lamott has. In her wonderful writing book, Bird by Bird (which you all ought to pick up, if you haven't), Lamott devotes an entire chapter to it. She says:

"Writer's block is going to happen to you. You will read what little you've written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit. A blissfully productive manic stage may come to a screeching halt, and all of a sudden you realize you're Wile E. Coyote and you've run off the cliff and are a second away from having to look down."
Boy, that's true. Writer's block can be paralyzing. Untreated, it can lead to frustation, panic, self-hatred, even self-destruction. Look at me, am I smiling? No. I am dead serious. But fortunately, others have walked this road before you. So please welcome Flusters McKnucklesby as he spurs us on to tackle the ever-dreaded Writer's Block.

Beating Writer's Block

What causes Writer's Block? Many things, but I think it can be boiled down to two words: Fear and Stress.

Fear of...

The Second-Novel Slump
Everyone Finding Out You're a Big Fat Fraud
What Mom/Dad/The Ex/The Spouse/Aunt Ethel Will Think
Not Being Original
Creating Shit
Not Creating Anything

Stress from...

Personal Problems
Traumatic or Depressing World Events
All the Fears Listed Above
Each Progressing Day of the Writer's Block

Successful Strategies for Wiping Out Writer's Block

Butt in Chair
The first thing to try is to force yourself to sit down and spew out WHATEVER. Jodi Picoult claims: "I can edit a bad page. I can't edit a blank page." Well said. Glue your butt to the chair, and say: "I can write today, or I can kill myself." (Don't remember where I heard that. Some writing book or another, or maybe a writer friend of mine. If you know who said this, pop in on the comments and lemme know, wouldja?)

Remove Distractions... or Remove Yourself
When I was writing my first draft, I went to the library each day with a great little device called The AlphaSmart. The AlphaSmart cannot do anything but type. No internet, no video poker, no virtual pinball or Spider Solitaire. So the machine itself is a very dull little piece of equipment. The library is pretty much a quiet and unexciting place (as long as you don't cheat and wander the stacks... not that I've ever been guilty of that). No toast to make, no phone to answer, no laundry to do, no baseboards to scrub with a toothbrush to avoid writing.

The library/AlphaSmart strategy may not work for you. Po Bronson wrote the full draft of Bombardiers locked in a closet listening to R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" over, and over, and OVER again.

But hey... in the throes of Writer's Block, anything's worth a try.

Plan Ahead for It
Keep a notebook or file of ideas or story openings. When you're feeling blocked, sift through your ideas. This is not cheating. This is smart writing. Planning ahead is the same as packing a healthy lunch for yourself so you don't get superhungry and binge at Jack In The Box. Not that... um... yeah.

If you can't write, READ. Dog-ear pages that appeal to you in some way. Steal someone else's killer opening line and run with it in your own direction. That's not cheating either... that's being inspired. (But don't forget, you'll have to change the line at the end! It really does belong to the other author, sigh...)

Mix It Up A Bit
A friend of mine swears she can stop writer's block in its tracks simply by "moving locale." She moves her laptop to another part of the house, or goes outside with it. Just that change of setting seems to help her blast through the writer's block.

You could also try writing in longhand instead of the computer, or vice versa. Try a new pen in an interesting shade, or odd colored paper. Try dictating into a tape recorder. Instead of using your word processor, compose an email addressed to a friend... then mail it to yourself instead!

Work on a different project. If you've got a novel going... set it aside and try a short story or a poem. What you find may be the key to unlock the "blocked" part of your novel.

Try the Drastic and Unexpected
When Stephen King was writing The Stand, he began to panic one day because he felt the book was out of control. Too many characters and too many plotlines were bogging down his story. If I recall correctly, he was blocked for quite some time. Finally one day during a walk, the idea came to him: kill half my characters.

That day he went home and wrote the scene in which one of the characters opens a closet and sets off a bomb that indeed kills many of the major characters. Once he'd done this, King was able to write to the end.

Of course, you don't need to blow up your characters... your mileage may vary depending upon the type of book you're writing. But the unexpected or drastic twist may be just what you need to jumpstart your writing again.

If All Else Fails, Accept It... and Pamper Yourself
Go for a run. Take a long nap. Enjoy some tea or a long bath or an afternoon at the pool. Play Clue with your kids or kick the soccer ball around. All these things will make you feel better and will improve your general health. When you're feeling good, your brain will work better.

Have a wonderful Tuesday, everyone! May your day be writer's-block-free!