MFA Sunday School (Twelve: Getting Past Writer’s Block)
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Everyone goes through it: writer’s block. It almost sounds like a disease, and it certainly feels like a disease; something akin to the verbal flu where your head is stuffy with unspoken thoughts and your eyes are runny from staring at the computer screen. Wanting to write and not being able to write sucks. Needing that connection that comes after you hit publish on a post but unable to come up with a single post idea sucks too.
I think there are two sides to writer’s block: (1) there are the times that you know what you have to write and you can’t find the words to say what you need to say. And then (2) the times when you can’t find your entrance, your topic, your next great idea. Both are frustrating, but I think they need to be treated differently. In one case, you need a decongestant and in the other, you need an expectorant, and the mistake is taking the wrong medicine or bombing everything to hell with NyQuil.
Yes, NyQuil helps if really have all those cold symptoms, but too many times, we take it because we’re desperate for relief (and sleep). Of course, if you believe people like my doctor, treating colds this way does more damage than good in the long run even if it works in the short term. Treating a single symptom takes more time, takes long-term maintenance, but the tradeoff is that you rarely if ever get a cold because you have a strong immune system. Treating symptoms you don’t even have takes less time and doesn’t require maintenance, but you end up missing more of life because your immune system is shot to hell.
Now apply all of this to writing.
First, let’s treat Problem #1 — writing stuffiness. The words are in your brain, the ideas are there, you just can’t commit them to paragraphs. You’re spending a lot of time writing and then erasing. Or you can technically write, but it’s all coming out as garbage. Or you think it’s garbage, but think of it more like releasing excess mucous that it getting you closer to easier breathing.
Thomas Edison said: “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”* And that’s sort of how I feel about that type of writing. It doesn’t work and you know it doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have worth. It’s just the garbage you need to write in order to get to the perfect draft. So the perfect version isn’t coming on your timetable; sorry about that. But if you reframe the way you look at this time period, you’ll embrace it (even if you’re frustrated by it) because you know it’s one of those things you need to go through in order to get to that gorgeous, juicy writing.
Doctor’s orders: just keep writing. Don’t delete. Save all these drafts because you can sometimes mine from them later. When you really get stuck, open a new document and without bringing anything over from the document you were working on, start trying to write the piece again utilizing only your memory. When that fails, change something drastic: make your main character a boy instead of a girl, change the setting, or write the entire post in rhyme. Sometimes that can knock loose the right words with a big change.
Those drafts that go unused aren’t throwaway, they’re all part of the process to bring you to the words you want. Reframe how you think about writer’s block and realize that sometimes you need to go through these periods to record all the ways it won’t work in order to find how the piece will work.
Problem #2 — brain thickness. You can’t seem to get ideas to penetrate your brain or ideas to start flowing, so the desire to write sits in your brain like thick, immobile mucous.
These are those times when you sit and stare at the screen, wishing you knew how to start that young adult novel you’ve sort of dreamed up. Or you know you want to write, but you can’t think of anything to write about. Or you need to turn in a 500-word article by Thursday, but you have no idea how to get it started.
Doctor’s orders: move away from the computer but not too far away. Read a book in the same vein to get you in the mood (in other words, if you’re going to write a young adult novel, read some good young adult fiction). Go watch a movie. Go on a walk. Skip over to a museum that you’ve been wanting to explore (but take a notebook with you — or better yet, your laptop). Many times, just being ensconced in a related activity jars your brain to start the writing project you were wasting time not starting when you were just staring at the computer. But even if it doesn’t have an instantaneous effect, don’t feel guilty about using this time or think of it as time you’re not working. All of these moments are part of the process as well.
It is sometimes difficult for me to place reading a book over working on a chapter because at the end of working on a chapter, I can see progress. Whereas reading the book may be enjoyable, but I can’t clearly see what I accomplished that day. Still, taking in information and experiencing life and art feeds our writing. It’s the fuel you put in your writing tank that works the engine. At some point, you need to shut out the external distractions in order to get writing done, but when you’re feeling stuffy, it’s not the right time. Thin the mental mucous with a related-activity expectorant.
Your immune system: Daily writing goes a long way to helping keep you in a project so you don’t always feel like you need to get back into it. Follow these guidelines to ensure that you write a little bit every day. Think of it as your literary vitamin. During times when you absolutely can’t write, make sure you read something that could be construed as doing research. That way, you’ll continue to think about your project even while you’re away from it.
Homework: none this week. Just keep writing.
* It may actually be a myth that he said it, but it works well here.