Do other professions have similar issues to writers’ block? Is there such a thing as Doctors’ Dread? Opticians’ Obstruction? Grocers’ Groan?
And how should it be written? Is it a block applying potentially to all writers, therefore “Writers’ Block” or does this debilitating condition specifically refer to the struggles of solitary individual writers, therefore “Writer’s Block”?
Or should it even be “Bloc”? As in a collective, alliance or coalition? Doesn’t that put a different slant on the concept? It truly is a unifying condition because, whatever it means, and however it is written, I know one thing for certain. Pretty much all writers, often at unexpected points in their writing lives, will suffer from writers’ block.
Fundamentally though, it doesn’t matter as to the whys and wherefores of the name. What does matter is what it does to us. It can be truly paralysing. Time-wasting. Annoying. And frustrating enough to make you want to pack it all in and find yourself a far less demanding pastime or career.
It isn’t necessarily a short-term problem either - or something that happens when you’re sleepy or can’t concentrate because you’re attempting to write on a busy train. It can creep up in an environment of perfect calm. It can pounce when you’re well-rested and have set time to one side for the purpose of writing. It seems to relish planting buckets of self-doubt into your usually fertile and industrious mind.
It can hit before you’ve even set pen to paper, part way through a paragraph, or even when you’re speeding to a piece’s conclusion. One of my most frustrating moments involved my feeble attempts to name a character in a chapter’s final paragraph. It took more than three days to get it right. The silver lining to this particular cloud is that this particular occurrence of block forced me to change my writing technique and routines for the better.
(Incidentally, if you’re the type of writer who needs to complete sentence one to perfection before allowing yourself to move on to sentence two… and if you’re struggling to get something right, just try leaving a gap and moving on. I often make a note and highlight it, for example - ‘This is where they walk across the beach and end up at the Neolithic site’. I almost always come back the following day and shake my head in puzzlement at my previously frozen state.)
The great thing about the universality of this terrible condition is that almost every hobbyist or career writer can identify with how it makes us feel, and how crippling it can be. That means empathy, and it also means community.
So, here are a few bits of advice that all of us could potentially find useful. Some/all may be obvious, but there’s no harm in re-stating the obvious. We’re only human. We forget. And sometimes it is the block itself that loves to sabotage our creativity - by forcing that forgetfulness.
If you always write on your laptop at the kitchen table, try moving the laptop to your bed, or to the sofa, or try attaching a keyboard and monitor and sitting at the desk. Or if you always write on the laptop, get yourself a little notebook, write in longhand and type up later.
With whatever writing tool/s you prefer, get yourself comfortable. Put on the radio and just write down a few lyrics, or make notes of the DJ’s inane drivel. Or put the TV on and extract what you can from whatever you find. I also go through songs inside my head and write alternative lyrics. Often by the end of all this copying and daft wordplay, I’m ready for the more serious stuff.
Take a break, even if you don’t think you need one. It’s a very obvious suggestion, but it does work. Twenty minutes is long enough to get yourself a drink, and to wander round your home giving your eyes and your body a change of scene.
Eat something. Preferably something juicy - like an orange. There’s a good chance that as soon as you get those fingers mucky, your brain will suddenly rebel and switch itself back on again. Pesky things, these brains of ours.
In preparation for potential bouts of block, keep notepads and pencils in every room and jot down abstract thoughts that jump into your head. That way, when you’re struggling for ideas in the future, you can just gather up your notepads and see what you can find. The chances are that if an idea connected with you in the past, it may also mean something in the future.
I’ve had great results from opening a reference book at random and taking some words from that page. Perhaps pretend your character is speaking those words. Not so long ago I used this technique and had my character saying ‘Fear and Loathing in Birmingham? More like Lustful Loathing in Liverpool’. In the end, I didn’t use it in the piece, but it made me smile and was enough to get me going again.
Do some physical exercise. Preferably something that gets the body and soul tingling, and out of breath.
Spend some time with animals or children. I don’t know the proper term for this, but it certainly isn’t a form of ‘dumbing down’. To me it just encourages more of a non-intellectual response to life. It can help simplify what’s going on in your head and in your writing. Perhaps you could put yourself into the same position as the creature? How might two cats converse? What goes on in the mind of a toddler?
Just write - even if it is complete rubbish. You will probably produce unreadable trash for the first few paragraphs or so because your mind isn’t yet in the right place. But it isn’t impossible that some of it may be useable, or even be pure gold. But the important thing is to write without demanding anything of yourself. No perfectionism and no preparation.
Ask a fellow writer to read your work. Supportive writers are the best writers. This isn’t a competition. There’s room for us all, and the more we give, the more we get back. I’m not ashamed to say that some of my best ideas began their lives in the comments of my writing buddies.
I would love to hear your views. We’re all different and we all discover our own solutions to our own specific problems.
So, please comment. Who knows? Your comment may be exactly what a struggling writer-to-be is needing to hear. And on day, you may be that struggling writer.
More on Wednesday. Please follow, and don’t miss any more writing-related revelry in the future!
“Every puffling is precious.”