B is for Block
Yes, we’ve all been there. Staring at the blank screen of a computer that seems to mirror the blankness of our mind at that particular moment, unable to think of what to say next, the merciless white expanse of a new word document staring back at us. Anything we do write makes us immediately cringe and hold down the delete key.
This is not, perhaps, the most joyous of writing-related topics, but it is nonetheless an experience shared by most of us who dedicate time to the craft of writing. In my case, writer’s block seems to be a recurring illness or nightmare, but I am comforted by the fact that many of my fellow Aphraites and other writing friends share similar experiences. So, what causes it? Why do we get writer’s block? And how can we get out of it - how can we entice the words back again, get them flowing?
I have noticed that, for me, a number of things seem to be factors in triggering a bout of writer’s block. Fundamentally, though, they fall into two main categories: Loss of Motivation, and Loss of Momentum.
Regarding loss of momentum, one important factor is sustained interruption. If I am interrupted for a more or less prolonged period of time from a piece of writing I am working on – for example by a paid job coming along – this can distract me to the point where I get completely taken out of the ‘headspace’ of my novel (or screenplay, or short story, or whatever) and find it hard to find a way back in. It seems irrelevant, somehow, alien to me. I can barely remember why I thought it was so important and the characters no longer grip me in the same way.
This can turn out to be a problem for freelancers such as myself, as we often feel (rightly or not) that we cannot afford to turn down opportunities when they come along and we tend to prioritise paid work over our – usually unpaid – writing.
Similarly, if we put a piece of writing to one side to let it lie fallow for a while and come back to it later with fresh eyes (something I am a big believer in, especially for longer pieces such as novels), there is a danger of leaving it rest for too long and losing the momentum we all need to actually get it finished. How many of us have a completed first draft of something lying in a folder somewhere in the remote backwaters of our computer (or in a dusty shoe box in the bottom drawer of the desk in the attic)? Something we are going to finish editing, at some point. One day. Just as soon as we have.... done everything else we have to do. Except that, of course, that day never comes. Which ties into another factor I find causes loss of momentum (and of which I also have substantial personal experience): procrastination.
As for loss of motivation, on the whole in my experience it is caused either by our own infallible friend The Censor sitting on our shoulder and whispering foul things into our ear, or by somebody else doing the same. In short, the hurtful things we tell ourselves or the hurtful things other people tell us. These people can be teachers, critics, editors, friends, relatives or anyone else, and they often believe they are being kind and helpful. Similarly, continued rejection from literary magazines and competitions can discourage even the hardiest and most hopeful among us, leading to a loss of motivation. Personally, I find that reading too much – or indeed any more at all – on how difficult it is to get published also gives me a sense of “Oh what the hell’s the point?”. I get depressed and bam! Blocked again.
So what can we do about all this? For sure, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ remedy – because writing is, above all else, an intensely personal process – but here are some of my own suggestions:
Ø To protect ourselves and our sacred space. However hard it may be, to draw a magic circle around ourselves in chalk when we sit down to write and to banish all Censors – internal and external – beyond its confines.
Ø To turn off the phone, internet, door bell and family for the amount of time we have set aside, on any given occasion, for writing. Everything else will just have to wait.
Ø To buy, beg, borrow or steal (well, okay, not the latter) a copy of Julia Cameron’s seminal text on how to ‘un-block’, The Artist’s Way, and actually follow it (and finish it). If you read no other ‘how-to’ book on writing, make this the one you read. (I also loved Stephen King’s On Writing, but Julia Cameron deals specifically with the problem of writer’s block.)
Ø To write poetry, a diary, flash fiction, songs, or something completely different from what we are used to. To try automatic writing. Anything that we can just write without censoring ourselves, for even 10 or 15 minutes a day, to get those words flowing again. I find poetry works really well for me; it loosens up some part of my mind that gets stiff when I am blocked.
Ø To read, read, read. To read the stuff we love – we really love – will make us want to write again.
Ø To go back and re-read the last piece of writing we were working on before we got blocked. Often it’s not as unsalvageable as we remember.
Ø To cling at straws - yes! Encouragement, victories (however small) and near-misses. To remember and re-read a piece of writing we felt quite happy with. To copy out on a piece of paper and stick up in clear view of where we work whatever nice things may have been said of our writing. For example: I had a fabulous English tutor at university who had very high standards. She once wrote of me in an end-of-year report, “She writes well.” Oh! I still thrill at it when I think of those words. I don’t think I have ever had such a good compliment from anyone, ever. Now, to somebody else that might seem nuts, but to me it actually means something. So yes, let’s cling at straws. If that’s all there is, goddamnit, let’s cling at straws.
Ø And finally, to remember that we’re not alone in our blockedness. Hundreds of thousands – probably millions – of other people are feeling the same way as us. Having ‘dry’ periods is something that all creative artists have to deal with, whatever their field. Even the Greats. By uniting and seeking support from other writers, we can help each other get through to the other side. So, join a writing or reading group... or simply pay a visit to Cafe Aphra.
By Sara Roberts