Monday, 2 August 2010

Writer's block

Writer's block is the writer's bête noire. It is that fearful, frustrating episode where he sits down at the writing desk, pulls out a clean, white sheet of foolscap, poises with pen hovering and suddenly the mind goes blank. Nothing happens. No ideas come. The more he forces himself, the more nothing happens. What follows is doodling, mild cursing, staring out the window, blaming the cat, and finally giving up and making a sandwich.

What do you do to overcome writer's block? How do you keep it from happening in the first place?

There are quite a few remedies. My own is what I call the "leave the table hungry method". When I'm writing, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I want to say in a session, but I'm always careful to quit work before I've set it all down. That way, I'm never at a loss at how to start the next day because I still have some work to finish up. By the time I'm through with that, I've got the creative juices flowing and it's relatively easy to come up with new thoughts.

Another way of overcoming writer's block is good, old-fashioned brainstorming. Get a large sheet of paper or a big stack of index cards and start writing down ideas. It doesn't matter how stupid they are or how irrelevant they are to the task at hand. Just write them down; something will click.

Writing exercises are another good tool. Grab an image off the Web and write a short story about it. Make up a back story for a character you see in a television commercial. Compose a murder mystery around a matchbook you find in a drawer. There are even apps to help you with this. On my iGoogle page I keep a Writer's Idea Bank, which is a gadget that throws out random story ideas. What it spews out is gibberish, but it does get the grey matter going.

Part of the problem might be that you only have one project and it's sucking up all the creative energy. Try having two or three projects on the boil. That way, if one isn't going anywhere, you can work on the others. Don't overdo it, however, or you'll end up like me with a To Do list that never gets shorter.

Discipline is also a factor. Do you write when the muse strikes you? Is she striking often enough? Not at all? The way to handle this is to set up a routine for writing. Pick a set time and place each day for writing. Make it as solid a routine as your day job so that your brain learns that this is writing time. Oddly, sometimes the problem is having too much writing time instead of too little. By setting a routine that says you will stop after so many hours or so many words, you not only set yourself a goal, but also avoid burning out.

If you become a professional writer, you'll soon discover the greatest antidote to writer's block: The deadline. When I turned pro, I learned that nothing makes me more creative than looking at the calendar and realising that I have a manuscript that has to be sent off TODAY. Inside of five minutes, I'm on a roll. Set your own personal deadlines and stick to them.

If all else fails, step away from your work and do something else. Make a cup of tea. Watch some bad television. Take the dog for a walk. Reconnect with your children. Look up the definition of "topiary". That's when ideas sneak up on you. Writing is a bit like diving; the best way to succeed is to not think about it.

Finally, remember that writer's block is a temporary condition. If you are a real writer, if you have something to say, then you will write because you have no choice. Sooner or later, the words will come. The trick is to be ready when they do.

1 comment:

  1. My pro days are past when I had to write copy for the radio newsreader at the top of the hour.
    I just write for my own benefit now, and currently I'm trying to bang out a 30 minute screenplay. So far not so good I'm afraid, but I haven't tried my favorite method for beating the block and writing dialogue; talking to myself.
    Usually I do that when I'm out driving and these days I don't even have to fear looking like a lunatic in this future age of bluetooth.
    I think you are absolutely right about the deadline forcing creativity, or at least content, and I need to set some of those for myself.