How to Cure Writer’s Block


How to Cure Writer’s Block

You guys know all about Emily Dickinson, right? Of course you do, you’re writers and you read stuff. You know Emily Dickinson was a total shut-in. You probably spent those fifteen minutes of your middle-grade English classes where she was introduced totally, and I mean totally, pitying Emily Dickinson. I mean, she was a shut-in. There were flies and poems about death and stuff.

Then you got older. You got a job, got a car, got a family maybe. And at some point in all this–some day where you sat back and realized you got a grand total of five minutes alone today, and you spent most of those five minutes trying to pay your electric bill by phone with your husband’s credit card, which you may or may not know the security code for–you realized.

Emily Dickinson’s life of shut-innery was starting to sound pretty goddamn good to you.

Not all of us get to just sit around the house and write whenever the mood strikes us. If you do, bully for you, but there’s even less of an excuse for you not to write. Most of us, if we don’t have jobs, have house duties, payment duties, cooking duties, kid duties. Real life, whether we want it to or not, has this irritating way of filling up our time. And when you finally do get to your typewriter/word processor/fancy journal, you realize you’re so damn tired, and you have no idea what to write.

Before you know it, you’ve been doing that for a week (even on your day off), and oh my goody gumdrops goober goodness, aren’t you just so delicate, and soooo creatively blocked, boo hoo hoo.

Here’s the trick, and where my post title starts getting involved: you are not a unique elegant snowflake. Your life duties are not so special they exempt you from writing. If you want to be a writer, you have to do one thing, and one thing only, to earn that title, and that is, unsurprisingly:

You gotta write.

Mind you, I don’t think writer’s block exists. At least, not in the way it’s frequently portrayed as existing: there’s not a lot of sitting around on your bum imploring the Muse, grasping a stylus in your ink-spattered hand, cursing the gods who have stolen your own particular herbal infusion of talent. If there were, I’d be doing it. It’s good theater.

Writer’s block is what happens (and note my italics on this) when you don’t write enough to keep going.

Writing, like any other task, has momentum. Yes, your own story-time isn’t the same as time in real life. However, when you’re writing something long, there are parts that are easy and hard to write, and you’ve got to write both of them, because who the fuck else is going to do it? And here’s the thing–

–if you stop for a while. If you put off writing that hard part for too long. You, like a bike wheel in a pothole. Are going. To get. Stuck.

On the other hand: if you keep chipping away at it, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. If you keep slogging away, even though you got three hours of sleep last night and your boyfriend expects dinner simply because he gets home later. If you devote your coffee break at work to writing a few sentences here and there. If you, in short, ignore every possible rule telling you to wait for inspiration to strike, and fit in as many minute wordgasms per day as possible:

You’ll get to a point, eventually, where inspiration does strike, and it all gets easy again. For a little while. Until it isn’t any more.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is no muse. There’s no divine voice of inspiration, no ‘right moment’ to write, no special place or music you need to produce a few lines of type on a blank page. Writing gets romanticized, demonized, portrayed as an art form of capricious difficulty, and it is none of these things. All it is, in its basest form, is stringing characters together until they form words and sentences on a piece of paper. A child can do it. Somewhere, a child does do it, probably better than you or me.

There are moments you’ll be able to do it better than others. (I do believe in inspiration, as long as you don’t sit around on your ass waiting for it). There are moments where you write something you think is pure fucking genius, and these are the moments you write for.

But these moments aren’t every moment (and I want you to think for a minute about other aspects of your life, and, really, when was the last time you expected those to all be heartbreaking works of staggering blah blah blah?) And the only way you’ll reach these moments–the only way you’ll ever ‘un-block’ yourself–is to keep writing, even though you’re blocked.

Do the sandwich guys as Subway stop making sandwiches whenever they feel they aren’t creatively sandwichwardly motivated?

No. Fuck no, they’ve gotta get paid. Why the hell do you think it’s so different for you?

Long story short: if you want to get over your writer’s block, force yourself to write something. If you want to get over a ‘hurdle’ in a particular story, force yourself to crawl over it, one irritating inch at a time. Who cares if you’re producing literary geenyus every moment of tappity-tapping? That’s what editing is for. If you want, you can come back and write the whole damn scene over later, when you have your Best of Bjork limited edition vinyl and your Bedazzled typewriter to hand and the yarrow stalks predict a good writing day.

For now, just get it done. And once it’s done, you can go on.

This is how you get anything, anything in the world, done.

Happy tough love motivational post Friday. I’m here to answer any questions you might have, field any invective you might throw, etc.


Writing Wednesday: Reading as a Spectator Sport


So, how many of you guys have Goodreads accounts?

I mention it because, even though I’ve had one forever, I’ve really only recently started spending time on there. (Here’s my account, if anyone wants to friend me up). It’s pretty cool. All those readers in what is essentially a social media site–talking about books, talking about writing, friending other readers who like similar books.

Sounds great, right?

And, I mean, it is. Of course it is. It’s fun, seeing what books you’ve read that other people have read, why they liked them (or didn’t). But it’s made me think.

Reading used to be a solitary thing. It used to be your entertainment when you were stuck somewhere–on a bus, at a doctor’s office, etc. You might talk about a book briefly with a friend you knew in some other context, or one day a week with a group of helmet-haired ladies in a coffee shop who like to make jokes about how much they love wine (they called this phenomenon ‘book clubs’. It was the beginning of the social reading revolution).

But that book, in a weird way, was yours. What you got from it was yours. How you felt about it was yours.

Now, at your fingertips, there are a thousand opinions about any book you choose. There are strangers from across the world, with lifestyles you don’t know about, to tell you whether or not to read it. And if you have a Kindle–like me–my God, you can tell Amazon how you felt about that book the second you finish it too, joining the cacophany of voices. If your Kindle has WiFi (mine does), you can hop on Twitter or Facebook and share that you finished with the whole goddamn Internet. The discussion can begin. Your alone time is over.

This is terrifying.

I read a lot as a kid. I’m not going to say reading was an escape–I had nothing to escape FROM, I was nine–but it was a great way to fight boredom. Why would I want to poke around the front yard when I could journey back to Ithaca with Odysseus? I was an only child. I had few friends my own age. But there were always books, always a lot of books. And books never changed their minds, never yelled at you, never made you feel any way about yourself you didn’t choose to feel. Books knew how to stand back and let you make your own assumptions, your own choices.

The Internet can’t say the same.

When I read something popular now, I find myself wondering how much of any opinion I have about the book comes from something I’ve read online. Why wouldn’t it? I go online to buy most of them. Amazon reviews are right there. Goodreads reviews are right there. Reviews in newspapers and on television were easy enough to ignore–reviews from ‘people like you’ (they aren’t), not so much. There are so many of them, for one. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone likes to share it.

And my own book? I get a five star review, I’m happy for weeks. How much do I validate myself–how much do I trust my own skill–based on golden stars awarded by ‘people like me’?

Reading has become interactive. It’s become a spectator sport. And I’m not sure it hasn’t lost something for that–a small part, perhaps, of its value, of its worth to our characters and souls.

Don’t get it twisted, I’m an indie writer. This new interactive reading has given me a way to be published on my time and my way that I might not’ve otherwise had. But the social media upkeep–and I am by far and away not one of the people most into it–is immense. Even updating people on what’s on sale when is work. And often, when I turn my Kindle on, I don’t go straight to the books any more. I go to Twitter, or Facebook, or, yes, Goodreads. I check my email. I check my sales.

I actually stopped writing this week, and I did it so I could read.

I might post star ratings on Goodreads for the things I’ve read. If something’s particularly good, I might post a short review. But am I interested in talking about these books in depth, talking about what’s good and bad, what I think should’ve been different? No. Surprisingly, no.

Because I know how I felt about what I read. I don’t need you to tell me, and I don’t need to know what the author had for dinner, or how cute her kids are.

And honestly? You might’ve read the same book. You know how you felt, too. Does it do us any good to talk about it, really? Or does it cheapen it, somehow?

I know this poem is oft-quoted and you’re probably all sick of seeing it, but I wanted to leave you with Keats. On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, specifically. Because I want everybody to think, for just a minute, about poor little John Keats, the hostler’s son and fantastic poet, who, though unable to read Greek, opened Chapman’s Homeric translations in the company of a friend and was transformed.

Next time, when you read something, take a moment to stand, silent, upon a peak in Darien. Nobody around you gives a shit what you thought of the plot devices, or what your level of education and experience is in the reading. Just take what you take from it. Just do it.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse I had been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.