WRITING QUESTION: WRITER’S BLOCK

Many writers have days when they sit down to write and no words come. Is this a sign that the writer hasn’t thought out the story sufficiently? Is it a sign that the writer has written himself into a corner? That he has lost interest in his story? Does it mean outside concerns or problems aren’t allowing the writer to focus on his work? Or does it mean the author is just feeling lazy? According to Wikipedia, writer’s block “is a condition, associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work. The condition varies widely in intensity. It can be trivial, a temporary difficulty in dealing with the task in hand. At the other extreme, some ‘blocked’ writers have been unable to work for years on end, and some have even abandoned their careers.” Some writers believe writer’s block is a false, romantic notion. Others believe it is a very real problem. We asked the Odyssey graduates whether they struggle with writer’s block, and what advice they have for those who do.

Is writer’s block real or a myth? When does writer’s block arise for you, and how severe is it? How do you deal with it?

Abby Goldsmith, class of 2004

I say it’s a myth. At least, it is for me. I’ve never suffered classic writer’s block. If I did, I would probably assume that writing isn’t my thing, and focus my creative energy on my animation projects. Life is too short to waste time on things you don’t enjoy
doing!

Sometimes I struggle with writing. I struggled through my novel rewrite, and I struggled on one novel when I really wanted to work on another one. But in each case, the problem wasn’t a lack of ideas; it was frustration that arose from favoring one project over another. Learning and practice can be a struggle, but the results are worth it. I continue to write because overall, it’s addicting, it’s fun, and it makes me happy. My worst bouts of writing frustration were the processes where I learned the most.

Susan Abel Sullivan, class of 2005

Writer’s block is a real neurosis and has been documented by psychologists. I’ve suffered from blocks in various areas of my life before; all of them have been pressure-induced. I was blocked for months after returning home from Odyssey, because the criticism of my work made me think: “What’s the use? I’m a terrible writer.” Other times I’ve been blocked by putting too much pressure on myself to either achieve someone else’s superhuman word count goals or to write a great novel that’ll sell like hotcakes and turn my finances around. In all these instances, the culprit was a set of skewed and unrealistic expectations.

The last time I was blocked was before, during, and after The Never-Ending Odyssey 2008 [a one-week workshop for graduates of Odyssey held each summer]. What got me out of it was working through Dr. Rachel Ballon’s book, The Writer’s Portable Therapist. I haven’t had any major blocks since, although I’ve had some minor ones, and going back to Ballon’s book helps me every time.

Nowadays, I set realistic goals that work for me, not someone else, and even though my life’s dream is to be a professional, well-compensated novelist, I know that I can’t count on it to be a fairy godmother and just happen–POOF!–for me. I do my daily work and strive to do the best work I can do at this point in my creative development without the insane pressure of trying to make my dream happen for me now, right this very moment! Because all I can do is write the best book I can write, and get it before agents and publishers, but after that, it’s totally out of my hands. Taking this calm, long-term approach deflates 90 percent of the self-induced pressure. I’ve adopted the motto, “Slow and steady wins the race,” from the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

On a related sidenote, now that I’ve learned “how” to write, writing is not as fun as it used to be when I approached it from a willy-nilly, fly by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go Indiana Jones sort of way. It often does feel more like work. However, I’ve found that my satisfaction with writing has increased. I still employ a make-it-up-as-I-go process, much like Liz Hand (see her recent Odyssey interview), but I now use craft in this process, rather than a 100 percent willy-nilly. Perhaps this attention to craft has also removed the pressures I used to put on myself and gotten rid of my writers block.

Adria Laycraft, class of 2006

I read about a friend of mine who just “couldn’t get to it,” and he blamed his young children, saying having toddlers in the house made it impossible to be a writer. I had to respond to that with a story of my own.

When my son was 1 1/2 years old, and I made the same complaints to a speaker at a convention, he said to me, “If you really want to write, you will.” His words struck me as the truth I needed to hear. If I really wanted it, I had to just do it.

When I became a parent I was already a writer, but a stuttering along, somewhat blocked one. I’d written some short stories, and one (awful) novel, and made many starts on projects that never seemed to get finished. Writing seemed so hard, despite all the ideas rattling around in my head. I also used having a young child as an excuse to put off writing until I was completely blocked.

But part of the process is to get your butt in the chair and glue it there…everyday. You have to allow those ideas to appear on the page in order to give the magic a chance to happen.

Colleen H. Robbins, class of 2007

Writer’s block is a very real thing, and I believe it is your mind sending you a message that you are missing something. Stop and take a look at what you are working on, outline it, look to see where it is going. The story or novel may want to take a drastic turn, or you may have written yourself into a meaningless corner. Back up a little and rewrite in the new direction. If this doesn’t work, take a break and work on a side project for a day or two.

If no words at all are coming out, sit down and force yourself to type a paragraph. Set down those swirling thoughts. Just getting them out of the way may break the block. If you are completely blank, take a favorite book off the shelf and retype a few random pages to get the juices going.

Through the above methods, I’ve never been blocked more than a few hours from writing, or more than a few days from a particular project.

Amy Tibbetts, class of 2004

The popular perception of writer’s block is that it occurs when a writer has no ideas, no idea at all of what to write. You see many movies about writers who don’t know what to write, until they have an experience in the movie or fall in love and then get inspired to write about that experience.

I don’t think that kind of block exists. At least not for fiction writers.

The kind of block EVERY writer struggles with is when the writing just isn’t coming/ going anywhere/progressing. It’s not really a lack of ideas–it could even be too many ideas, or an idea you love but can’t figure out what to do with. As others have said, this kind of block is caused by a lack of things like confidence, discipline, plot conception, or even simply free time and focus.

I’ve struggled with it my entire life. It’s awful.

But I’ve NEVER not had ideas. If I ever stopped having ideas/characters/stories in my head, I could quit and get a normal job. It would almost be a relief!

Certainly, I’ve gotten to places in stories or novels where I couldn’t go on, where I had no idea what would happen next, where I wrote nothing for months, where I stared at the same page over and over or abandoned the story completely. But it never remotely resembled the popular depiction of writer’s block.

For most non-writers, the one thing they puzzle over is how we writers get our ideas. This is because normal people are blessed with not having story ideas that torment them until they write it down. This is why non-writers often ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s a question that annoys most writers, because our ideas are just there. Even though some ideas are, of course, inspired by particular things.

Non-writers can relate to the idea of a writer having no ideas or suffering a lack of inspiration. But the truth is, non-writers have no understanding of the issues we really do struggle with, which contribute to real writer’s block.

Such as the fact that writing is really, really hard!

Erica Hildebrand, class of 2007

I don’t like the term “writer’s block” because I think it’s too vague. Writers face hurdles, and powering through a rough day where the prose comes as easily as pulling teeth, or your mind blanks out, or any short term issue isn’t really a “block” so much as a challenge or a rough spot. It’s inherent in the creative process.

I absolutely believe, however, that a writer’s internal driving force can shut down and usher in long-term unproductivity.

In your mind you don’t want to quit as a writer. That’s absurd! But you can’t get motivated either. So you tell yourself, writing will still be there tomorrow. And you repeat that same assurance the next day, and the day after that, and before you know it, it’s been months since you’ve written a word and your writing muscle is completely out of shape. You’ve forgotten your writing schedule and your memory is fuzzy on how and when you previously made time to write. You know you’ve got creative projects waiting in the wings, you may even have the entire afternoon free to work on them, but you can’t bring yourself to get started. You still don’t feel motivated, but even if you did, now you’re intimidated.

Maybe you feel a little self-loathing too, as if you gave up on a new year’s resolution you’d really hoped would stick.

While in this funk, you still keep count of the days you’re NOT writing, and nothing stings quite so bad as knowing you can’t get that writing time back, yet even with that in mind, you STILL haven’t figured out a way to put words to a page.

The weirdest thing is, one day you eventually wake up, your resolve has returned, and you get started. It’s a complete shift of attitude, you never know where it came from and you soon forget the months of struggle and doubt, like your subconscious hit the reset button.

Larry Hodges, class of 2006

Writer’s block isn’t a myth. However, I think the root cause of most writer’s block is that writers sit down to write without first thinking about where they are going. It’s like getting into a car to drive without thinking about where they are going.

If you are the type of writer who outlines stories and/or articles before starting, I think writer’s block is less common. This type of writer knows where he is going, and so just needs to write it, using their creative energy to create a great story or article along the way. Personally, once I know how a story or article is going to end, I’m never blocked; I just drive my writing car toward that finish line, taking whatever detours I find interesting. Often I find a better ending along one of those detours, but I’d never get the story to the point where I could take that detour if I didn’t have some destination in mind at the start.

Those who don’t like to outline need to at least have a good idea where they are going so they can go in that general direction. It’s easy to get “blocked” if you don’t know where you are going, just as it’s easy to get lost if you drive your car around randomly.

Many writers write with little idea where they are going, and struggle to find a good start, middle, and end that fit together, and so get stuck gaping at the screen, i.e. writer’s block. This may work for some, but it’s haphazard and risky, and can lead to eyesore as the writer stares at the screen, wondering what the heck to do next, or even where to begin.

I’ve had over 1,200 published articles, including 37 science fiction or fantasy stories. I’ve had writer’s block, but rarely since I made it a rule to never start until I had an ending planned. And this last line, and the line I’m writing now, is the ending I planned before I began writing this.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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