Friday, May 23, 2014

Q&A: HOW DO I DEAL WITH WRITER'S BLOCK?

Calvin takes the idea too literally
Writer's block.  Anyone who has written for any length of time has faced this at one point or another.  Sure, some claim it never happened, but it does, to all of us.  Some just find it easier to deal with than others.
Essentially writer's block is made up of two parts, I believe.  First is the lack of motivation; you just don't feel like writing, that excitement or interest isn't there; it seems miserable drudgery to even sit down and start.  The second is a lack of what people generally call "inspiration" where you cannot feel any sort of natural flow of ideas.  Its like you have to force something on to the page where before it was so easy and just poured out of you on to the paper.
Facing this can be horrible.  Some very famous people's writing careers were essentially ended by writer's block.  C.S. Lewis stopped writing because he was a very visual person.  When he wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he started with an image of a faun in the snow carrying packages by a lamppost in the forest.  From there, Lewis created one of the most beloved and masterful children's fantasy book series in human history.  When he couldn't see those images, Lewis couldn't write and was done.
Lets see a yogi walk on this
The thing is, "writer's block" is not one thing.  its not a single event or issue, its usually a lot of stuff like a pile of lego you step on.  It all hurts but it comes in the form of lots of different pieces and from different causes.  Writer's block, it seems to me, is a combination of all kinds of things, usually including but not exclusive to these elements:
  • Perfectionism (I won't get it right, why start?)
  • Fatigue (OK I finished dinner and washed the clothes, put the kids to sleep, now for my novel... ugh)
  • Fear (this is gonna suck, it will never be published, why am I wasting time?)
  • Comparison (this isn't as good as I imagined/I'll never be as good as [insert author here])
  • Illness (I just don't feel like writing now, I need to lie down)
  • Depression (What's the point?)
  • Dislike of the text (I wrote something I didn't care for and now it all feels just wrong)
Some even suggest (pdf) that writer's block can be at least partially physiological, with a mental shift going on from conscious thought to limbic.  This argument suggests that you're approaching the work from your innate "fight or flight" mindset rather than your rational mindset, and its keeping you from getting anything productive done.
However you come around to it, writer's block sucks.  And there are only a few ways to deal with it.  Here's how I've managed to do it in the past, perhaps it might help you as well.
DISCIPLINE
The key to getting past any delays in writing is to form patterns in your life that help you deal with delays and productivity.  The truth is, writing is self-employment, and the only way to remotely be successful at any form of self-employment is to be disciplined and focused.  Its too easy to find something else to do, whether work or the oceans of entertainment possibilities we're surrounded by.
Forming those habits of regular, disciplined work, set time periods to focus on the job, getting something done each day, setting goals and meeting them etc are all very helpful for avoiding or breaking writer's block.If you just work when you feel like it, just about any excuse will stop you from working.  If you work unless you absolutely cannot and don't have it in you, then very little will.  Discipline will deal with nearly every form of writer's block, because you just keep going anyway.  Discipline means doing what you must or know you should anyway, because its part of you.
PROFESSIONALISM
Now, if its just a hobby, writer's block is no particular cause for concern.  Go do something else instead.  But if you want to make money at this, if you want to finish a book and publish, then that's another issue entirely.
If you are working for yourself, there's nobody you are accountable to but you.  You're not on the clock, you don't go to work and check in, there's no boss watching you.  So its all up to you, and the only way to get that to work is to form habits and disciplines which lead to regular, steady work all day.  If it was truly just up to whether you felt like working that day, how many days would you actually show up if you didn't have to at your job?  You must treat writing the same as you do any other job, if you mean to do it professionally.
Treating your writing as a job means you show up and do your job every day because its your job.  Like any job, you show up and work however you feel unless it is really a dire problem.  Depressed?  Some of us deal with that nearly every day, but you can push past it and keep going anyway - at any job.  Tired?  Yeah, lots of times you drag into work tired from a late night before or too much the last week, but you get in there and do it, to get your 8 hours in.  Treating your writing as work will get you through that as well.
Like the joke goes: 
hate your job?  Great, there's a club for that, and the membership is everybody.  We meet at the bar every night.  

No matter what your job is, some days you'd just rather be doing something else - maybe most days.  But its a job that needs to get done, and you do it even when you aren't all that enthused. And with work you generally like, you'll find quickly that you are enjoying yourself again no matter how you felt before.
REST
That said, everyone has to take days off.  You can't work all day long, all week long, all your life.  One of the most important things to do as a self employed person is to learn to take time off, too.  By doing so you can avoid "burn out" when you do something to the point it loses its savor and becomes not just annoying but you can't come at it fresh and creatively.
Take a day once a week where you don't work at all on your writing.  Scribble some notes down if you have an idea, but do other things.  Play with your kids, take a walk, go boating, go to church, play golf, just avoid writing.  That will give your brain a chance to recharge, so you can come at your work fresh.
This also means taking care of yourself.  If you're too sick to write, you don't have writer's block, you're just sick.  If you were an Olympic athlete you wouldn't all measles "shot put block."  Writing is exhausting, hard work; all heavy mental and creative activity is.  If you're not up to it, you don't have writer's block you just aren't ready to do the job.  Rest up, get well, and then tackle it again.
*ding!*
WRITE
And in the end, if you do all that, then when you are faced with a blank page or computer screen and feel like there's nothing in the tank, the answer is to write.  Almost every single professional author I've ever read says the same thing: if you have writer's block, write.
Sure, you don't feel like it and nothing comes to you.  Write anyway.  Write about how you don't have anything to say.  Write about writer's block.  Write about what a jerk I am for saying all this, but write.  You'll find that in the process, that flow comes back, that freshness returns, and you are writing once again.
There is a caveat, and its the point above labeled "Dislike of the Text."  Sometimes, if you have written something that just feels wrong, it can nag you subconsciously and slow or stop your progress.  Going back and deleting or fixing that can make a huge difference.  I've found that in my own work; that was just not right and I cannot go on from this point until I fix it.
But for the most part, sit down and write is the answer.  Get to work, do your job, ignore how you feel about it, and start being productive.  Because how you feel about writing is irrelevant to the job.  Maybe you feel like you're bad at writing; the only way to get better is to write some more.  Maybe you are worried you'll never be good as your hero author.  He didn't start that good either, she had to write lots of stuff before she got to that level of skill.  The solution is to write.
In the end, that's what it comes down to.  You're a writer.  Write.