We’ve all suffered from it. You sit there, willing something to happen but...nothing, not even a flicker of brain activity. It arrives with no warning and leaves you stilted.
Writer’s block is a bit like lightening: you don’t know when it will strike, or where. It’s a condition which arises when a writer loses the ability to produce work and the causes are numerous, whether that’s psychological, creative or real. Defining writer’s block is difficult because it encompasses so many things.
It’s an affliction which writers dread, and the effects are real, but writer’s block is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not an actual block – nothing is stopping the writer from writing. It’s a perceived state of mind. To understand writer’s block you first have to understand that you have the problem, not the blank screen or piece of paper. It’s easy for writers to blame their inability to write on everything and anything, when in fact the underlying cause is usually a creative matter and lies with the writer’s inability to extract that creativity.
The length of a bout writer’s block can vary. In mild cases it can last from a few hours to several weeks. In severe cases it can last months and in some cases it can last years.
It could be a temporary difficulty in writing because of lack of motivation with your story, lack of inspiration, or perhaps you are at the beginning of a story or novel and are therefore unsure where to begin or how to approach it. This invariably means there is a lack confidence.
The most common cause of a creative blockage is daily life because it so easily distracts a writer from the creative process. Children, life in general, looking after a home, holding down a job, looking after relatives – the list is endless. Life can sometimes suck the creativity from us and writing can suffer.
Another common cause could be that a project may be fundamentally misconceived, or beyond your experience or ability. You may be trying to write out of your comfort zone, or attempting a genre you’re not used to. Again, this is down to lack of confidence and it may be a case of finding structure, routine, doing research and finding feedback that helps you get back that confidence.
Sometimes fear and anxiety can cause the block, worrying over things like chapter length, presentation, spelling and grammar or simply whether it’s good enough. Self doubt can cause writer’s block and if your confidence is low then the block will become a long term barrier. It could be that you’re four chapters into your masterpiece and you suddenly dry up, or you are barely a few pages into your short story and inspiration stops. This is why so many writers abandon their novels. The author simply can’t move the story forward, or doesn’t know how to.
In some cases the story doesn’t even start: you want to write but have no idea what to write. Some writers are daunted and overwhelmed when starting a novel, but as Mark Twain wrote "The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."
Even trying too hard can cause a block. This can stunt creativity and stop you writing altogether because the writing process has one fundamental rule: you have an idea and then you write, rather than trying to write until the idea forms. That’s like squeezing toothpaste through a needle: instant block.
The blockage may not be psychological. Sometimes writer’s block is physical and can occur because the writing area you use has more waste paper than a recycling plant. For some it’s impossible to work around clutter; it has a creeping ability to stifle you and your creativity, without you even realising. Organise yourself and your files. Make your writing space a comfortable, tidy, well-lit area where you can relax and write.
A change of scene can help. Perhaps your stuffy office is holding back your creativity. Writers spend great chunks of time locked away in their offices, so why not go somewhere different and see if it inspires? What about writing in a coffee shop, maybe a park or even on public transport? New scenery, new sounds and new people can spark creativity.
Of course, there are practical ways of clearing writer’s block, provided you have the motivation to do so:
A good writer will always have a notebook to hand, pages full of notes, anecdotes, thoughts, observations, sketches, quotes and so on. This should serve as a catalyst for creativity. If you haven’t got one, invest in one and start scribbling. Whenever writer’s block threatens, go back through your notebook for inspiration and ideas to try and stir those creative juices.
If writer’s block sets in part way through a project, then the most practical thing to do is leave the project for a while and do something else. Sometimes just a break from the project is all you need. It’s easy to concentrate our efforts too much on one project. This is our cue for a break. The more you try to push writer’s block, the likelier it is you will fail to write a single sentence. Go for a walk, meet with friends and relax, maybe do another hobby...anything to free the invisible band that can sometimes constrain.
Conversely, switch to another writing project. It may not work for some, but might work for others. Some writers find it helpful if they have a couple of projects on the go. When the block happens on one project, they switch to another to keep the creativity going, and then return to the first project once creativity is re-established. Perhaps take a random word and build a flash fiction piece or write a poem around it. Something fresh may spark creativity. However you look at it, you are still writing and you will end up with another piece of work to your growing CV.
Read your favourite author, or similar novels to yours. This is the single most powerful way of kicking writer’s block into touch. Why? Simply reading the work of authors you admire can create a surge of enthusiasm to write again because the feelings of aspiration and inspiration are powerful tools. It makes us want to write.
Join a writers group, or an online writer’s forum. There is always help and support from others who can help you rekindle creativity. You can discuss your block, the underlying anxieties and the fears which may be causing it and in return receive help and encouragement on ways of overcoming those anxieties.
As with the notebook idea, sometimes it’s worth doing some writing exercises, similar to the one-word flash. These can help loosen the mind and get you to write different things:
1. Pick a word and write a flash piece or poem around it.
2. Take an old photograph and write about it.
3. Minute writing – not exactly a minute, but a reference to a set time to write something, say 10 minutes, or 30 minutes max to produce a story. This really focuses the mind, it gets your brain thinking and brings out the editor within you.
4. Write a letter to yourself, tell yourself everything you ever wanted to say, and don’t hold back on emotions. This helps to clear the air with yourself, especially if you have anxieties, and you may feel better for it.
Of course, there is one fundamental question you should ask yourself when you have writer’s block. Why write in the first place? Tell yourself the reasons why you do it.
Whether you do it for a living or a hobby, you write because you love to. By understanding the reason behind your writer’s block, you can begin ways of overcoming it and turning that blank screen of death into a screen full of words.
Next time: Constructing sub-plots