“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.” – Mark Twain
All the marvelous opportunities for writers today don’t solve one large problem – at least for many writers: Writer’s block.
At its core, writer’s block keeps a blank page blank. However, I think a distinction should be made between true “block” and procrastination (which is usually the definition given).
I believe true writer’s block is the inability to execute an idea. This can be different from simple procrastination and be due to several things:
- lack of passion for a subject
- lack of knowledge of a subject, or hindrances to proper research
- lack of writing ability!
The first two bullet points can be an indication that a writer should abandon said topic. A bane of the writing life is the quick, “golden moment” idea that comes to us in our dreams, or during a walk, or wherever. This is the insanely good idea that causes us to abandon current writing projects. Too many times to count, I have listened to writers lament the moment they had the Golden Moment, because it stopped momentum with other projects. And, guess what? Golden Moments are often the flavor-of-the-second for writers and quickly fade.
If I have the idea of a lifetime for a crime drama on TV (and I have), that idea will die, because when I move past the stupendous idea, I realize that I don’t have the background to write to that subject. Thus, my “Criminal Minds” segment about a present-day serial killer named J. Edgar Hoover is probably never going to see the light of day, because I don’t have the background.
Of course, superb research skills can overcome this deficiency, but writer’s block suffers enormously because of ideas that were not initially developed.
How about some tips for overcoming writer’s block?
I think it’s important when suffering from writer’s block to maintain a sense of humor, as Steve Martin said: “Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol. Sure, a writer can get stuck for a while, but when that happens to a real author – say, a Socrates or a Rodman – he goes out and gets an ‘as told to.’ The alternative is to hire yourself out as an ‘as heard from,’ thus taking all the credit. The other trick I use when I have a momentary stoppage is virtually foolproof, and I’m happy to pass it along. Go to an already published novel and find a sentence that you absolutely adore. Copy it down in your manuscript. Usually, that sentence will lead you to another sentence, and pretty soon your own ideas will start to flow. If they don’t, copy down the next sentence in the novel. You can safely use up to three sentences of someone else’s work – unless you’re friends, then two. The odds of being found out are very slim, and even if you are, there’s usually no jail time.”
I don’t advocate plagiarism, but I think you understand the above quote is tongue-in-cheek.
I do believe a legitimate tip can come from Martin’s whimsy, and it is found in his first sentence: whining. Too often, writers whine about everything under the sun. Every excuse is given not to pursue potential success.
Thus, I think it’s important to meditate on the success you believe is attainable and that you will obtain. This sounds very elementary, but it is quite legitimate.
Think about it this way: You are stuck on chapter 2 because you aren’t sure which direction to take the research. This can lead to hours or days or even weeks of a blank page.
Rather, you should look at what you’ve written – say, the first third of a magazine article – and see the end from the beginning. Look at the photos you’ll submit with the piece. And don’t ask for advice on the direction for the piece – no one knows it like you do, and the answer is inside the writer. Think about practical issues like the word count you are aiming for. This has helped me more than once.
Before you know it, you will be in the polishing-of-the-draft stage and ready to meet that deadline.
And, finally, here is a tip that has saved me on one particularly big occasion: I became so stressed on delivering for a multi-book deal that I couldn’t sleep at night. Finally, a good friend said, “What would happen if you just don’t finish?”
I answered by citing the usual list of suspects: advance already paid; the Corleone-type infrastructure of certain publishing houses; eternal shame, etc. My friend, a very successful writer, would have none of it, and I eventually understood his point – if for some horrible reason I couldn’t finish (like, an extreme case of writer’s block), the world would not collapse in on itself like some distant, massive star.
“Abort” on a book project is not the best outcome, mind you, but here is my point: Just the thought that my personal failure would not knock the earth off its axis released all my fear. I immediately was able to finish, and I’m quite proud of the way it turned out.
So, remember this if nothing else: If writer’s block is crippling your efforts, consider that if you simply email an editor that you can’t finish (or it hasn’t gone that far; you’ve only told several friends and family that you are about to be the next Hemingway) … let it go. Take a walk. Go to the movies. Sing. Play racquetball. Eat a half-gallon of Rocky Road (a personal favorite).
Life will go on, and more importantly, your life will go on. Including your writing life.