Few things are more terrifying than staring at a blank piece of paper (or screen) sans inspiration when you’re a professional writer, but (like curing the hiccups), there doesn’t seem to be any one solution to avoiding creative roadblocks. In order to find out if there WERE, however, any useful patterns in beating writer’s block, we reached out to some of our favorite career writers and authors for some insight as to how they cope with the problem. Below you’ll find tips (and also not-tips) from Janet Fitch, Mira Gonzalez, Ben Mirov, Leila Sales, Luke O’Neil, Allie Kingsley, Alexander Kaufman, Vincent Scarpa and Cady Drell, and HOPEFULLY you’ll be inspired to stop being uninspired. HERE WE GO:
What is writer’s block anyway? Fear and an absence of inspiration, the feeling of having lost your connection to your unconscious processes. If it’s the first, it’s that you’re afraid what you’re writing/would write won’t be as wonderful as you’d hoped. Perfectionism is the killer of artists. (It’s what my last book, Paint It Black, is largely about.) Perfectionism is knowing how great literature can be, art can be, music can be, and fearing that what one produces won’t measure up. The first antidote to that is getting it that it will never measure up. Ever. You’re doing something hard, and you will fail significantly an that’s part of it. There’s no upper end with how good art can be. Admit it and then work anyway. Let what you can’t do become your signature. Let your flaws be your flaws.
Bob Dylan is interesting because his voice is lousy, and yet he does interesting things with it. It’s a memorable voice, expressive of himself. In the creative arts, expression is more important than perfection. In Paint it Black, the protagonist of the book is a punk rocker. And the essence of punk rock is, “Forget perfection. I don’t need anybody’s seal of approval, just let me get out there and make a sound.” When I feel writer’s block breathing down my neck, I give myself permission to go out and be lousy–and so what—as long as I am expressing something that I really feel, that I really care about. If I have that deep connection to my unconscious, I stop worrying about it.
So that’s the first part. How to restore connection to the unconscious, when I feel like all I’m doing is going ‘blah blah blah’ and pushing characters around like paper dolls? I might find a piece of music, or a movie, or another book, which resonates in the place where this writing is coming from. Non-purposeful writing–free writing, poetry, writing from prompts, a photograph, a piece music—really helps me reconnect to that unconscious place where I feel passionate, where language reverberates the strings of who I am, what I feel.
I do self-hypnosis, and when I feel disconnected, I’ll go into a quiet place—like a guided meditation—and talk to my characters, ask them questions. “What am I not seeing about this scene, what am I missing about you?” I might make out a list of questions to ask them directly—“what was your favorite thing in high school, your best class, your most humiliating moment, how did your dad and your mom interact, what are your beliefs about free will and destiny?”
In a difficult scene, I might write from another character’s point of view—suddenly I can see where the scene needs to go. Changing person and tense is another very helpful tool—I use it all the time. I might skip ahead to a scene I can actually see, and come back later on.. I might just be having story problems, in which case I step back and ask myself: “What the heck am I trying to say here?” “What does she want out of this scene?” “Where’s the change?”
Janet Fitch is the author of the novels Paint It Black and White Oleander. Her short stories and essays have appeared in anthologies and journals such as Black Clock, Room of One’s Own, and Los Angeles Noir. She is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and reviews books regularly on Goodreads. Her novel White Oleander has been made into a feature film, and Paint It Black will be going into production later this year. She is currently finishing a novel set during the Russian Revolution, and regularly blogs at www.janetfitchwrites.wordpress.com.
I stared at an empty word document for almost 20 minutes before typing this sentence. Well, I didn’t only stare at it for 20 minutes. I opened a word document and seeing the blank white square sent me spiraling into a familiar panic attack. The panic starts in the pit of my stomach, then moves its way up my throat and down to the tips of my fingers, at which point the tips of my fingers move across the bottom half of my macbook, and I open Gmail, where I type an email to my boyfriend about how I feel unable to write today, subtly insinuating that I don’t feel like this every day, even though I absolutely do.
After not receiving a response within 20 seconds, and after deciding that any unread email that isn’t from my boyfriend is too anxiety-inducing to even bother looking at, I type Command + T using my thumb and pointer finger, respectively, which opens a new tab, where I type ‘Twitter.com’.
Nobody has tweeted anything since the last time I checked twitter on my phone 15 minutes prior, so I go back and re-read the email I sent to my boyfriend. It is the only piece of writing I have done in weeks that I am not horribly ashamed of, yet a full ten minutes has passed and still no response from him.
I open twitter again. One new tweet was posted 10 seconds ago. I will wait 5 minutes before I favorite it so I seem like I have something better to do with my time than refresh Twitter constantly. I stare at my bedroom wall for a few minutes, favorite the tweet, then back to the word document.
The blank word document feels like this looming, unsolvable nightmare. An incredible burden on my otherwise pleasant life. A constant reminder that I’m not good enough, and I never will be good enough unless I face my fear and type something. Type anything. But even then, after I type something, most of the time it is not good enough to meet the unreasonable standards I have set for myself, and I still feel like a horribly inept person for not being able to immediately write something that I feel proud of.
I always tell people that this kind of self-hatred is what motivates me to write. I tell it to people so often that I almost believe it myself. This ends in a self-perpetuating cycle of feeling completely inept, then trying to solve that by bullying myself, because some part of me actually believes that will lead to productivity, which it never, ever does, so I end up hating myself even more, which leads to me not being able to get any writing done, which leads me to feeling even worse, which leads to more self-loathing, etc. etc.
I have developed a pavlovian response to blank word documents where every time I see one I become terrified because of all the times when a blank word document has lead to my inner monologue turning against me. I can no longer associate blank word documents with feelings of creativity or hopefulness. They seem to exist in my life solely to remind me that something is not only fundamentally wrong with me, but that I am completely and utterly alone in my laziness and lack of productivity.
Those feelings of self-doubt are so deep-seated and intense that sometimes just the sight of a blank word document will make me spiral, seemingly out of my control, into smoking weed alone in bed and not attempting to be productive for days, or weeks, even months at my worst.
Mira Gonzalez is a poet based out of Los Angeles. Her first collection of poetry, i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together, was published in 2013 by Sorry House. She’s also reigning champ of twitter(.com).
Writers block is the biggest bitch I know. One minute, the words are flowing when someone comes up to you with a question. You throw your palm up nearly high fiving their face because shhhh, you’re in the fucking zone. But then, something seriously messed up happens. All of that glorious steam slows down and before you know it you go from feeling like the little engine that could to the loser that cannot. There is no worse feeling than staring at the blinking cursor for hours on end, backspacing every mediocre sentence that falls out of your brain. It happens to everyone. We all have our own fire igniting tactics. I’m happy to share mine.
One of the challenges, in life, is balancing input and output. If you’re in all-input mode all the time, you may see lots of great TV and movies, and discover amazing new music, and read everything worth reading–but you will never produce anything of your own. At the opposite extreme, if you’re in all-output mode all the time, you may feel great and industrious for a while, but eventually, you will get stuck.
When that happens to me, I find that it helps to purposefully seek out new input. And that does not mean continuing to sit at my desk, with my dead-end manuscript still there on my computer screen, while I’m idly reading Clickhole and feeling guilty about not producing. It means actively focusing my attention on something new that will fill my brain. I go for a long walk or bike ride in a part of town that I don’t often explore. I go out dancing. I visit a museum.
This may seem like wasting time and running from your writer’s block–and, if you keep up this behavior for weeks or months, then that’s exactly what it is. But in smaller amounts, it’s just giving your brain new information and new materials that your subconscious can then play with and combine with other things and twist around to create a new idea–an idea that makes you want to sit down and write again.
Leila Sales (www.leilasales.com) is the author of the YA novels Mostly Good Girls, Past Perfect, and This Song Will Save Your Life. She lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her @LeilaSalesBooks
I’m always interested in hearing others talk about writer’s block as if it’s something that comes and goes like an uninvited guest whom the writer must entertain and discourage from returning. Perhaps that is genuinely the experience of some writers, but speaking for myself, writing and writer’s block—that is, the inability to get good words down on the page—are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in my experience they come together to form the act of writing. Not writing is as much a part of writing as is writing, I suppose that’s what I’m getting at. If you’re already sitting down in front of the blank screen, you’ve overcome the comforting demon of laziness— and that’s a major step. Though that is not what I think we talk about when we talk about writer’s block. We mean: I sat there for two hours and all the words I wrote, if I wrote any, were no good, were insufficient, were juvenile, were maudlin, and so I deleted them. The screen remains as blank as it was at the start, even after dedicated time at the desk. To which I say: so what. You are not owed, as a writer of any kind, a result from having opened a word document. You are not owed good sentences just because you created the conditions in which you might write them. It’s simply not how it works. This is something the writer must always remember: you work for the language, the language doesn’t work for you. But remember what I said about not writing being writing? I believe—I have to believe—that those hours spent without making any good sentences serve to loosen up the gears of the brain, and in this way something is shaken loose from the machinery, and you may find it waiting for you the next time you return to that word document with its blinding white disinterest. Go to any reading and you’ll hear, during those pesky Q&As, someone ask the writer about their process. I couldn’t be less interested in process. Who cares how it gets done, only that it does. There is no regiment proven more efficacious than another when it comes to creating. You just show up, when you can, and build. And it’s foolish to wait for inspiration—you may be waiting so long that your story will decide it wants to be written by a different writer; one who is committed to it not only when it’s going well, but when it isn’t going well, when it isn’t going at all. The story loves a patient writer.
Vincent Scarpa is a MFA candidate in fiction at the Michener Center for Writers. He has had stories and essays appear in Story Quarterly, Haydens Ferry Review, Bartleby Snopes, Sundog Lit, and Brevity Mag. He podcasts, he tweets, and—just saying—he won the 2012 Norman Mailer award for college fiction.
As a working person in publishing who commutes to midtown Manhattan from Gowanus every day and often works a 60-plus hour week, it almost goes without saying that I don’t prioritize hygiene. Who has the perfect combination of time and energy? Given how sleepy I am, I often have to choose between showering and eating when I get home from work before I hit the bed with the violence of the truly exhausted – and I usually choose eating. It’s fine: a lot of other working journalists don’t shower that much either. It could be considered one of journalism’s darker secrets that often we have the energy to focus on either what is in our head or what our head smells like, but not both. Instead, I primarily use showers as a way to combat writer’s block. Rather than force myself to come up with ideas, or do writing exercises, or wander around Brooklyn looking for the perfect cafe with high-speed wifi and good coffee and few screaming children (this cafe does not exist, by the way; I used the search for it as a way to procrastinate on a story not two weeks ago), I take a ten-minute braincation. The Shower Principle is a cliche, I know. But it’s a cliche because it’s been time-tested and has proven effective. When I can’t get anything done and stare helplessly at the cursor, blinking away on a white page, when I have 45 pages of transcripts over six separate days of reporting, five-thousand words due in four days, three secondary sources, two pills of adderall and a partridge in a pear tree, sometimes the only way to get anything done is to pretend that the only thing in the world is my unwashed hair. A good motivator is such because it forces you not to think about the task at hand, relieving the pressure of coming up with coherent ideas and putting you in touch with your brain, which always seems to go AWOL when you need it most. Plus, in any case, it combats the fact that you haven’t showered yet this week and frankly, you’re about a day away from social unacceptability.
Writer’s block is just the anxiety you feel when you’re not confident in the way you phrase things. So I follow the same techniques I use to ease my usual levels of anxiety. I used to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee, but both of those things only work to a point, after which they just worsen your anxiety and cloud your focus. I quit both, now I drink tea. Lots of green tea when I’m having trouble focusing on a story. I meditate. I can’t overstate the benefit of walking away from the keyboard, sitting in a quiet room and counting your breaths for 15 minutes, when the sentences are puttering out like an old car engine. If all else fails, I listen to some light deep house music, something along the lines of Floating Points or Jaw Jam or Coyote Clean Up/Ice Cold Chrissy. No lyrics, but I find the melodic rhythms help me sharpen my thoughts. And if my deadline is flexible, and the writer’s block is the result of exhaustion, I put it off, take nap, or go to bed early and tackle it the next day.
I don’t ever really suffer from writer’s block per se. For me it’s more a matter of pitcher’s block. Writing about anything is easy enough, it’s just a matter of finding something that you actually want to write about, and that someone will pay you to write about, that is the work aspect of this job. Writing well, ok, that’s not always easy. But I find that it’s helpful to just lay out a piece of crap on the page, then go back and fix it, as opposed to agonizing over how to begin and what angle to take. Once I start writing, the hook usually reveals itself subconsciously. It’s like when you’re trying to go to sleep, laying there thinking about how much you want to go to sleep is the worst thing you can do. You have to distract yourself. Sometimes the writing gets done in the back of your mind while you’re actually writing.
When that fails, I just think about what the worst people I know would think about a given subject, then write the opposite.
Luke O’Neil is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to The Boston Globe, Esquire, Mediaite, Bullet, and MTV News. He is also a journalist who sometimes contributes to Slate, The New Republic, The Village Voice, Dazed Magazine, Vice, The Wall Street Journal, The LA Times, and Alternative Press. He also blogs on a blog and tweets on a Twitter.
Ben Mirov is the author of Hider Roser (Octopus Books, 2012). He is also the author of Ghost Machine (Caketrain, 2010). He grew up in Northern California and lives in Oakland.