Writing Through the Block

When the term “Writer’s Block” is mentioned it usually conjures up images of a writer who has just loaded a piece of paper into a typewriter.  She takes a sip of coffee, gently place her hands over the typewriter keys, looks out of the window—faced filled with joy and hope—inhales, and before she finishes her breath all youth and hope flee her face as she realizes that she has no idea what to write about.  She will stare at that empty page, maybe writing a sentence or two. But in a moment of fury, she will rip the page from the typewriter, crumble it up, and throw it across the room.  To add insult to injury, she’ll miss the wastepaper basket.

Or maybe you’re a little more modern and imagine the writer sitting in front of a computer.  A blank screen with only the cursor blinking as a reminder of all the words that are not being written.  Whole novels that will never be written!  The writer may type a sentence then madly hit the backspace key, all the while thinking that deleting something is not nearly as satisfying as crumpling up a page.

However, this is never how writer’s block is for me. In fact, I am somewhat hesitant to use the term, but I can’t think of a better one.  In the above scenarios, there is an assumption that writers work only on one piece at time. I suspect that this may be true for some writers of larger works like novels or memoirs, but not any writer I know (who has talked about the writing process with me).  I usually have a dozen poems that are currently in a state of revision and a couple short stories too.  If I sit down to my computer and I can’t think of anything to write, I will turn to a revision.

Because of my process, writer’s block, for me, is when I don’t have anything new to start, but I also hate what I’m currently working on.  I’ll look at a poem and the very words seem to rot on the page.  I look at a title and exclaim that “I can’t stand to even read the damn thing!”  I’ll wonder why I even thought I could be a poet in the first place.

I’m tempted to say screw it and go watch the movies saved in my queue.  But when I get inspired, it’s most often when I’m already writing.  I’ll be trudging through a revision of a poem that seems to call into question my very literacy, when suddenly I know how to fix it or have a new idea and start another poem.  I find that I’m rarely inspired while watching old episodes of Farscape.

Imagine how much I could get done if it weren’t for Farscape.

The trick with writer’s block is to keep your butt in your chair and to keep putting words on the page even if you hate those words.  Here are some tricks I’ve picked up.

  1. Use a random word generator to get at least five words that you then put into a poem or short story.  I find that a large part of writer’s block is that I’m unknowingly stuck in a rut. These random words force me to write about something different and often provides enough novelty to get me interested again.  One warning, if you decide to revise the piece don’t be afraid of getting rid of those five words—they were only there to get you writing again.
  2. Select a poetic form to write in.  I once claimed that “Whenever I have writer’s block, I punish myself by writing in a poetic form.”  Now I don’t want people to assume that forms are unpleasant, but I admittedly don’t turn to them unless I have no idea what else to do with a poem.  Form allows me to approach a poem from a different angle, to ignore meaning.  This often allows me to trim the fat or generate new text.  After I finish the formal draft, I have an idea of where to go.  Also, this method works for starting new poems.  I’ll use the random word generator to come up with words that I then use in forms like the sestina, villanelle, or triolet.
  3. Keep something close to your desk to read.  I keep copies of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen close.  If I’m unsure of what to write, I will read a fairy tale—usually not one I particularly familiar with—and then try to rewrite it from a view-point of one of the characters or place it in a modern setting.  This method sometimes doesn’t work at the time, but the fairy tale will often stick in my head until a few weeks later when I use it for a new poem.
  4. Keep a reading journal.   I assume that if you’re writer you’re probably a reader too.  Writing about what you read is helpful in that it allows you to think critically about writing.  Also, the nice thing about a reading journal is that you can be as petty and mean to that beloved author as you like without worrying about anyone reading it and realizing what an awful person you are.
  5. Finally just write about writer’s block.  Sometimes in exploring why you can’t write you’ll realize that the next step that a poem or a story requires is just something that you don’t want to do and have been avoiding.  For example, I’m working on poem that requires some serious research; however, instead of doing it, I’ve written a blog post.

Ultimately, just because you don’t like what you’ve written isn’t an excuse on not staying in your chair and continuing to write.


3 thoughts on “Writing Through the Block

  1. Alternatively, you could take three novels – say W G Sebald’s ‘The Rings of Saturn’, Charles Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’, and J D Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’. Then take the first sentence of the first novel, the second sentence of the second novel, and the third sentence of the third novel, put them together, and see what they inspire.

    Marie Marshall

  2. My writer’s block most often takes the form of something else blocking me- usually the Internet. It helps if I turn it off for a while so it doesn’t “block” me and so I don’t “accidentally” end up tweeting, but yeah, it’s a horrible distraction. Thanks for the post- I like your suggestions!
    -Liza Wolff-Francis, Matrifocal Point

    • Thank you. I’ve actually heard that there is software that can block your access to the internet for a set period of time so you can focus on writing. Of course I suspect that the moment I turned it on I would need to do some research.

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