The Truth About Writer’s Block

Oof. How long has it been since I spewed out some words on here?

-eager chorus of “TOO LONG!”-

No but for real. Probably somewhere around this time last year I was thinking to myself, I’d like to stretch my writing muscles and really insert myself into the online world to try and penetrate a new sphere of digital story telling and thought processing.

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Now, it’s more like “everything I write is shit and why am I doing this and what’s the point and are we really alone in the universe” etc.

TBH, I haven’t been a self-proclaimed writer very long so I shouldn’t even really be complaining. There a lots of ups and downs that I have yet to experience that I’m sure will be much more traumatizing than a little rut here and there, but let me tell you: writer’s block is a fucking real ass thing and I don’t care who you are, but you will face it throughout your entire authorial career.

It can come from a lot of different places and for a lot of different reasons. I asked Google to define it for me, and what I got back was actually fairly accurate: “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” How painfully true. Though not, I think, a definition that really encompasses all that is the crippling state of being a writer who is blocked.

Here’s my definition: A state in which “the writer” (basically anyone who produces work in a creative “literary” form, whether it’s poetry, fiction/non-fiction, lists, YouTube videos, Facebook rants, etc.) becomes trapped in a vicious spiral of feeling both overwhelmed with creative potential and the crippling fear of being inadequate in and incapable of performing the actual manifestation of this potential. It results in a lack of productivity, passion, and self-worth, and can last anywhere form 5 minutes to 5 months, or longer. No sure-fire cure has yet to be discovered, though scientists (a.k.a the asshole writing this) have noticed that sufferers of writer’s block often turn to reading other writers’ material, binge-watching Netflix, binge-eating nachos, and grasping at any form of inspiration in order to cope.

It looks different for everybody, but it always wears the same disguise. Basically, it’s like your hands are poised over the keyboard/page, ready to write literary gold, and someone has snipped the little blue wire that links your creative, or right brain to your digits, severing the connection between possibility and reality leaving you feel effectively lost.

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For me, writer’s block stems from an over-active left brain or, what a professor I had in my Master’s studies likes to call, my internal self-editor. It’s the guy that hovers over your shoulder smacking his lips and taking sharp intakes of breath every time you approach and idea, saying things like:

“Ooh, are you sure about that sentence? Doesn’t it sound kinda like LITERAL CRAP?”

“I bet you could think of a stronger word for that if you thought long and hard about it. The one you used sucks too much. Why don’t you take five years to think of a better one and then come back and we can re-evaluate the situation.”

“There are so many other people out there who could and would do a better job at this than you and you know it. Why don’t you just stop now and let someone else takeover so that you don’t embarrass yourself.”

That kinda shit. That’s left-brain shit, and it can completely take over your right brain and stifle its creativity. And you know what? Sometimes it wins. And it takes a while to be able to squash it back into submission. The left-brain is always ready to tell you that you’re an imposter, an essayist in poet’s clothing. (Might write another blog about imposter syndrome later cos that’s a sneaky lil bitch too hmmm…) It comes from being submerged in academic writing for the better part of my career as a student, because when writing essays and conference papers there isn’t a lot of room for right-brained silliness. You have to get right down to business, discussing related discourse and what other scholars have had to say about your obscure as shit topic about the performativity of animals in 14th century London, so self-editing just sort of becomes a part of the process.

When writing “for fun” (even if at the back of your mind you can’t help but think of getting it published somewhere), you have to be able to turn off what your left brain is telling you for a while, and then tentatively invite it back to the party later, only when it really comes time to start revising. It’s when this editing brain comes out to play that you run the risk of hitting a massive wall of writer’s block, and it’s hard to avoid when you aren’t aware of it or try to flex your creative muscles before getting stuck.

I wish I could say that there was an easy fix for writer’s block, but there’s not. And like I said, it’s different for everybody so I don’t actually know, maybe what works for me might not work for someone else and vice versa. But there are lots of ways to kind of shake off a bit of that insecurity or stasis and get some creative juices flowing, even if it’s just getting to completing a full sentence or paragraph that doesn’t make you want to throw your computer into a wood chipper.

A trick that I actually find very useful is looking to what other people have written, particular people whose writing a find particularly earth-shattering and beautiful. I’ll flip through a favourite book or glance at a few favourite poems and find a scene or a phrase that really speaks to me, copy it out on paper or on screen, and then basically plagiarize. Not in the illegal way, but insofar as I pretty much rewrite what they’ve written in my own voice, or in a character’s voice that I’m especially having trouble with lately. It doesn’t usually produce groundbreaking content or lead to producing a full piece of literature, but it’s something that I can save for later if I need a filler or inspiration to get the gears turning. Some people find writing prompts to be very helpful, and there are a lot of websites that can generate random plots, titles, first sentences, or character profiles for you to play with. I personally find these to actually be more limiting, because then you end up trying to fit yourself and your writing into specific parameters and it can lead to stunted thought more than anything else, but to each his own.

Granted, you probably won’t be able to leap out of the rut you’re in and write that entire prize-winning novel you’ve been mulling over for five years, but it’s a step in the write direction. Writer’s block can be as simple as not being able to finish something you’ve started, or as inhibiting as not being able to start something at all. But the point isn’t to be able to produce a lot of work all at once, the point is to be able to quiet your left brain long enough to be able to actually find your way through the creative maze of your right brain and put words on a page.

And most of the time, what tends to work the best in producing real work is saying fuck it and scribbling nonsense, because at least it’s something. Even taking two minutes and writing a list of all the words you can think of that start with the letter “t” is better than getting stuck trying to figure out how you can get your character form point A to point B without boring the reader to death. A professor told me recently that writing a little bit is better than not at all. Even if it’s just 250 words a day, you can have a novel written in one year! So the key take-away from all of this, if I’ve instilled no other wisdom aside from it, is: baby steps.

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