Last week, I told my husband I was staying up late to write. He came out into the living room, only to find me working on a puzzle.
“I thought you were writing,” he said.
“I am. I’m not sure what my characters should do next, so I’m letting my brain think about it for a minute.” He raised his eyebrows at me, but I am good at ignoring this kind of behavior.
Sure enough, after five minutes, I was back at the computer.
Most people would say I had writer’s block – but I think that is a myth and an excuse.
Here’s why: we don’t accept this in other professions. As most of you know, I was a high school English teacher for fifteen years before I became a full-time writer. In all that time, I never once looked at my class full of students and said, “You know, I’m having teacher’s block. So, I guess I’ll catch you all tomorrow.”
It was tempting, but I resisted because I am an amazingly exceptional person! No, actually, I resisted because otherwise I would get fired.
Somehow we assume writing is different. My students would always, always, complain of “writer’s block”. I would tell them not to give up. I would tell them they had to write anyway. I would explain that, in my class, writing was their job; they didn’t have a choice, really.
For my former students, there is some sweet justice in me having to grapple, daily, with writing. For me, I am happy to report: writing is a real job for me, which means – just like the teacher or construction worker or waitress or receptionist – I don’t get to just give up when I’m not feeling it.
Here are some strategies that have worked for me and my students when our writing gets stuck.
- Reread what you’ve written, looking for ideas on what to do next.
- Move to a different part of the same project. Stuck with the intro? Write the end. Not sure how to end? Go back and revise the middle. Unsure what a character would do next? Write part of the character’s backstory (something that may not even make it into the final draft) as a way of getting to know the character better.
- Work on a different writing project. Uncertain how to finish that short story? Write your college essay. Confused about what’s wrong with your article? Re-read one of your poems.
- Research new markets for publishing your work. (This one is my own personal nemesis; I can waste hours doing this.)
- Look back over the list that you (of course!) keep, looking for ideas, or reprint opportunities, or work in progress.
- Freewrite for three minutes. Set a timer and follow the only rule: you must continually put words on the paper or screen until the time is up. Even if all you can write is “this blows, this blows, this blows” for the first minute, eventually your brain will get bored and spit out an idea.
- Make a list. Ten favorite people. Five best songs ever. Seven things you’ll never do to your kids. Then pick one to write about.
- Reread your writing notebook/journal, if you have one, looking for ideas.
- Steal some headlines. Set a timer for five minutes, and read the news – headlines only! Choose three, and write a paragraph about each – whatever comes to mind is fair game.
- Trade your writing with a friend, and get some feedback.
- Take one character and introduce her to someone from a different story, or a different part of the story. What do they do?
- Finally, take a mini-break. Get a drink of water, go to the bathroom, stare out the window for a minute, pace the room. Put ten pieces into a puzzle! Our subconscious is designed to process ideas for us.
These strategies are real, and they work – not all of them for all writers, but the point is to experiment until you find what works. In the course of my day, I will write between 500-1500 words on my novel, and then, when I’m out of ideas for that project, I get out something else I’m working on. It saves me from feeling frustrated with myself or my projects.
The main thing is to think of writing as a real job, one that we are responsible to show up and do.
Otherwise, the next time you’re in line for coffee, you may just hear the barista tell you, “I’m sorry I can’t make your latte’; I’m having Barista’s Block.”