The sinking feeling staring at a blank page, and seeing it as a depressing reflection of my own mind.
Having too many thoughts flying through my mind, but they are elusive - the moment I reach to solidify one in words, it slips through my hands and I’m left grasping for the next, and the next...
Having a scene that I want to express, but unable to get past an obstacle - a word, a name, a description - and I’m writing, deleting, rewriting over and over unable to move on until I get it just right...
Finding endless excuses to avoid facing the manuscript and the prospect of writing.
Are any of these feelings familiar?
Writer’s block comes in many guises, none of them pleasant, all of them frustrating. All of them mean we are spinning our wheels not writing when we should be writing.
And there’s loads of advice and techniques out there for how to get around it. I talked last week about one of them - just keep writing - and why I don’t find it satisfactory on its own.
In order to employ “just keep writing” successfully, you need to be clear to yourself about exactly what you mean in this instance by “just keep writing” (because it can mean an awful lot of things) and understand what it is you expect to gain. More generally, people are rarely clear what’s going on when they experience writer’s block, so they try techniques in a haphazard way hoping that something will work. It’s like trying to cook a meal by pulling random implements off the shelf in the hope that one of them might prove useful.
I’ve come to the conclusion that these symptoms that we call writer’s block are simply signs of something deeper. My subconscious mind is usually (not always, but usually) telling me that I haven’t gained the necessary clarity about what I want to write. My response to this kind of block nowadays is to try to be more systematic, more scientific, in looking for the underlying issue. Rather than throw random solutions at the problem, I try to understand the problem first, and then choose a suitable tool from my toolkit to address it.
Conversely, I’ve noticed that when the words flow the easiest, I have a clear picture of the scene in my mind, of the characters involved, their goals, and their surroundings. That doesn’t mean I have everything in the story mapped out, though the larger plot can also be a stumbling block at times, that’s just the way I write. I can leap ahead and totally pants scenes that I envisage, and work out how to weave them into the big picture later.
On those occasions when I’ve been successful at meeting writing goals right through a first draft, my process includes just enough planning, plotting, and scene-setting to keep ahead of the writing curve. I try to sniff out the potential blockages and deal with them before they become a problem, or recognize when I’m hitting a sticky patch and ask myself what’s getting in my way.
Yes, sometimes I’ve also taken the advice to work on something else, to take time out. But nowadays I don’t look on that as a direct technique - as in “write something else and as a direct result you’ll miraculously find it easier to write this story”. I see it as an acknowledgment that although I have unfinished business with this story, the answer isn’t going to be forced. In other words, working on something else gives me time out so I can come back to the story with fresh eyes, but the underlying problem will still be there waiting to be solved.
What does writer’s block feel like to you, and what’s worked for you to overcome it?