Battling Writer’s Block

A few years ago I spent quite a bit of time dealing with writer’s block. It was that classic writer’s block: me in front of the computer, pulling my hair out, while thinking “Write write write” but not writing.

What’s interesting is that I got out of that by spending less time at the computer.

The classic advice for writers is “Write 1,000 words every day. Even if you don’t want to. Especially if you don’t want to.”

I had taken this advice to heart and I was spending a lot of time in front of my computer screen, feeling lacking and unworthy when nothing came to me. Yes, eventually I did come up with words on the page. I even signed up for NaNoWriMo, and banged out two novels. Unfortunately they sucked and I discovered that quantity is not the same thing as quality.

When I defined myself as a writer I also defined ‘writing’ as putting pen to paper and creating words. When I didn’t do that every day I felt like a failure. But in fact, my ‘not writing’ time was often time spent creating the ideas behind the words that were to come out on paper later. Was that time spent thinking any less “writing”? I decided that it was writing and suddenly my writer’s block cleared up. Even on days that I didn’t bang out 1,000 words, I still worked out plot twists and ideas, so I was still writing every day.

Classic writer’s block can happen for any number of reasons, pressure being one of them. Studies have shown that adding a deadline to any creative endeavor makes people less likely to come up with outside-the-box solutions. They instead focus on working hard and grinding on a problem at the expense of time and easier solutions.

In 2k to 10k How to Write Faster, Write Better, and Write More of What You Love, Rachel Aaron says that if you’re not enjoying the writing process, you’re doing it wrong. She has a point. During the time that I tried to force ideas into stories, I couldn’t get anywhere. Chastising myself did not help; writing them down and putting them away for later did. Creativity seems to be cultivated, not whipped into submission. I have discovered there is no point in sitting in front of a blank expectant screen when I have nothing to give it. My time is better spent doing chores, taking a walk, reading a little, and finding some inspiration in my life. If I come to the computer only when I have something to say, I write a lot more, and more importantly, I write a lot better!

Embracing the 1,000 words a day idea was not the only mental stumbling block I had to remove from life. ’Should’ is a bad word when it comes to my writing, and whenever I start using it my creative side withers. For example, I found myself struggling horribly over a book. It was long and arduous and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. At one point I was sure there was something wrong with me. And then I noticed that I was thinking I ‘should’ be able to write a story without a plan. I had somehow decided that planning a story made me less creative. When I let go of that and let myself use an outline, the story fell into place and I was once again able to write. Being creative means thinking our way around problems; anything (within reason) that we can do to get our book written is fair game. It’s not cheating; it’s creativity.

Writing needs as much thinking as it does actual sitting down and writing it out. The line between this thinking and writing can be very thin. I’ve discovered that ambivalence is actually my subconscious mind waving an emergency flag that tells me that I have chosen a course in my story that is going to be a problem. Because of my experiences I see any reluctance to write as a sign that it’s time to stop writing and spend more time thinking.

Someone once said that there are two parts to writing: the critical part and the creative part. These two parts have to get along for us to be able to write. I think that is especially true of writer’s block. You need your creativity but you also need to work hard and finish what you are working on. Battling writer’s block is not so much about gearing up to fight and hacking out some words than it is cultivating and coaxing the creative spirit while firmly keeping your eye on the reality that working hard is also important to get things done.

Time spent thinking, rather than holding me back, drives my writing forward and saves me much time in the long run. For me, the path past writer’s block is through it.

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