Tuesday, November 9, 2010

bypassing writer's block

For today, Sarah Pride kindly contributed an article on writer’s block. Sarah is a PHC alumna currently working on campus as an internal journalist; she also helps make short films and teaches Tae Kwon Do. Her article, "Bypassing Writer’s Block," briefly examines some of the causes of writer’s block and suggests a blunter, more commonsense method of confronting it. As Jack London once said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Next week, if all goes well, we’ll look at a similar topic: “writing what you know.” This is also very helpful to solving writer’s block. In the meantime, I have a request to make of you. What are your thoughts on writer’s block? Do you know any tips, writing exercises, or other ideas to help jog the creative juices? If you do, please share them! My hope is that you will not just read the articles posted here, but interact with other writers and learn from each other. As iron sharpens iron, so one man (writer) sharpens another.

And now, the article. Enjoy. :-) 

Bypassing Writer’s Block

I don’t believe in writer’s block, and here is why—writing is craft, not magic. This means that we write actively, rather than waiting for it to happen to us. Small wonder that many of America’s famous authors began their careers as journalists. They learned to turn out stories on deadline, whether they felt like it or not.

Still, I’m not denying that sometimes powerful feelings or sheer brain fog envelope us, hindering us from putting down words we know are there. If we name them, they become easier to defeat.

False Perfectionism

When I graduated college and began my job as an editorial assistant, I wrote articles several times a week. Fresh off of academic writing, at first I found these articles a real challenge. I wrestled and struggled and couldn’t produce what I felt I saw in my head. But I didn’t have an option. I had to turn something in, whether I liked it or not. The truth, I found, is that only I know what was in my head. If what comes out on paper is helpful, I count it a gift.

Also, editing and writing should happen in two different stages. We need to give ourselves permission to draft imperfectly, and then we need to allow for enough time to edit.


What if we write something awful? Truth is, we probably will. I currently teach Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art. To reach my current rank as a first-degree black belt, I had to begin with a white belt. I couldn’t do even a basic kick. Sometimes I fell down. If I had stopped then, I would never be able to enjoy the level of physical exercise and performance I now do. Writing is the same way. To master it, we also have to be willing to fail.


Often, especially when we are just starting out, it surprises us to find out that writing is hard work. We expect to sit down and find ideas fall into our minds. Sometimes they do. More often, we have to do some research. Read some history. Talk to an elderly relative.

The other day, I needed to write a screenplay scene about an eccentric person I knew. I chose one of my fellow Tae Kwon Do instructors as the character, and I decided to make him a nanny. Then I got stuck. After an hour or two, I realized my trouble—I didn’t know anything about being a nanny.

A quick Google search turned up two facts. First, male nannies, or “mannies,” are becoming more popular, especially for single moms who want a male influence for their children. Second, most of the parents in an online forum agreed that the wisest thing to do was to install small cameras to keep an eye on their nannies. Those two details provided just the hook my story needed to progress.

In summary, nobody else is going to write our stories for us. We have to do it. And we can’t let ourselves give in to the excuse of writer’s block.


  1. I'm terrible about sitting down and making myself write. For the longest time, I would put it off and put it off, saying that the time wasn't right and I didn't have enough inspiration, or, more commonly, time.

    But then I participated in NaNoWriMo 2009, and experienced the crush of a deadline! I'd of course dealt with deadlines in school writing, but never before in creative writing. It opened a whole new world to me, having to turn out 1,700 words a day, and I realized that you can't just sit around waiting for the words to come to you. They won't just drop out of the sky--they're buried deep inside you, and you have to go rooting around for them.

    Sometimes it requires staring at a blank screen for 20 minutes, running through a thousand different scenarios at light speed. Other times (I do this, because I write fanfiction as well as original stories) you have to watch or read something, or look at a picture, that evokes the emotional response you want to evoke in your readers.

    That, and you have to write EVERY DAY. In NaNoWriMo, I wrote half a book, 51,000 words, in 30 days, because I made myself write. I didn't say, "Oh, I'll just wait and see if I have the words tomorrow." No. You have to sit down and let them flow out of you. No matter if they stink. That's what editing is for.

    This year, instead of doing NaNoWriMo, I'm doing my own take on it. Every night of November, I write at least a page/chapter on one of my fanfictions or short stories. I've gotten more work done on my stories in 11 days than I have in the past 3 months. And I've felt so much better about it.

    So, write and write all the time.

  2. Often, when I experience 'writer's block', it's not becuase I don't have the ideas but because I can't figure out how to portray a certian scene or what transitional scene to put in. In the first situation I put the inadequate phrase in parintheses and go back to it later when the right words hit me. For the second situation, I simply hit 'enter' once or twice and go back to the missing scene later.
    I've found that if I let myself get stuck thinking about a certain section, I quickly lose all the great ideas I had for the next sentance.

  3. @Writer4Christ: That is good advice. Giving yourself a deadline really helps. I rarely finish any of my creative projects unless I’m writing for a deadline. The pressure forces me to think harder, quicker; it gets the creative juices flowing again. Ironically, we often avoid creative writing until inspiration hits—but inspiration is much more likely to “hit” once we’ve already started writing. Once we get going, ideas seem to flow more naturally. And you’re right – even if you hate what you’ve written, you can edit it later. Or even if you end up throwing it away, at least you got in some extra practice!

    @Katie: That's a good way of approaching it, I think. Sometimes (not when you're in danger of losing ideas for the next sentence!) it's helpful to stop writing and just think about that one scene long and hard. I find it helpful to mentally visualize alternate ideas for a scene before committing anything to paper, but of course you can always edit later.