A contribution to the blog parade on #SchreibblockADE2022 by Daniela Pokorny, my first, but the second from this blog.
Writer’s block has been the bane of my existence for a long time. Partly because I have never been a writer able to sit and write every day. Partly because my brain “locks up” and I don’t know how to unlock it. Over time, I have developed a few ways to help me clear the writer’s block and move ahead with writing. Not all of these will work for everybody, but hopefully at least one of them will help you beat the block.
You are riding a bicycle straight towards a mountain. There is no way over it, and you have two choices: give up on the idea of getting past it or changing directions and going around it. When you’re writing and you simply can’t defeat the mountain, then change directions. Step away from whatever it is you’re writing and write something else.
Don’t try to write something similar to what it is that has you blocked. You will almost certainly still be stuck. Really change directions. If you’re writing a short story, write a poem instead. Or write an essay about your favorite television show. Or, if you’re feeling brave, start a novel. If you’re an essayist and blog writer, change your style. Instead of writing a serious piece on parenting, start writing a silly piece about that time you acted like a fool in high school and got caught. Stop trying to write about new software tools in the workplace and write a short piece about what your grandmother taught you.
These changes of perspective can help distract you from the block and allow you to focus on something else. If not focusing on what you want to write doesn’t make sense, think about this: do you remember those magic-eye puzzles from several years ago? No matter how hard you focused on them, you could not see the picture hidden inside. You had to relax your eyes and let your eyes un-focus to see the picture.
When you see that mountain of writers’ block in front of you, stop focusing on it. Simply turn your handlebars and start cycling in another direction. You might find you went around that mountain without even realizing it.
Engage Your Fingers, If Not Your Mind
Sometimes, you simply don’t have any idea what you want to say. You know what you want to do, but you don’t know what words you want to use. Or perhaps, you know exactly what you want to say, but you can’t find the way to phrase them. If you’re like me (or any number of other writers), you find yourself staring at the screen, your hands on or near the keyboard, just waiting for that spark of inspiration to arrive.
If you wait too long, you begin to check your social media and your blog feeds. Then you look at a couple of your favorite websites, or maybe see if there is a movie streaming you want to see. Rarely will any of that bring you that spark of inspiration.
It will distract and un-focus you, similar to what I mentioned in “Changing Directions,” but it engages your mind in a way that takes you away from any sort of writing. Instead, it sends you towards what you want to watch or what you want to say to your friends. It disengages you from your writing skills, which is something you do not want.
Instead of waiting for that spark of inspiration to arrive unbidden, try creating the spark yourself. If you can’t get your mind to engage properly, engage your fingers. Start typing anything. Start typing pieces of dialogue from your favorite movies or type out a joke you like. Type the names of everyone in your family and what you think they’re doing right then. Type nursery rhymes. Type nonsense. Type the first words that come to mind…
At some point, you may find that you have started writing something original. It may be nothing more than a sentence—a verb, a noun, a description perhaps. It will often be terrible. In fact, it will almost always be terrible. Keep typing and writing. You have put a crack in the writer’s block. Take advantage of that. Expand on your new idea or start another one. When you feel it, go back to what you want to write.
I can say that this has helped me more than once. As embarrassing as it can be to admit, I turned one of these silly openings into the first few paragraphs of what became a published short story, “Beldame,” which remains one of my own personal favorites. I don’t remember what I was originally trying to write, but I remember writing nonsense until I stumbled onto the right mix of words and began the story. You can follow the nonsense, or you can simply use that spark of inspiration and return to your original work. Either one defeats writer’s block.
For some people, this may or may not work. Some of us need silence in which to write. Others need background noise of some kind. I am squarely in the second group. I find writing in silence to be almost impossible. I need music. I can write with a movie or TV show playing, but they can distract me. I feed off the music, which fuels my writing and sometimes even changes the direction in which I write. When I’m blocked, I frequently change my background music.
I don’t believe that there is any particular genre or style of music I need to listen to. I get a little tired of horror writers who only listen to black metal, or fantasy writers who listen only to Lord of the Rings soundtracks, or pop-culture essayists who only listen to the buzziest new music. Keeping one’s music focus narrowed can be as destructive as focusing only on that mountain in front of you. It can be claustrophobic to listen only to the same small rotation of music when you want to write. It adds to your desperate focus, the very one we are trying to change.
Change it up and break away from your musical comfort zone. Listen to darkwave or Goth while writing an upbeat piece. Listen to classic rock when writing about new trends. Write science fiction to Journey or the Beatles, fantasy to electronic dance music, horror to Lizzo. I have found that this is the single most effective way to keep my mind from getting frozen in place. Though on the surface, it’s not for everyone, perhaps those who need silence would benefit from trying to write while some music, any music plays.
As an aside, I wrote this over two sessions on October 31 and edited it immediately after. In the morning session, I listened to Moby’s Everything Is Wrong and Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love. That night, I finished it listening to Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast (Happy Halloween!) I edited while listening to New Order’s Low-Life. I like all these musicians, and I’ve written to them many times. However, there have been many times when I’ve been stuck with writer’s block, and instead of trying to fix what I see in front of me on the screen, I try instead to fix what I hear around me, even if it’s one of my favorite musicians. Many times, I have drastically changed the soundtrack, and I’m here to tell you: it almost always works.
The modern fantasy I mentioned earlier, “Beldame,” began with nonsense writing to break the writer’s block, while I was listening to very old American country music of the 1950s and 60s. At some point, I hit another block and nearly gave up on this story. After all, I had begun it as nothing more than a bit of a scribble. But when I set aside that collection of country music, I chose the trip-hop of Massive Attack instead. It completely changed the feel of the piece. Not only did it change it, but I wrote the music into the story, and it became part of the character. It helped to define the main character as someone a little isolated and lonely, out of step with the rustic setting. The music not only helped me break through that writer’s block, but it helped make my story better.
What Should I Do First?
Though it may seem unusual, I suggest changing your soundtrack. Just like when we are reading, when we are writing, we use more than one sense. If you are one of those people who reads their words out loud while writing, how often do you change what you have written—what you see—because of what you hear? All humans can hear the rhythm of speech, the music of language, the staccato beats and soaring flow of poetry. There are times when the words on the page seem fine, at least until you speak them. And then you recognize them for their clumsy oafish language.
What does this have to do with writer’s block? Only a little, but it is a reminder that we hear language as much as we read it. With the continual rise of audiobooks, hearing the words is now the standard. What we hear affects what we read. Therefore, what we hear affects what we write.
Start with that. Then change direction and bicycle around the mountain. If those don’t work, put your fingers on your keyboard and seek out that spark of inspiration. When your words fail you, use the tools you have: your ears, your mind, and your fingers.
–Nickolas (Yes, I’m real!)