How Seven Famous Writers Conquered…Writer’s block
Time and again, my creative writing students ping me an email that says something very like this–
Dear Nina, I’ve hit a crisis/complication/problem/issue with my mother/health/partner/job and because of this I’ve done no writing. Please can I have more time?
I write back, mostly to say, yes, of course, and I’m sorry that you’ve got so many worries that you can no longer write, but…just a thought…you’re not actually suffering from–
We all know how that dreaded ailment. It hits us where it really hurts, directly into our hopes and dreams and deepest needs.
Writer’s block is a strange thing, given that, as Flannery O’Connor
points out, “Anybody who has survived an average childhood has enough to write about for a dozen years”
but also the most soul-destroying thing.The pen has no ink, the keyboard refuses to tap out your thoughts.
Below, I quote Seven Really Famous Writers who have suffered the block, just as you have. They’ve all had periods of blankness, but, unlike Gustave Flaubert, who once said to a friend, “You don't know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands, trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word” these writers have found an escape route, and been thoughtful enough to share it with the world, to help struggling writers like you and me. Here are my seven conquering heros:
NUMBER 1, CONQUERING THOUGH INVERSION
Dan Brown, Author of The Da Vinci Code
Telegraph Features writer Harry Wallop tried out Dan Brown's cure for writer’s block when Brown revealed that he hangs upside down to get the creative juices flowing again. The results, here on Youtube
, are very entertaining, if highly unbelievable; Crazy idea? Don't try this at home? We'll quickly move on to number two:
NUMBER 2, CONQUERING THROUGH WALKING;
Philip Hensher, novelist
One thing I do is take the Tube to the end of the line, then walk back into the centre of London. It's hard not to find anything to write about doing that.
Sounds almost as crazy as inversion, but walking alone is a wonderful way of overcoming all sorts of blocks, and I use it regularly. Now I live in the country, I’m lucky, because my walks can be beautiful, but the point is not to be noticing the scenery, but to allow your steady footsteps to send you into a brown study in which you’ll find yourself entering your character’s minds, houses, conversations, and motivations, all of which can send you hurtling back to the keyboard. Be sure to take a notebook because it’s easy to forget those glimmers of brilliance.
NUMBER 3, OVERCOMING THROUGH FREEWRITING
Maya Angelou, writer and poet
What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.
NUMBER 4, OVERCOMING THROUGH RITUALS;
Laurence Sterne 18th C author of Tristram Shandy
Before writing, Sterne would shave his beard, change his shirt and coat, send for a “better wig,” put on a topaz ring, and dress “after his best fashion.”
Don’t knock it. If you’ve watched Shakespeare in Love, you’ll have noticed the little ‘ritual’ Joseph Fiennes has on-screen – he twirls his quill between his palms and spins on his stool each time he sits down to write. There is nothing wrong with having ‘prompts’ to get you going. I have a writing friend who has to play a game of Solitaire on her laptop before she can begin to write, and there are many more little rituals that might help get you going:
a cup of tea/bottle of water/glass of whisky at your side as you begin
10 mins of yoga, stretching, Tai Chi or similar
Try playing music – no singing, the words will get in the way – baroque/classic for heightened thinking, folk/easy listening for relaxing those muscles – something specific to stimulate production and create that ‘Pavlov effect’
Burn some essencial oils as you write
Start sessions by reading one chapter from a stimulating book
Allow 5 minutes surfing the net – set a timer to make sure you get to work
Keep a writer’s magazine to hand to dip into
Start with a freewrite (see Number 3 above)
NUMBER 5, OVERCOMING THROUGH MEDITATION
Jessica Hinds, screenwriter, playwright and lyricist
Learn to tap into your deepest instincts as a writer, and connect to your writing at its creative source. The goal of meditative writing is to return you to that time, when finding your voice as a writer was as easy as being yourself, and raw creativity flowed as effortlessly as inspiration…You’ll learn to banish writer’s block forever…
When you meditate on your writing, you may find you are taken far away from your surroundings. Although you are not asleep, your thoughts have taken predominance over being fully alert, your brain slows into Alpha brain waves. Writing can be achieved before touching a keyboard, when we visit a strange place in our heads and meditate…or visualize things we will want to write about. Writing is the setting down of the words, pictures, and ideas that have already appeared in our head – whether we visualized them only seconds before we touch the keys, or weeks – even years – before we write. Once a writer knows how to access their imagination, transferring their thoughts into writing becomes much easier.
NUMBER 6, CONQUERING THROUGH COMING AND GOING;
William Faulkner, Nobel laureate
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
Examine your body clock to find out the optimum time for your writing. Now look at the times you’re not ‘needed’ by other people. Ask yourself how you can chose a time, place and length of time to write, by factoring in all the possibilities. Now tell the people you live with, or see frequently, that they must please respect your writing time (and space).
Ernest Hemmingway, novelist, short story writer, and journalist
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next . . . That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it
There are two types of writer’s block – not being able to start, and not being able to continue. If you follow numbers 1 to 5, you will soon be writing. Then you can start to work with number 6; coming to write at a specific time and place, and going away from your keyboard knowing what you want to say next. Further ways to accomplish that are;
working to an outline
walking or meditating on what will happen next between writing sessions
reading around 500 words of the last session’s output as you start to write.
NUMBER 7, CONQUERING THROUGH FEAR;
Michèle Roberts, novelist and poet
”It's usually because I'm afraid of what I'm writing about. In the case of my second novel I had great difficulty writing about incest, but as soon as I realised what I was scared of, and tuned into that, the block subsided.”
You may not be writing something as difficult as Roberts at the moment, but that does not mean to say you aren’t fearful of it. Writing is a terrifying process in itself. We are scared of failure, and when we read our words back to ourselves, we are often shocked at their futility and frightened of ever repeating a process that leads to such despondency. Face the Fear, writers. Bear two things in mind to help overcome it (a) you’re probably being way too hard on your own writing, and (b) so was every writer before you.
Seven Steps to conquering writer's block, all from people who have written successfully.
Over to you… Go Write!