Whether you’re a writer or someone who just has to get something written, that thing we call writer’s block can raise its ugly head. Some people call it the “white page syndrome”—or the blank screen syndrome—but it all amounts to the same basic thing: not knowing where to start or crossing out everything you write and starting again. And getting more and more frustrated with each attempt.
It seems to me that the cure for writer’s block should be bottled and sold—if someone could concoct more than a panacea. Until that happens, we will all keep trying our old tricks, hoping to alleviate the exasperation—and even distress—that it brings.
If you’re like me, you’ve googled “the cure for writer’s block” and seen that there are myriad solutions, all of which have merit, from going on a hike to free-writing through it to taking a shower. What I’ve discovered is that the solution to writer’s block is very personal. Different things work for different people.
I’ve been writing professionally for so long that I’ve had many opportunities to see what works for me (that means I’ve had writer’s block far too often!). Four basic considerations constitute my tricks for breaking down that block. Maybe just one of them—but hopefully all of them—will help you too.
Understand the term “runway material.” That is the “bit” you write first—and ultimately, the bit you cut first. But you’ve got to write it because, without it, you can’t fly. Remember this: it’s a place to start. And you’ll get rid of it later, even if, in the moment, you feel very attached to it. Above all, realize that taking off and landing are essential—but may not be worthy of your final text.
Don’t get caught up in “procrasta-research.” Be careful not to use research as an excuse not to write. I’ve done this more times than I can count. Doing research tricks you into thinking that you’ve done good work because you’re learning something. And you’re convinced you’ve got to find that essential nugget of information that will make your text shine. But the great majority of the time, you don’t need to do more research. You just need to write.
Stop caring. Once you’ve accepted the fact that there will be runway material, go ahead and write it. Better yet, care so little that you think of your whole text as runway material. And realize that once you’ve finished writing, you might end up salvaging more than you thought. Seriously though, one of the most important lessons for me was discovering that the less I cared, the more I felt unfettered.
It’s a draft—you can always fix it later. And let’s face it, you will always fix it later. One of my writing mentors drilled this into me: “If you don’t have a draft, there is nothing to fix.” So write it as a draft and know that you can fix it later. And by the way, often you can only do this once you no longer care.
Along my writing journey, I’ve picked up useful advice from others too. The two pieces I will share here were both passed on to me by contemporary American poets.
To break the block, the Detroit author of seven books Jacqueline Suskin writes lists of things she likes. It makes her feel positive about all the beauty in her life and helps her let go. Suddenly the words begin to flow. So write a list of things you like and see where it takes you.
Brooklyn, NY- and Kentucky-based poet Ada Limón simply doesn’t believe in writer’s block. Somehow, whenever she feels a blank coming on, she convinces herself that it’s not so and just writes. I’ve tried it. It actually does work—maybe not every time, but it works.
And if every time I have a block, any one of these tricks works, well, I’ll have more words on my page—and so will you. And in the end, that’s all that really matters.