In 1984, John Betjeman, the British Poet Laureate died, leaving the position vacant for whomever had enough scope and gravitas to fill it. Philip Larkin, the eminent English poet, who had written some of the most popular poems of his day, was offered the position but turned it down because he had written no poetry for years. The main reason for this was that he suffered from an acute and prolonged bout of writer’s block.
Writer’s block is something that afflicts all writers from time to time. It can be distressing, especially if you earn your living by writing. You sit down with your blank sheet of paper (or computer screen) and stare at it until, as they say, blood starts to appear on your forehead; you pace up and down your room waiting for the muse to turn up, but she is happily cavorting with other authors and seems to have forgotten your very existence; you try writing out a few words but all that you manage to produce is gibberish.
What is to be done? Is there a solution to the seemingly intractable tortures of writer’s block? The good news is that there are several things that can be attempted in order to get you back on the right track so that your writing becomes productive again. The main objective is to take the pressure off, to write without all the baggage and heavy consequences that we place on ourselves.
Ultimately, key to overcoming writer’s block is to write. Sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it? But it’s true. There are various ways to write your way out of paralysis. Here are 10 possible exercises for getting you to the point where you can write again:
1. Eliminate distractions from your writing. Set aside fifteen minutes to analyze your writing time. Is the seat you sit on pointed towards something that is distracting – for example, a window, or painting, or poster that has too much interesting detail to be resisted?
2. Is your writing time the right time for you. Most people have peak times during a day when they are most productive, just as most people begin to flag at certain points in the day. Find the time when you are most alert and, if you can, use that for your writing time.
3. Think about your writing environment. Is it quiet enough for you to concentrate, or are there extraneous noises breaking through? Is there anything you can do to minimize sound distractions?
4. Write one word, any word. Then write another, any other word. Then keep going writing any word you can think of. After ten minutes of this, review what you’ve written. It’s probably gobbledygook – and yet, most likely, you will have written hundreds of words of that gobbledygook. That is better than you could achieve yesterday. I have often used this when writing poetry. I will write a few poems, which in the end turn out to be substandard and can subsequently be discarded, and these help me to get into the swing of how to write verse again.
5. Open a dictionary and write any word on the page. Then write the next word in the list, then the next. After a few minutes review the results. Are there any connections between the words (apart from their initial letters) that spark your imagination and encourage you to write more?
6. Find a cryptic crossword. Some of the best ones are on the websites of British newspapers such as the Independent or the Guardian. Look at the clues and see what images or scenes they conjure up in your mind. Then try to write about them in short paragraphs.
7. Record yourself talking about how you suffer from writer’s block. Then transcribe it into a Word document and print it out. (You now have the beginning of a short story or even a novel.)
8. Read books. Reading books helps you to hone your talent and eradicate the infelicities in your writing. It also provides you with examples to follow. Read a chapter of a book. Analyze what has happened in the scene you just read. Then try to rewrite the scene in a different way – from a different point of view, or starting from a different time slot, or even writing the scene as though two characters were describing it to one another in a slice of dialogue.
9. Revisit old writing plans. If you want to be serious about your writing, it makes sense to keep notebooks of ideas. This is useful later if you are suffering from writer’s block since it gives you an initial start, a jumping off point that might inspire you to write the initial chapters of a novel, or the first couple of stanzas of a poem, or the opening scenes of a play.
10. Do something that does not involve cerebral activity, something repetitive like washing dishes or mowing the lawn or sweeping out the basement. This has the advantage that while your body works away at some mindless task, your mind can explore other avenues, which ultimately might turn up some literary stimuli that help you to start writing again.
The aim of these exercises is simply to get you writing again. Once you can do that you can turn to the bona fide writing projects you were supposed to be working on. There are, of course, activities that are not conducive to helping your writing. Anything that engages your mind too much or absorbs too much of your attention is most probably not going to be an immediate help in composing startling prose or poetry. Writing is a delicate mechanism and needs to be given time, resources and thought in order to be productive. Setting aside a certain amount of time each day/week/year to write is crucial for the serious writer. Once you have done that, the rest will follow.
It is worth pointing out that journalists write regularly for a living. Writer’s block is not a luxury they can afford. They have a deadline and a set number of words they must mark up in order to continue to be paid for the work they do. The fact is, journalists write whether they have writer’s block or not. I found that myself when I wrote a column for a national newspaper. If you don’t write you don’t get paid. What I found was that even the stuff I wrote when I was suffering from writer’s block was of sufficient quality that it worked. That’s worth bearing in mind too. Whether you suffer from writer’s block or not, if you force yourself to write (as opposed to waiting for the muse to strike), it is quite likely that you will end up producing something of value anyway, even if you didn’t enjoy writing it.