Being a Better Writer: Coming At Things Anew – Beating “Writer’s Block”

So, I learned something new this weekend. It turns out, if you overdo your carpal tunnel preventative exercises, you will prevent carpal tunnel … but you can also give yourself tendinitis.


Yeah, so my right arm is nice and comfy in an ace bandage while I type this. It shouldn’t get in the way of my writing too much, but let my tale be a cautionary one: you can be too preventative of carpal tunnel, apparently.

Anyway, today’s post is one that I’ve touched on before in several posts, but never dedicated a full article to. It’s a topic that comes up in every writing class, is raised at almost every basic writing panel, and even pops up online on just about every writing thread with startling regularity (sometimes often enough that the poster could probably have found the prior post on the topic on the same page had they bothered to look).

That question is: what do you do about writer’s block?

I’ll start by clearing up some things: I don’t believe in writer’s block.

You see, a lot of times when I see a case of “writer’s block” presented in a metaphysical format, such as a newspaper cartoon, it’s often depicted as a massive, physical thing. A titanic block of some nigh-impenetrable material that drops down into a writer’s mind and blocks the path forward, or cuts off their creative flow. The artist struggling with writer’s block is tormented for days on end, unable to do anything until the blockage is removed, usually through one of two means: either a climactic event, or the author chipping away at the block for day upon day, dutifully slamming their face into a keyboard or a desk while bit by bit shaving small pieces away from this titanic block, an act that takes days if not weeks.

Worse, many works of fiction depict writer’s block as a force you can’t stop. Movies and television shows abound in which a writer is and has been struggling with writer’s block for weeks if not months—and sometimes years. Inevitably, of course, they are portrayed as having accomplished nothing in that time. They “can’t,” and will often bemoan their fate. Nothing can be done until the block just goes away, and they have little to no control over that.

With such a portrayal in our entertainment, it’s not wonder that time and time again, I’ve heard a young writer say some variation on “I have writer’s block, I can’t write right now. How do I get it to go away?” To which I reply thusly:

You don’t have writer’s block. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. There are dead ends, but there is no writer’s block. It doesn’t exist. There’s no mystical force blocking off your creativity or keeping you from knowing where you’re going. There is no insurmountable block keeping you from your work. That is a product of fiction, of imagination. Writer’s block is not a reason. It is an excuse, a makeshift explanation. Nothing is keeping you from putting your fingers to the keyboard and writing.

This said, while writer’s block may not exist, there are other things that can make one’s writing difficult. Dead ends. Roadblocks. Loss of direction. Weakness in the structural framework. Weakness in the paving crew.

Point is, and if you want to be a writer you need to get this through your head, writer’s block as so many think of it does not exist. It is a fallacy, a creation of the popular mind, devised as a catch-all explanation for why something kept the creator from moving forward. At some point, however, it shifted in the public eye from being something that was a basic explanation to some sort of tangible monster that (I kid you not) can beset “creators” for years (at which point I look someone in the eye and tell them that they don’t have “writer’s block,” they’re just a misinformed hobbyist, or maybe not even that).

Writer’s block is not real. Got that? Good.

Now what is? Because those of us who have laid pen to paper or finger to keys know that there are times when it just seems that things aren’t working. The concept behind “writer’s block” had to come from somewhere, after all, didn’t it?

Well, it did. It came from a multitude of things, each of which has a similar result. But you know what? If we break them down and look at them,  each is actually pretty solvable if we look for the root causes, rather than just throwing our hands up and beating our head across a desk.

So, let’s set up an analogy that should make this a bit easier for us. A story—any story—is like a road. It will have bends, twists, ups-and-downs, rough patches (for the characters, not the writing), forks … all sorts of different things. When we sit down to write a story, we’re building a road that will carry our readers to the destination at the end. And like a real road-building project, there will be times when we come across obstacles.

These obstacles are what most young writers see as “writer’s block.”

But in truth, they aren’t a block, no more than a patch of sand or a small pond is a block to a road. No, what makes it a “block” is that young writers often charge ahead, slamming headfirst into whatever obstacle they’ve written themselves towards, throwing themselves at it again and again, hoping that something will change.

It usually doesn’t. Sometimes it does, if only usually because they’ve spent far more resources than ever should have been intended. Sort of like an old comic strip in which Mario from Super Mario Bros. encounters a bottomless pit and burns through 98 of his 99 lives, making a bridge he can walk across of his own bodies (which I couldn’t find a link to, sorry).

Young writers don’t need to do this. In fact, no one does. Quite often, what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle up close becomes easily beaten if they just step back a ways and look at it.

Which, at last, brings us to the title of today’s post, the “coming at things anew” part. Why do people get stuck up on one part of their story for weeks at a time? Because they don’t step back and look at it from another angle.

Let’s continue with the road analogy. Suppose you’re writing, and you reach a point where you’ve written yourself into a corner. The villain is unstoppable, the protagonists can’t escape … something! You’ve reached a dead end. There’s no way that you can see going forward.

Go back. This isn’t writer’s block. This is a story that’s gone the wrong direction. Or maybe the bridge you need to build needs to be bigger than you thought in order to support itself. Regardless, you haven’t stopped because you’ve fallen prey to some mystical “block,” but rather because the analytical part of your mind is aware that you can’t simply pass the obstacle in front of you without leaving a weak road.

Young writers need to learn that when they reach a blockage, the problem isn’t with them (usually), it’s with the story. What they need to do instead of powering through or giving up on things is back up and look at what’s keeping them from moving forward. Like a civil engineer inspecting the ground around where the road was supposed to go, we need to step back, backing up and looking at morethan just the scene we can’t write. We need to examine the “ground” around it, the framework of the story thus far. We need to look past saying “I’ve stopped” and ask ourselves what the cause of that stop was.

This takes effort. And humility. Often with a young writer, part of the problem is that they don’t want to admit they made a mistake. They want to believe that nothing is wrong with the story, so something else is stopping them from writing. Or they don’t want to undo their work. I get it, that’s painful.

But sometimes it has to be done. Roads sometimes have to backtrack, go a different direction. Bridges have to be launched from proper banks with the right supports. If the supports aren’t there to begin with, the bridge collapses, and the road crew has to start from scratch, sometimes moving the bridge to a different part of the riverbank.

The symbology here is clear: When we reach a point where our story isn’t working, when we feel like we just can’t make it work, usually it’s because we can’t. We need to step back and take a wider view at things. We need to backtrack down the path of our story and find the point where we set ourselves on the path that doesn’t work, and quite often start anew from that point (a point that can be just paragraphs back, or sometimes chapters). We examine the elements that are holding our story from moving on, and then we come at them from another angle or head in another direction entirely.

Okay, okay, you’ve got the point. Now the kicker that I’m sure some of you are thinking: How? How do you step back and look at things from a different angle? And here’s where things get interesting.

Sometimes, we do this literally.

So you’re sitting at your keyboard, you’ve looked back at your prior stuff leading to where you’re stuck, and you still can’t see a way out. Does that mean you need to just wipe it all and start over?

No. It just means you need to come at things anew. Not just the story, but your writing mindset. What am I getting at? Easy. Get up, and go do something else for a while.

See, part of the difficulty of writing is that we’re often trapped in one place. We don’t move much and our stimulation can sometimes dry up. We get in a groove … which isn’t a bad thing. Until we get stuck, that is.

Sometimes you need to stimulate your mind. Get up, get some blood moving. Do some chores. Go for a walk. A hike. A ride. Play a game. Listen to music, watch some TV (though it’s best if you also get your blood moving at least a little, more on that in a bit). Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to not think about what you were working on for a little bit. Let your mind clear itself and reset, shift over to something new. When you do finally come back around to work on your story, you might find that the block before was just in you being stuck looking at things from the wrong angle. Clearing your head out by doing something else allows you to come back with a freshened perspective and can help you get the look you need. Do this, and between it and learning to take steps back, you’ll find that most blocks don’t last longer than a few hours at most (or days, if it’s a particularly gut-wrenching chance that needs to be made).

But there is still one area where you can trip up, and so I come to the last little thing you can do. Well, okay, it’s not little. But earlier, I said that usually the problems arise from the story. Here’s the kicker: Not always. Sometimes, it’s you. The story isn’t functioning because you aren’t functioning. Not at full capacity, anyway.

What am I referring to? Be healthy. If you want you be a good writer who can write well, you’re going to need to keep your mindsharp. And a sharp mind usually comes when you take care of it. Exercise, eat food that isn’t going to absolutely rock you, and work at keeping your senses and intellect sharp. Keep the mind alert. Get enough sleep.

Hemingway may have written while tired and drunk, but guess what? Apparently, that’s a myth. He did drink, and he did write, but supposedly not at the same time. Either way, you aren’t Hemingway.

Get the sleep you need. Keep your mind sharp. You want to be a good writer? Keep your body in good shape. You don’t have to be a gym rat, just someone who can walk more than a few miles without dying. Science supports this one: Keep yourself healthy and functioning well. It’ll help you spot your own mistakes and work quicker.

So, our conclusions—

First, writer’s block is a myth, a mental concept that has taken on a persona that does not exist. The giant block that cuts off a writer’s creativity or stops them from moving forward? It does not exist. Period.

Second, roadblocks of one kind or another do exist, but they can all be surpassed. As authors, we have to take steps back and see the whole picture, look at our work from a wider perspective to see where we went wrong. Sometimes we only need to go back a few steps, other times a whole few chapters. Remember, when we reach a roadblock, it’s because we’ve recognized that there is something wrong, and that we need to fix it.

Third, sometimes we need to push away from our desk and take real-life steps back. We need to step away and let our minds unwind. Go to the park. Take a walk. Watch a TV show. Do something that gets our mind on a new topic, so that when we come back to what we were working on, we see it with fresh eyes.

Lastly, we need to stay healthy. We can’t build a four-lane highway with three bridges and two cliff-side passes if we’re half asleep, running on only a fraction of our brainpower. Writing is work, and we need to be well-rested and healthy to give it our best. Keep your mind sharp, keep your body healthy. Take care of yourself so that you can in turn take care of your readers.

So, realize there is no such thing as writer’s block. Learn to step back and look at the story from another angle. Go out and get some sun, then come back and look at the problem anew. Don’t be afraid to move several steps back and start again.

And then write.

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