Writing’s always fun when you have something to write. But when the well runs dry, you might find that you’ve got writer’s block.
But what is writer’s block? Is it even a real phenomenon? And if it is, what can we do about it?
As the late Sir Terry Pratchett once said, “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.” Okay, possibly. But I think there’s also a common misconception about writer’s block in general: that it’s a condition where you are literally incapable of writing. I don’t believe in that either, Terry.
I do believe, however, in writer’s stump—and I’m not talking about trees. Writer’s stump means you just get stumped—like on a math problem, or with a difficult riddle. It happens to every writer, probably even Terry Pratchett.
So what can we do about it? Here are a few ideas.
1. Try Working on a Completely Unrelated Project
For me, this method works really well. I think that’s because I remain in the writing state of mind, even though I’m not working on my main project.
To get started, try writing something completely new, like a flash fiction piece or a short story. You could even try writing about how difficult it is to think of something to write, so long as you’re putting something on the page/screen. You might find that it changes your mindset from I can’t write to I’m struggling with this particular piece right now, but I’m still a good writer.
The other side of this coin is just stepping away from writing entirely—but just for a little while, I hope. If you’re feeling especially enraged about your writing, Nicolas Cage-style, then you might want do something else for a while.
2. Look to One of Your Favorite Works for Inspiration
I find this one either works really well or just pisses you off (Cage-style pissed? See previous paragraph). For example, I might pull my hardcover of American Gods down from the shelf, pick a random paragraph, read it, and say to myself, “Wow. When I grow up, I want to write like that.” And then, hopefully, I’ll go back to my piece with a smile and newfound inspiration.
Or, on another day, I might read the same random paragraph and exclaim, “Wow. When I grow up, I will never, ever be that good. Woe is me.”
Your reaction to this method will probably depend on your temperament or what kind of mood you’re in on that particular day. Be careful with this one.
3. Look Back at Something You’ve Already Written
Similar to number 2, but try it with your own work. I would suggest picking something you wrote a while ago and were always very proud of, but haven’t looked at for a while. That way, you might surprise yourself with some especially crackling pieces of dialogue, or a beautifully-written image.
This one is especially effective because writer’s stump is often just a symptom of self-doubt. You get stuck, which makes you wonder if you’re actually a good writer, and suddenly, you have no good ideas anymore. By looking back at a good piece, you’ll see that you’ve already written some amazing stuff, so there’s no need to feel like you can’t write.
Or, for a little fun, try revisiting a piece you wrote when you first started writing. I did that once, and it was awesome. You come out of the experience realizing that you’ve improved a ton more than you might realize.
4. Ask yourself, “What is this piece really about?”
This, like the other tricks I’ve mentioned, is certainly not foolproof. But it’s one of my favorite techniques. If you sit back and look at your story as a whole, not just as one event leading to the next, you might spot the way out of the stump you’ve gotten yourself into.
I think Stephen King sums this method up perfectly in his nonfiction masterpiece, On Writing. He describes a particularly nasty case of the block when writing The Stand thusly:
“I liked my story. I liked my characters. And still there came a point when I couldn’t write any longer because I didn’t know what to write…I circled the problem again and again, beat my fists on it, knocked my head against it…and then one day when I was thinking of nothing much at all, the answer came to me…If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.”
Just taking a step back and looking at the big picture sometimes makes all the difference.
5. Grind it out!
This method isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s worth a try sometimes. If you’re writing a novel and can’t think of a way to get your character from Point A to Point B, just plop her/him at Point B and figure out the “how” later. You might find that the answer comes to you as a result of your subsequent writing. Furthermore, this avoids the blank-stare-at-the-screen-or-page moment, which just leads to more of the same.
The stump/block, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, is one ugly motherfucker. Thankfully, there are many ways to defeat it. I’m certainly no expert, but I like to write about writing and the methods I’ve listed here sometimes work for me. How do you fight the block? Feel free to leave your favorite techniques in the comments below.
And keep on writing!
Like this blog? Read some of my fiction by clicking here.