Writer’s Block Anonymous: The Twelve Step Recovery Program
Or as I like to call it, the blinking cursor syndrome.
Writer’s block, enough said. It’s cruel, it’s evil. And like all things cruel and evil, it won’t go away without considerable travail. Fortitude is key. The key to your fortress of blockage-free, smooth-writing experience is now 12 steps closer; let’s bleed the ink black and blue, shall we? Ready to face your adversary yet? Of course, you are.
All these steps given below are methods that have worked for me on various occasions. But of course, everybody is different. If at least one of them works for you, then this article has served its purpose. I sincerely hope you can find a solution to your problem here.
Let’s get started.
- Admit you have a problem.
Heard of the Klüber-Ross model of grief? Below are the five-stages of grief:
- Denial (“You’re wrong! I don’t have writer’s block. You just cannot rush creativity.”)
- Anger (“But, why! Why is this happening to me?” or “Who do you think you are, coming here, making accusations? Why don’t you try writing, let’s see how that turns out.”)
- Bargaining (“If only my neck didn’t hurt, I could concentrate better.” or “If only my neighbours stopped playing that music so loud…”)
- Depression (“What made me believe I could ever write? There are so many better writers out there, I would never measure up,” or “This is pointless. Who would want to read what I’ve written?”)
- (“I just have writer’s block. It’s not pleasant, but it is what it is. I’ll be okay. This too shall pass.”)
You can skip the first four steps. They’re not prerequisites. If you are willing to accept that this thing is here, and is a very real problem, then you’ve already solved a big chunk of the problem. Congratulations, well done you.
Now that you’ve admitted it, let’s locate the source of this infection. Look inside, identify your key issue. Most problems fall into two categories. Is it with the writing itself, or is it you? Active surveillance, look for symptoms.
What is it today, a birthday party? Tomorrow’s the parent-teacher conference. Then, there’s the meeting. Then your boss invited you to a luncheon. And on and on it goes. See a pattern there? Managing to sort priorities out should help. Instead of coming home and relaxing in front of the television or checking your social media, open that laptop lid (or your book, if you prefer) and get started. You might surprise yourself. (“Oh my goodness, is that the time already!”) Or.
It’s the weekend. You are in a distraction free zone. Nothing to upset you but that blinking cursor (or that blank page) staring at you, taunting you. And all you would like to do is give up. What’s the point? You should not force it, right? Wrong! So, yes, you are not at the pinnacle of your creativity, nobody’s at their best all the time. Do not let it win. You don’t get to blame the neighbour’s dog for barking continuously, or your co-worker for having bothered you, or any one of the hundred reasons that conveniently crop up. Yes, you have problems, yes, you are busy, but you’ll do it anyway. You’ll write. You’ll fight back. Think of it like work, a project you are required to do. You have no choice but to do it. Who knows, you might find the genius rushing to greet you.
- Making it a habit: the Pygmalion effect.
Good, you have identified where the problem was coming from. You’ve tried the quick fixes. Let’s start treatment.
Genius only takes you so far. It ultimately comes to sitting down and doing it, no matter what. You can edit a bad page, not a blank one. Even the greatest idea in the world is only as good as the execution.
So, find a proper time to do it. I don’t mean ‘time’ in a way that says at 9 p.m everyday. I mean, after you come home from work, or before you leave for work. It’s like brushing your teeth. You do it before and after going to bed. Not doing it should start sounding absurd! “Feels so strange, not writing.” Although, I will admit that it takes a lot of conviction on your part to do something like that. You must believe you are tough enough to be able to wake up thirty minutes early in the morning to write those words.
Remember the pygmalion effect: the greater the expectation you place, the better you perform. It’s a nice cycle: expectations – performance – result – greater expectations – performance – results – …
The results will come, keep working. Remember, conviction.
- Don’t cheat.
So, you’ve made your plans. You are going to wake up early, write 500 words everyday before you leave for work/college. Suppose you’re writing a novel, say, 80,000 words. Now that’ll take you 160 days (about 5 months) to finish. Way to go!
So, you stuck to it, you’re already at 30,000 words now, you deserve a little break today. It’s a Sunday, you’ll sleep in for a bit, also you have that party to plan for your best friend. Ah, how about a thousand words, every alternate days instead? It’s the same as 500 words per day, is it not? Or, perhaps you wrote 3,000 words yesterday, you were feeling so creative, so it’s okay if you don’t feel like doing it today, right? No! Read point 3 again. No cheating. Consistency is key. Keep writing.
- No excuses.
Feeling tired? Not in the mood? Nice try. In fact, we’re more creative when we’re tired. Our memories are less efficient, we cannot filter out distractions, we are less likely to actively use logic, we passively accept things. Wait, what? How is that good? Well, you are less likely to be biased, and you broaden your horizon. You are more likely to get new ideas because we are not filtering out information we might deem ‘irrelevant.’ Who doesn’t what ideas?
So, you’re a morning lark, and only work best at mornings? Try writing at night when you’re exhausted. And the night owls? Mornings, of course.
- Making amends: Prophylaxis.
This is great. You are now armed with power of will. You’re doing it. How about an apology though? To your book, to your integrity. You participated in the prevention of a wonderful work of literature seeing the light of the day. Would you let anybody get away with it? If somebody were to hamper your hard work, all that dedication to just halt mid-way? Absolutely not. So why is it okay that you do it?
Why is this important? To prevent you from slipping back into old habits. A prophylaxis of sorts. A moment of silence for all that lost time. How many words died on the way?
- Look for inspiration.
So, you’re a sceptic. “Can I make it?” “Is this worth it?”
Look up to people you admire. It maybe your parents, your teachers, your favourite authors. Collect quotes, put up a poster in your bedroom / office room (wherever you write), make it your desktop wallpaper, or maybe you can pretend to be George R R Martin. Who knows? You’ll probably write the next ‘A song of ice and fire.’ Whatever works for you. Listen to interviews from great authors – their journey, their struggle; not everybody was published right away. Those thoughts shouldn’t corrupt your drive to work.
Those authors you so admire are people, just like you. Once upon a time, they had doubts, they were frustrated, they nearly gave up. They have possibly been through the same things you have, maybe more. They made it, so can you.
- Find extrinsic motivation: Parkinson’s Law.
So, you’ve done it – stuck that poster on the wall, stared at it, been awed. And it slowly sets in – oh, but that’s George R R Martin, and I’m me! What was I thinking?
Find motivation elsewhere, if it won’t come from you.
- Make a deadline.Ever heard of the Parkinson’s law? “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” You have three weeks to finish the project, you procrastinate, procrastinate, procrastinate… heavens, the project’s due three days from now! I know I do it. Everybody does it. If you won’t assign a time for completion, chances are you’ll never finish it (here, time becomes infinite, so, do the maths). It just stays there, crawling inch by inch, barely making any progress, almost nil. Give it a deadline. Maybe dedicate it as a birthday present. “I will complete this by my aunt’s birthday.” And, you will.
- Tell somebody.Yes, tell them you’re writing a book, and that you’ll be finishing it in six months. Now you have to do it. Nothing more embarrassing than not being able to follow up on your promises.
- Use your temptations for good.“I am not checking social media until I finish these 500 words.” “No, I am not eating that toothsome dessert until I’ve found a way to get my protagonist out of harm’s way. How could you!” “I won’t watch that awesome movie that just released until I write 500 words everyday for seven days.” Fortitude, remember?
- Planning and structure.
So, you’re back on track now. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack (scribble, scribble, if you will) and then… nothing. But I was fine!
Which brings us to planning and structure. No, I’m not asking you to plan your novel (unless it’s what you do).
- Write things down.Make tabular columns of birth dates, appearances, all the murders your antagonist committed… you name it. Put things out there. Seeing it on paper might help find answers for you, if that’s the problem. Like a name? Got a new idea for a novel better than your current one? Have a doubt? Forgot to do a chore? Don’t harbour these chaotic intrusions in your head, they ruin your artwork. Write it down somewhere. You can get back to it later. Also, if you write things down, it might clear up some space in your head, allowing you to think more clearly. No, really, try it.
- Talk it out.This works too. Talk to someone you trust. “My character has to get out of this bank, unscathed. The alarms have been triggered. There are policemen outside. How will he escape?” Chances are, your friend might have a solution. Or even using them as a sounding board should help – discussing the problem might spring up new ideas for you.
- De-stress. Stop that cortical atrophy.
You’ve had a really long day. You’ve been studying/working all day, and you’re so famished, you just don’t care. To hell with it!
Don’t listen to that voice, it’s just the stress talking. And how dangerous the stress can be. Stress is sort of a habit. You keep doing it. And the long term effects are deleterious to your mental health. Stress causes cortical atrophy: it shrinks your brain. And guess what it affects first? Concentration, and memory. Yikes! Do you enjoy being forgetful, not being able to concentrate? It’s not fun re-checking things when you’re being creative.“Oh, and where did I put my laptop?” “Wait, are my character’s eyes blue or green?” “Oh, what’s the name of that ferryman, again?” Because that’s exactly what can happen if you continue to do it. Still think you can push through it?
So, how do you de-stress? Reaching for the refrigerator, aching for your favourite poison? Stop. There are healthy ways you can cope with stress.
- Meditate: Known to cause thickening of the cerebral cortex, it can counteract stress and even depression. You are countering the atrophy. And if that wasn’t enough, it helps you relax, clears your mind, increases self-awareness. What are you waiting for?
- Take a walk: Being in touch with nature, the serene atmosphere, the imagery might be just what you need to spark your creativity into existence again.
- Listen to music: Looking for inspiration? Listen to that epic trailer music, or the sad notes of a violin, or that raging guitar. How’s that?
- Exercise: Exercise increases blood flow to your brain and revs you up. 30 minutes of exercise everyday, or perhaps, before writing. Feeling better?
- Eat healthy: Food rich in rich in sugar means more glucose, so more energy? Or maybe you just like snacking on something. These are bad, and not just for your health, but for your memory. Glucose is an important source of nutrition for the brain tissues. But lots of sugar can interfere with memory and other cognitive functions. In fact, it can cause brain to shrink! Eating healthy, and eating well, at that, is the way to go.
- Hydrate: Even mild dehydration can cause mental fatigue, brain fog, memory troubles and many more. So, a cup of water might make all the difference!
And remember, it’s a vicious cycle. Stress – frustration – give up – guilty – attempts to salvage – hopelessness – stress – and on and on it goes.
- Don’t beat yourself up.
Have some faith. It’s utterly important to not beat yourself up. Everybody has trouble down the road. Nobody’s perfect. Acknowledge the inner strength, believe that you can do it. And if it’s absolutely not possible, write something else, but something related only. Maybe do some research for your book, re-read your work and make some changes if you have to, do something. There is only one thing that you must not do – give up.
- Reach out.
You don’t have to do it alone. Heck, you aren’t alone! Misery loves company, remember? Well, know that there have been others who were right where you are now, possibly still are. Struggling with the blasted writer’s block.
Connect, form groups, attend workshops; you might find solutions where you thought it was least likely, and also, you could have one for them. You never know where you’ll find your inspiration. When you’re at step 12, you might as well try, right?
Last ditch efforts:
The following shouldn’t be used as a rationalisation! These are only for the exceptions.
- You truly believe you do not want to write this, all hope is lost. Give it time. Come back to it, all you might’ve needed was a fresh perspective.
- You are utterly busy, you are a surgeon with a 100 hour working week, you have to take on others’ responsibilities, there is no way to fit in writing. Try to write whenever is possible. Never lose hope. Don’t despair. There’s no rush, it’s not a race.
- Think about why you started, why it was important to you. Maybe you’ve changed, maybe your situation is different now. You perhaps don’t enjoy writing about fashion anymore. Maybe you find yourself more passionate about cooking. Or perhaps you would like to switch from thrillers and crime fiction, to non-fiction. It’s about expression. People change homes, jobs, so why not you? Try other topics. You might find something truly passionate. Even more so than your previous one.
I hope this helps. Easier said than done, but if even one of them works for you, I can rest easy knowing that it truly worked.
What are your thoughts? What do you do when the blockage sinks in? Let me know in the comments below!
Now, what are you waiting for? Go write that book already!