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The Writing Life: Writer’s Block

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When writing is something we make time for, the phenomena known as “writer’s block” can be frustrating. Writer’s block is when we sit down to write, look at the white space following the last line we wrote and blank out. Having an outline or synopsis or idea of where we’re going with the work is no guarantee against writer’s block. We all hit that moment when our brains and fingers simply stop and we can’t find the next word or our way into the next paragraph. The difference between the writers who let themselves remain blocked and the writers who continue to write until the words start to flow again is having tools to break the block and move forward.

The most common reaction to writer’s block is the desire to move physically when we can’t move mentally. The thought is: I’ll just go take the dog for a walk and think about what I need to write next. I’ll start laundry and pack lunches while I think. I’ll just run my errands now and sit down to write later instead. This form of procrastination is insidious and can be debilitating. Some writers linger in the haze of the non-writing life for years, complaining of their writer’s block.

The key to breaking writer’s block is to not avoid the work of writing. When the words are streaming and writing is like transcribing the movie in our heads, we get high on the endorphins associated with the emotions we’re feeling along with our characters. Tapping into those emotions is what makes writing so much like acting and is the reason we can experience a euphoric rush from the act of writing. But writing’s also hard work, and when we’re not feeling it, it becomes easier and easier to turn away from the keyboard and seek our rush elsewhere, no matter how much that hurts our word count and the long-term rewards of completing a project.

Don’t avoid the work of writing when your brain and fingers freeze. Sit in your chair. Forget your outline. Don’t fret about moving forward in your story. Move sideways. Explore, Discover. Generally, this doesn’t mean launching your web-browser to chase down that research you’ve been neglecting. This means write something adjacent to, but not part of your work.

For fiction writing, start a conversation between your characters using any icebreaker or pick-up line you’ve ever uttered at a mixer or con. Randomly pick four of your characters, even those who don’t know each other, and place them at a dinner table. Set the scene, then see what they say to one another. Put two characters who aren’t a couple in bed together. Describe where they are and the time of day. What happens when they wake up? Interrupt the scene you’ve blanked on with the arrival of a dog or a cop or a neighbor or a fire truck.

If you’ve been writing linearly, write the scene you’ve been dreaming about instead or write the story’s ending or pick a scene further down your outline and commit yourself to it, knowing you’ll rewrite later if the plot changes on the way there. Open the book closest to you and type in the first line your eyes land on. Build a scene around it. Give yourself permission to write two or five or ten of the crappiest, most wandering, random pages you’ve ever written in your life and don’t delete them right away.

For nonfiction writing, check in with yourself and decide if doing the research you’ve been neglecting really will fire you up again. Look up a topic or location peripheral to your subject and write about that. Pick a person you’ve only mentioned in passing, look them up, and write about how they became involved in your subject. Write about your passion, your interest in, or your motivation for writing about the subject of your work. Write a short fictional story about or involving your subject.

Don’t believe for a second any writer who says they never have writer’s block. We all suffer from it. The writers who say they never block are the ones who use the tools above to keep moving forward. Blocks aren’t memorable to them because their butts stay planted in their chairs. They’re the ones who know that rewriting is writing and they can’t rewrite unless they have words on the page. Their fingers heat right back up and that muddy dog that ran through the scene they blocked on won’t be found anywhere in the finished story.

Keep writing! Share your tools for breaking writer’s block in the comments and join me the first Friday of every month for exploration, discovery, and discussion of the writing life.

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Elle Andrews Patt's speculative and literary short fiction has appeared in markets such as The Rag, Saw Palm, and DarkFuse, among others. She has earned RPLA awards for her published short fiction, a published novella, Manteo, and an unpublished mystery novel. Her short story, "Prelude To A Murder Conviction" won an Honorable Mention from Writers Of The Future. She'd love to hear from you! Website

4 Responses

  1. David-Michael
    | Reply

    There’s a Stephen King quote on my writing desk – “Amateurs wait for inspiration. The rest of us go to work.” I’m about to add another. This one by Ms. Patt – “If you can’t move forward in your story, move sideways.” Write sideways! Excellent! The key is to write – maybe in circles, but write. There’s a time for letting the passion of the story cool, but that’s after the 1st draft is done. Until then, push ahead, or sideways, as Ms. Patt suggests. You’ll write your way back to the core of your piece without losing momentum. Who knows, an unknown gem may come from the scramble. Many thanks, Elle!

    • Elle Andrews Patt
      | Reply

      Thanks, David-Michael! I’m flattered :-))) And yes, you’re exactly right. Thank you!

  2. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    Excellent advice once again, Ms. Patt.

    I believe Hemingway always ended his day’s work without completing the last sentence he began. That way, the next morning he finished the sentence and was moving forward again.
    I’ve always found it helpful to have several writing projects on the table simultaneously. Stuck on the novel? Put it aside and start that short story, or blog post, or book review on Goodreads. But usually, I’ll just jump to another part of the novel and write something there. Or just sit down and write a list of possible outcomes for the novel’s sticking point. Something usually climbs to the top.

  3. Elle Andrews Patt
    | Reply

    Great suggestions, Ken! I also like working on multiple projects, but for those of you who get too distracted doing that, by all means, engage your characters and go from there 🙂

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