Sunday, May 16, 2010

Writer’s Block

My favorite of the lectures that I attended at the Columbus Writing Works conference a couple of weeks ago was Ann Palazzo’s discussion on writer’s block. Palazzo started by having us each fill out a questionnaire intended to help us uncover the reasons for our writer’s block in the hopes of then helping us overcome our individual blocks. Just the questionnaire itself seemed to pry my personal block open a bit because it forced me to face my excuses head on and acknowledge that they didn’t really make sense.

The questionnaire also brought up the idea that maybe you shouldn’t force yourself to work on specific scenes/chapters/stories/etc. that you feel like you should be writing, but instead, let yourself write what you happen to feel like writing at the moment that you sit down at the computer. Writing anything is still writing, after all.

From there, Palazzo focused her discussion around six major myths about writing, myths like the idea that when you really get good at writing, you never get writer’s block again, or that writer’s block is inherently bad (she made a very good point that sometimes, writer’s block might just be your brain’s way of letting you know that it’s time to take a break and recuperate. When you’re strengthening your muscles, you have to take breaks between workouts to let your muscles rebuild. Why wouldn’t the same, she asked, be true of writing?).

Palazzo finished her lecture by giving us some concrete strategies to overcome writer’s block. Many of these were things we’ve all heard before, I’m sure (don’t be afraid to write a bad draft, for example, since you can revise it later, or put your story/poem/essay aside when you get stuck so that you can come back to it later with fresh eyes). She made two points, though, that I thought were particularly insightful.

One was that you should analyze your writer’s block and come up with a specific plan to beat it (which is essentially what she had us do at the beginning of the session). This involves, also, analyzing your own history as a writer. What has worked for you in the past? What was your environment like at the times when you felt really inspired and what seems to be the ideal writing context for you? Don’t worry, she said, about what famous writers say they do. You’ve got to figure out what gets your fingers flying across that keyboard.

The other point was to tell yourself that nobody will ever read whatever it is that you are writing. This might sometimes mean lying to yourself, if you’re already at the level of getting things published regularly, but I think it can make a huge difference in unblocking that creative flow of words. At the very end of the session, for example, she had us do a writing prompt (I’m a huge proponent, by the way, of the value of writing prompts, and while we’re on the topic you should check out our MFA/MFYou Facebook page, where we intend to post writing prompts often). Just knowing that it was a prompt, knowing that if it was lousy it didn’t matter because I was only writing it because some lady had told me to write it, opened my writing valve up all the way and I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.

The main thing I took away from the lecture was that writer’s block happens. It just does. And you shouldn’t be afraid of it. If you just face it head on and plow through it, you can overcome it. Either way, it’s really not the end of the world (and it doesn’t mean anything about you as a writer) if you lose a little time to writer’s block now and again. The trick is to not allow it to paralyze you with fear. It seems to me that it’s the fear of writer’s block itself that really ends up shutting you down.


Justus said...

I'm intrigued by the idea of telling oneself that no one will read it. I can certainly see the value of that for getting started and generating material, that it's basically the same as allowing yourself to write a bad rough draft that you can fix later. But I actually think I often have the opposite problem. Since I know that probably no one else will read my writing, I struggle to motivate myself to work on it. One of the purposes of writing is to communicate, to share ideas, to reach out and connect with others. But if in all likelihood, that won't happen, that what I spend hours working on will just sit in a file on my computer and never be read by anyone else, then why am I doing it?

Of course, I enjoy writing. I like coming up with story ideas and characters, and playing with language. But if no one will ever read it, why go beyond the first couple drafts? Why not just declare it 'good enough' and stop? If I were the last human being alive, I would still make up stories to entertain myself, but I might not bother writing them down.

I tell my students that they need to think about a reader, that they can't assume their reader will be on the same train of thought as them. Their reader won't have ESP and be able to read their minds. They need to communicate clearly on the page, so they have to think about somebody else reading it, even though, realistically, no one except their teacher will probably ever read their essays.

And I think the same thing is true for my own writing. If I were just doing it for myself, I could jot down my initial draft, think through the changes I would make if I were to keep going with it, satisfy myself that those changes would be good, and then never bother making them. In order to get myself going, I often have to keep telling myself that someone will read it, that I will be able to connect with another person through the written word, even though I know that's probably not true.

Ashley Cowger said...

Yeah, that's where I think it comes down to doing whatever works for you as an individual. I agree that considering your audience is important eventually, but I don't think it matters in the early drafting stage. (I tell my students for the first draft not to worry about anything but just getting something on the page; then when they revise I tell them to consider their audience.) I think this method is really meant for breaking through writer's block during an early draft.

For me, telling myself that nobody ever has to read it helps. I realized during the lecture that most of my writer's block comes from the fear that I might realize, once I write something out, that it isn't as good an idea as I had thought it was in my head. It helps me to take away the stakes and just say, "I'll just write this story; if it ends up sucking, I'll just consider it practice."

But if telling yourself that nobody will ever read it ends up just making you feel like there's no point in writing it, then you're right, that wouldn't be a very effective way of handling writer's block (that would just make it worse!).

PancakePhilosopher said...

I don't mind writer's block happening, because I do realize sometimes I need a break. The problem is I'm often so lazy that I'll let the block continue way too long without trying to break it. I think these writing prompts on facebook will be really valuable to me, especially now that I'm graduated on not writing for assignments.

I get discouraged sometimes because I'll be writing something really long, then get writer's block/take a break (like, a months-long break while I do other things), and I come back and realize that what I'd already written could be way better. It's really hard for me to finish a rough draft of long prose pieces because I always feel like I need to revise what I'd already written.

Justus said...

Yeah, it definitely is an individual thing. I think I'm decent at overcoming the initial block and giving myself permission to suck, but then my trouble is more once I'm reworking it that I fear it isn't as good an idea as I originally thought, like you said, or that it won't ever be good enough or whatever, and by the time I'm rewriting it, that's when I want to make it good. Or sometimes I'll just feel, not blocked exactly, but just sort of frustrated or discouraged by how long it can take. It seems like the more I write, the slower I get. I pay more attention to individual words and sentences, so I might spend a few hours working and only get through one paragraph.

And, yeah, I tell my students pretty much the same thing, that they should get through the first draft however they can and they can always revise later. Unfortunately, many of them don't appreciate that their first draft isn't actually what they should hand in to me, that by the time they hand it in they should be thinking about audience.

Justin said...

I think one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to tell yourself that writer's block is not real, that it's not some psychological disorder keeping you from writing. Sometimes, this works. Often, though, I find that telling myself that it's not a real thing angers me to the point of becoming stagnant. Writer's block, even if it's not some disorder, happens in some way to everyone.

The best way I have found to get over the block is just to force myself to write or engage in some artistic process. I'll draw or start writing something completely silly, anything to bring my mind out of the funk created by the block.

It's hard for me to work with the idea that no one will ever read my piece. I have to believe that it will go somewhere in order to make me work at my best. Otherwise, I might be more inclined to just slack my way through a story.

What do you all do with mid-story writer's block? When you have what you thought was a promising premise/image/scene/beginning and you cannot figure out where to take the story?

Ashley Cowger said...

Pancake: I have the same problem with getting partway through a story, then getting stumped, then setting it aside and coming back later wanting to revise rather than continue the story. I know it's hard to stick to it but sometimes it helps to absolutely forbid yourself to look at what you had already written. I sometimes open up a blank document to prevent myself from trying to tweak what I already have. I don't paste the new bit of the story into the larger document until I've got a good chunk going and am ready to take a look at what I already had and do some small scale revision to make it all mesh together.

As a side note, when I'm writing a novel, I often actually do stop before I get to the end of the first draft, because I'll reach a point where I feel like I know who these characters are and I know what's going to happen to them, but I also know that I'm going to have to start completely over from the beginning to make it all work. So I'll just consider the first draft done and open up a blank document to start working on the next draft. That may not work for everybody, but it's been effective for me.

Justin: If I have a good beginning but get totally stumped and have no idea where a story should go, I sometimes try to incorporate some kind of prompt into it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but it's a good way of loosening up the creative flow. I also listen to music that has a similar feel to what I'm going for in that particular story, and often that really gets the ideas bouncing around.

That's interesting about doing other artistic things when you get blocked - that's one of the things she talked about in the writer's block lecture. She said if you do something creative, like draw or play music or take photographs, that might open up the door to your writing creativity. I like the idea of writing something silly with low stakes to unblock yourself. That would probably be really effective for me.