Maggie Smith hosts the Hear Us Roar podcast for WFWA (70+ episodes available on major streaming services). Her debut novel, Truth & Other Lies, was a finalist in the WFWA 2019 Rising Star competition. You can find out more about her here.
The email arrived at ten o’clock last night. It was from my best writing buddy with the subject line HELP!
A week had gone by and she hadn’t produced any new work. Not a single chapter, not a single paragraph, not a single sentence. But she was a pro—she knew what to do. So she walked her dog. She swam laps at the pool. She cooked a gourmet meal for her family and watched a new movie on Netflix. And none of it helped.
So she reached out to me and said the dreaded two words.
You recognize that feeling, right? The moment when you know you should be writing, but you aren’t writing and it’s making you crazy and you need to get past it but you’re not sure how. The pen’s in your hand but the paper in front of you has nothing on it. You’re sitting in front of your computer in your cozy writing nook in your home, or the library, or the neighborhood coffee shop but the screen is blank. You’re stuck with no idea what to do.
First, realize writer’s block is often not about the writing itself, but about how you feel about your writing.
Has perfectionism crept in? You start telling yourself what you write isn’t good enough. You read your last chapter and think it’s crap. You pick up the latest Celeste Ng and compare your story to hers. You read Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and despair of ever writing such perfect prose. You read through your character’s pivotal encounter with her mother and realize your words just lie there on the page, flat and lifeless. Why even try this writing thing if you can’t be any good at it? And by good you mean landing a top agent (which you haven’t been able to do) or winning a writing competition (and runner-up doesn’t count).
If this is you, please remember the only person to compare yourself to is YOU. Shoot for improving your own writing, which means re-reading a craft book, or joining a critique group, or taking a workshop. Or just going back to the first thing you wrote and realizing how much better you’ve gotten in the time since.
Or maybe the problem is timing. Have you or someone in your family been ill? Have you been getting enough sleep? Is the job that pays the bills zapping all your energy? Have back-to-school errands, a long-planned vacation, or a series of social commitments gotten in the way? If so, stop worrying. All these are time limited. Once you’re through them, you can pick up where you left off on your manuscript. Until then, concentrate on getting well/solving problems/enjoying life rather than beating yourself up. It’s called SELF-CARE and it’s vital to your mental health.
Or it could be fear that’s at the root of your impasse. Are you writing about issues you feel passionate about but they’re dredging up old tapes, exposing old wounds, making you re-examine and relive emotional landmines from your past? Or is it new fears, like what if you lay bare your soul and your work gets rejected—by friends, by critique partners, by agents? What if your writing skills aren’t developed enough to do justice to this story? If so, remember why you chose to write this to begin with—how you wanted to tell what happened to you so your readers would know they weren’t alone. This goal is noble and brave. Keep writing, find your way through the pain, know there are readers out there who need to read your words.
But if none of these reasons fit, try the tricks below to re-discover your writing mojo. They all center around learning to enjoy the process, rather than staying so focused on the outcome. Get back in touch with how fun it can be to create something out of nothing, to bring characters who never existed to life, to explore “what-ifs” to your heart’s content. Here are three of the best ways I’ve found to do that:
- Scientists tell us the average person has 70,000 thoughts a day so trust me when I say, you’re not out of ideas, you’re just not giving yourself permission to explore the ideas you’re having. Carry a small notebook with you for a week and set a goal to jot down 10 interesting things you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste daily. Write a sentence at the end of the day that incorporates those notes and imagine where they might fit in your story.
- Write outside your comfort zone. Write a poem or a flash fiction piece in the voice of your antagonist. Write a blog post that stems from a personal anecdote. Look up writing prompts on the internet and spend an hour playing with whatever comes into your head. Go to www.unsplash.com and imagine what must have happened right before the photographer took this shot. Put the characters in your current work in Elizabethan England or on the moon, change their gender or their age. If you write detective novels, write one of your chapters as a romance or a YA. In other words, PLAY.
- Mimic your favorite writers. Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” You have a wealth of invaluable teachers sitting on your bookshelf – find an author you admire, turn to page 75 (where invariably something important happens) and write or type out a few paragraphs. Next, try to replicate the tone, feeling, voice using characters and plot points in your own novel. Now, do this with three different authors and you’ll discover there is no “right way” to write your novel. Only the one that works for you.
My friend and I emailed back and forth for a few days until she decided to pull Olive Kitteridge off her pile. She wound up writing a series of inter-locked stories along the same lines for her main POV character, which opened up her thinking about new directions she could take her narrative. And now she can’t wait to get up in the morning and open up her computer and discover what she will invent today.
As for me, I’m taking the advice of Charles Bukowski to heart this morning: writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.