There’s No Such Thing as Writer’s Block
5 tips to get writing when you’d rather clean the refrigerator.
Posted Sep 29, 2019
The secret about writer’s block is that it’s an indulgence.
As the late novelist, Howard Fast, observed: “Plumbers don’t have plumber’s block. A page a day is a book a year.”
Because I earn a living as a syndicated columnist and author, there’s no room for writer’s block, meaning giving in to the feelings of fear and inadequacy that the blank page brings up.
Instead, I have: “Holy crap—my Tuesday deadline’s two days away, and I have no clue how to start this column!”
If I don’t turn it in, I will not be paid for it, and I will also be fired, which means I will rather rapidly burn through my savings and end up living in a tent under an overpass.
In other words, the way you end so-called “writer’s block” is simply by sitting down to write—“blackening pages,” as Leonard Cohen called it.
Below are five tips to help you do that—tools and thinking I use to get writing and make the most of the time I put into it:
1. Be a Slave to the Clock
Evolutionary scientist and psychiatrist Randy Nesse explains that our emotions evolved to solve recurrent problems in an ancestral environment in order to increase our chances of surviving and passing on our genes. The adaptations that worked for us when we were running around trying to spear dinner aren’t necessarily optimal for making ourselves sit down at a computer and pound out sentences.
In lieu of the motivation to do that, there’s "The Timer." I do 52-minute writing jags with 17-minute breaks. (Some people like to do 20-minute stints, but that’s too short for me.) As I explain in my "science-help" book, "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence," writing to a timer means “there’s no stalling to the tune of ‘Whoa...I don’t think I can pull this piece together.’” I sit down at the computer, turn the clock on, “and no matter how horrified I am by what I’ve put down on the page, I keep at it until there’s that ‘ding!’ of the time running out.”
This writing to a timer thing is useful even if you have no idea of what you want to write. You can use that time to look stuff up, make notes, and brainstorm what you could be writing. For every hour you spend doing that, you’re that much closer to knowing what you want to write than if you instead passed the time fretting about not knowing.
2. Work Like a Professional Even as an Amateur
This is great advice I got out of screenwriter Steven Pressfield’s book, “The War of Art.” People who want to write professionally are most likely to get to that point if they approach writing as a profession.
What does that mean? Well, you don’t dabble as an accountant, a doctor, or a bus driver—show up one Wednesday in November for a few minutes and then drop by in April for an hour. You show up on schedule day after day and put in the hours. (For the how-to on this, see above, “Be a Slave to the Clock.”)
3. Write Daily, Even for 20 Minutes
Writing daily, even for 20 minutes or half an hour, is important. You can do this even if you have a job or children if you make it a priority, an essential part of your day. For example, when crime writer Elmore Leonard was still earning a living as a copywriter, not a novelist, he would wake up at 5 a.m. and write a page before he put on the coffee and then write some more before he headed off to work.
Writing daily—even just putting in half an hour—is more efficient and productive than putting in the same amount of time all in a single day (like by writing four hours on Saturday instead of four hours spread throughout the week). That’s because when you stop writing, your brain keeps working, doing “default mode” processing.
This is basically background processing, like when you give your computer a software program to run while you go out to dinner and a movie or go to sleep. It’s why you sometimes wake up all “Eureka!” about a problem you just couldn’t solve while you were hammering away at it for an entire afternoon.
4. Imitation Is the Finest Form of Getting Un-Lost
Another thing I learned from Elmore Leonard is to imitate my way out of trouble.
He advises aspiring writers to imitate writers they admire as a way to developing a style of their own. When he got stuck, he used to turn to Hemingway, retype a paragraph, and then write the next paragraph in the same style. He’d then be in gear to write some of his own stuff.
I just did this when I couldn’t figure out how to start a piece. I really admire Caitlin Flanagan as a writer and thinker, so I looked up the ledes (openings) to a bunch of her pieces in The Atlantic. I didn’t end up imitating what she did, but just the act of looking her pieces up—feeling I was doing something productive—calmed me down. I think the imitating thing Elmore used to do—taking meaningful action instead of just sitting around panicking—could have the same effect.
5. Get in the Habitrail
What all of the above techniques amount to, if you practice them with any regularity, is habits. Habits are behaviors that you begin to do almost automatically. And because good writing habits lead to productivity, they should lead to your feeling good about yourself and your writing.
It’s also helpful to recognize that writing often involves making a big mess on the page—getting lost and then more lost, and then feeling incompetent, stupid, unfunny, and unclear. However, putting in writing time day after day is how you get unlost and improve as a writer—to the point where people want to read your writing and will maybe even pay for the privilege.
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Nesse, Randolph M. "Evolutionary explanations of emotions." Human nature 1, no. 3 (1990): 261-289.
Alkon, Amy. "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence." St. Martin’s Griffin, 2018.
Raichle, Marcus E., Ann Mary MacLeod, Abraham Z. Snyder, William J. Powers, Debra A. Gusnard, and Gordon L. Shulman. "A default mode of brain function." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98, no. 2 (2001): 676-682.