How to cure writer's block
by David Patterson
Many years ago a writer friend of mine who was deep into writing a long history of an organization complained to me that she was in the throes of writer's block.
I responded to her frustration by saying, "I never get writer's block." I went on to explain, "I have a cure for it that always works. I just write."
My friend didn't respond well. I think she said something about my statement being load of condescending bovine excrement—or thereabouts.
But she was wrong. I never had gotten writer's block, and decades later I still haven't. Before you start agreeing with my friend about my ability to shovel the smelly stuff, let me explain. It's not that I don't reach points in my writing where the words stop coming or come out all wrong. Everybody who writes anything of any length hits that wall from time to time. Most writers try to find a way over, under, around, or through that wall.
I don't. I walk away from it.
To understand what I mean by walk away, we'll need to start with a definition of writer's block. I define writer's block as a continuing inability to start or carry on writing. The word continuing is the one that gives meaning to this definition. The wall becomes writer's block when you keep trying to get past it but can't. So how do I avoid writer's block? It's easy.
- First when I realize that I have hit the aforementioned wall, I stop butting my head against it, and after some quick exploration, I stop looking for a way over, under, or around it.
- I walk away from the wall by walking away from the writing I had been doing. No matter what the deadline, I stop trying to write what the wall is blocking.
- I tell myself that the wall is not writer's block. Writing is a craft. I am always able to practice that craft. Some of the products of my craftsmanship turn out better than others, but I can always produce something. I am a craftsman; I know my craft. It's not my ability to write that's at fault.
- I accept that the wall I hit is made up of faulty thinking, not faulty writing. It's my ideation, understanding, knowledge, and/or organizing skills that are failing me.
- Now comes the most important step: I cure my so-called writers block by writing. I start writing about something totally unrelated to what I was working on when I hit the wall.
That wall only becomes what people call writer's block if you allow it to. Early in my writing life, I realized that when I hit the wall it's not my ability to write that's blocked; it's my thinking. I also learned that sooner or later, if I don't make myself crazy staring at a blank sheet of paper or in this day and age a blinking cursor, my thinking will clear. So why don't I just take a break from writing and read a book, go for a walk, sit around my neighborhood watering hole, or generally goof off?
Because nothing clarifies my thinking like writing. I know of no better way to let my mind remove impediments than to write. So that's what I do. I write about something. It just has to be something other than the wall in front of me.
Writing about something else forces me to refocus my consciousness. I simply can't concentrate on one thing while writing about another. That something else walks my conscious mind away from the wall. I am no longer caught up in trying to write my way past it. Something I couldn't do anyway because the wall isn't a writing problem. It's a thinking problem. No longer able to worry it to death, my conscious mind leaves the problem to my subconscious mind to resolve.
I don't know how it happens, but as I write about that something else my subconscious sends a message up to the control room of my brain. Voila, I recognize the substance of the wall.
That recognition is the first step in tearing the wall down. If the wall blocking my writing is made of a lack of knowledge, I get the necessary knowledge. If it's a lack of understanding, I work to obtain better understanding. If I find that the process of writing has let my thinking outrun my organization, I reorganize.
But I could do none of those things if I had continued to try to write my way out of the conundrum that was the wall in front of me. It's like the old saw about not being able to see the forest for the trees. Only in reverse. You can't see the bricks that make up the wall if all you can see is the wall. And the only way you can remove the wall is to tear it apart brick by brick.