Thursday, December 14

Writer's Block

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Nearly all professional and amateur writers have suffered at some time from writer’s block. Perhaps people like Isaac Asimov and Balzac never had the problem. For both of those men, the quantity of written material produced in an almost continuous stream over many years indicates that if they were blocked, it was never for long. The rest of us know the feeling of staring at a clean, white sheet of paper or an empty screen on a computer or word processor. A number of solutions have been proposed, but they are all variations on the same theme: do something else for a while and then get back to writing.

If you cannot seem to get started on something new or you get stuck partway through a work in progress, it can be due to a lack of clarity on what you want to say. In those instances, walking away from it and then coming back later can indeed provide a jumpstart for the process. Perhaps you cannot seem to get an opening sentence formed or you cannot figure out how to create the transition to move your work into the next section. Washing the car or cleaning out some of the junk in the garage can keep you busy while your mind continues to construct openings or move concepts around to find the best fit. When you return to your work, you may find that the problem has been resolved and you can go at it again.

There is a fundamental, philosophical problem with dealing with writer’s block in this way. The idea that the way to get your work done is to not do it right now just seems wrong. For most of us, writing is work, whether we actually get paid for it or not. That means it must be approached as work. When you are having difficulty creating just one coherent sentence, stay with it. In an analogous situation at a regular job, you do not have the option of ignoring an assigned task because you are finding it difficult to begin (at least in most companies that option is not available). It may be painful to force yourself to begin the task but you must persevere and produce something. That is why they call it “work”, instead of “playing with crayons”.

If you find yourself staring at the screen while it stares back at you, sit there and stare at it some more. If you cannot figure out exactly where and how to start, begin in the middle. Write the part you know how to write and add the rest later. One helpful tool is an outline. Block out the entire piece, including as many sub-headings and details as you can. Then work from the outline. If you have properly planned the structure of what you are trying to write you should be able to start the actual writing process almost anywhere. Maybe as you progress you will find that the order needs to change, and what you originally placed in your outline as heading “C”, sub-heading “1”, really fits better three headings later, it is a simple matter to re-arrange. With our modern technology we no longer have to face the daunting task of re-typing an entire work because something is out of place.

The point is, do not use “writer’s block” as an excuse to avoid what you need to do. Stay with it. Anything you write can be re-written if you do not like it. But if you are having trouble with a blank screen, washing the car will not fix it. When you return, the screen will still be blank.

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