Monday, February 22, 2010

Writers Blocked

Once upon a time, a writer couldn't write. Specifically, this writer couldn't write, and it happened more than once. It happened all the time; in fact, it still does.

Writer's Block: my old nemesis dating back to schooling years. Often forced to write something for class, I'd think myself into paralysis and have a staring contest with a blank page--only to win, and lose, over the course of wasted minutes and hours. Writer's block was public enemy number one for Chris the Student, a sure and constant sign that something was wrong with me creatively. Why did this keep happening? What was my problem? And, given the completed assignments of my classmates, was I the only afflicted one?

A few years later, it still happens. Now, armed with experience, some veteran tricks, and the reassuring knowledge that I am not alone, I meet the Block head-on. I've gotten enough Mailbag questions about writer's block I decided to give it a separate post. Thankfully, I've got some answers, antidotes, or at least some extensive research on the subject.

Here are three sources of writer's block, and four remedies. Take it from a onetime victim turned confidante: the Block's part of the process. As such, it's not to be feared or fought, but rather embraced. Hug it, love it, and read on...

Source #1: Your Own Worst Critic
In high school, this was my primary source of writer's block: self-censorship. I couldn't--and didn't--write because I was scared of writing poorly. Every sentence, even every word, was an opportunity for failure. I stared at blank page after blank page, worried about not being good enough. In other words, the problem wasn't one of creativity or inspiration, it was of self-esteem. It wasn't that I had nothing to say (another source I'll get to later); it was that I didn't trust my ability to say it.

I find this happens a lot with young writers, or new writers: they are their own worst critic. The fear of being bad too often overwhelms their ability to be good. Lots of talented folks don't write because they're too hard on themselves. To a different degree, this is symptomatic of hugely successful writers and artists. Everyone from Chuck Klosterman to Tom Petty to Robert Redford has admitted to being unable to revisit past work--they "only see the mistakes." So, if you're your own worst critic, take heart: you're in great company. The trick is getting past it (read on).

Source #2: Running On Empty
The flip side of the coin, "running on empty" isn't about self-critique as much as creative block, or a lack of inspiration. You're writing, frequently, but feel creatively drained. Nothing's clicking. New ideas aren't coming, every word is a battle, and the end result is something uninspired, unoriginal, unfinished, or generally unsatisfying.

For me, this is the most frequent source of writer's block. The bad news is that it can be incredibly frustrating at the time; the good news is that it passes, and you know at the time that it will pass. For example, the moving process in September and October set back my songwriting a bit--I wasn't writing as many new songs as usual then because I was busy with the transition. In November and December, when I got back into my routine, I found that I was running on empty--the ideas just weren't there. I was still so drained from writing, recording, finishing, and performing the new album that I was simply out of new material. The well was dry. My brain needed to regroup.

Of course, this was really frustrating. One friend gave me some encouragement--he said writers aren't just vulnerable to this type of block, they're almost required to have it. Prolonged activity can create fatigue--just ask the NBA player who might need Tommy John surgery, but your average banker never will. In other words, "running on empty" isn't a sign something is wrong, but likely a sign that something is right.

And, again, it's cyclical: in the fall of 2008, I probably finished six or seven songs. In the winter of 2009, I finished close to forty. Ideas come and go, and there are always periods of your life that will be more prolific than others--it's a natural part of the process. The important thing is to stay ready. Which brings me to...

Source #3: Rust
The more you write, the more you write. Right? Personally, I know that I work best if I'm already in the habit of writing. The longer I go without it, the harder it is to get back into it, and the harder it is to create something satisfying off the bat. Think of it like any other type of exercise: an Olympic sprinter wouldn't run his best 100-meters after taking a month off. He'd need to train for a few weeks, get back into a routine, and get those muscles working regularly before he was back to full speed.

Which brings me to another question I get a lot: "how do I know if I'm supposed to be a writer?" I know talented people who appreciate writing and consider it a worthy endeavor, but rarely (if ever) put pen to page. In other words, some people have a feeling (perhaps formed by past friends, family, or guidance counselors) that they should be a writer, but never actually write anything. They often feel vaguely guilty about not writing, as though they're neglecting a true calling. This cycle of inaction-guilt-inaction-conversation-inaction only makes them feel worse about themselves, their work ethic, or whatever latent gifts they have. And for them I bring news of great joy and power, courtesy of my dad, long ago:

Writers write. Period. If you're meant to be a writer, you won't go without writing. More specifically, you can't not write. It's something you find yourself doing even when you're not thinking about it. It's something you'd do regardless of day job, night job, preoccupations, or time-sucking relationships. Writers write. If you don't write, ever, fret not: you're not a writer! You're free! Congratulations!

But if you are a writer, you must fight the onset of mind-rust like a rabid wolverine.

Here are a few remedies...

Remedy #1: Fill a Page
This goes with Source #1, and it was the single most-helpful trick I learned in college: fill a page. In a freshman creative writing seminar, we started every class by writing for ten minutes. Keep in mind, we weren't writing anything. The only rule was that you had to keep moving your pen across the page, without stopping, for ten minutes. Of course, as I was doing it, at the start of every class, all I thought was "this is boring," or "this is silly," or "this is meaningless."

But after that semester, I never had the "blank page problem" again. Without realizing it, I'd formed a physical (not mental) habit of filling a page every time I sat down to write. I did it without even thinking--I'd cleared the mental hurdle of self-critique by simply forcing myself to fill a page.

Another valuable offshoot of this exercise: it debunks the Myth of Importance (something I used to struggled with). I initially wrote with the idea that whatever I was created 1) was final and 2) had to be great. But writing nonsense for ten minutes takes away the mystique from the creative process; there's nothing scary, or final, or even important about anything. It's just you, moving a pen across a page. That's it. Relax, take a breath, scribble some nonsense, and have fun with it.

In other words: keep writing, and good stuff will come later. First, just fill the page.

Remedy #2: Go To the Bathroom
I'll let you in on a non-secret: I have the bladder of a 9 year-old girl. Also, I drink water, tea, and coffee constantly, especially when I'm writing. As a result, songwriting sessions are interrupted every fifteen minutes by bathroom breaks. It happens constantly.

But last winter, I noticed a trend: whenever I felt stuck, I'd get up to "do my business." Without fail, I'd have an idea in the bathroom. Of course, it's not the bathroom that matters; it's the physical act of stepping away from the computer, or paper, or guitar, getting up, walking around, and (this is crucial) continuing to brainstorm while you're actually doing something else. It's the weird mental middle ground of thinking about something without being aware that you're thinking about it--similar to the thoughts you have just before you fall asleep. I didn't know I was still writing in my head, and would come back to the guitar minutes later, suddenly knowing what I wanted to say.

If you find yourself stuck on something, step away from the desk. Get up. Walk around. Check your mail. Go to the bathroom. Get an idea.

Remedy #3: Read Something
For me, reading is part of writing; I can't do one without the other. Whatever I'm reading automatically influences whatever I'd like to write, but it's also good mental exercise. It keeps your brain actively engaged in something creative without the pressure of creating. Of course, literature is an endless source of inspiration, ideas, language, and a valuable escape, but other media can serve the same purpose. Listen to some completely different music. Visit an art gallery. Watch a movie. Let yourself occupy an alternative creative world, and you'll be amazed by what your brain brings back from it.

Remedy #4: Do Menial Labor
I can't tell how many songs came from mowing the lawn. Outside of "at my desk, with my guitar," "in the yard, behind a buzzsaw on wheels" is my most-prolific location. I once got an idea for a song while cleaning my bathroom: I heard water drip in the shower, and the different-sized drops each created a different sound when they struck the tile. It didn't "sound like a melody"; it was a melody. All I had to do was listen.

When I'm working in the yard, or cleaning a shower, or doing any menial labor, my mind is simultaneously shut off and completely open. It's taking in the surroundings in a way that I'm not remotely aware of. I'll realize after the fact that I spent an hour dreaming up a movie plot in my mind, or scripting a conversation with a long-lost love, or hearing melodies in the world I wouldn't have heard (or wouldn't have been open to hearing) before. It's a different version of "go to the bathroom." Step away from the creative process, and see what your mind will do when left to its own devices. You'll amaze yourself.

I hope this post helped some of you writers, or aspiring writers, get past the Block. If we learned anything today, writer's block is a natural, healthy part of the creative process, best combated by urinating constantly and working as a landscaper.

Don't say I never gave you anything.


Anonymous said...


This is one of your best blogs yet. Every student or teacher in a creative writing class of any kind should read this blog for understanding, practical advice, and affirmation. Thanks!

Chris Milam said...

Thank you!

Post a Comment