Every author in the history of the written word has been there: Staring at a blank page, unable to break through the freezing fear of putting pen to paper. This writer’s block might go on for hours, days, or years, and even the most talented aren’t immune. Join Stephanie and Angela as they discuss strategies to help you tear down that wall.
Stephanie: Welcome to Dog Ear Publishing Editors Corner, in which we explore all things editorial. I’m Stephanie, the managing editor at Dog Ear Publishing, and here with me is my colleague, Angela.
Angela: Hello, everyone.
Stephanie: Now, Angela and I have been editing collectively for 31 years and in this podcast we try to take some of the confusion out of writing and publishing your book. Today we’re focusing less on the confusion, however, and more on the actual process of writing. We’re trying to focus on strategies for dealing with writer’s block. I shouldn’t say we’re trying to focus, we ARE focusing on some strategies you can use to deal with writer’s block.
Angela: Exactly. Before we even get started, the first thing I wanna say is that everybody gets it.
Stephanie: Yes, everyone.
Angela: Yeah, and I know this is focused on writing but we’re not just talking about writers. Artists, architects, I think anybody. I think even as a parent I sometimes get the block. “It’s just not happening today,” you know? It’s completely normal.
Stephanie: Yeah, “How do I handle this? I have no idea how to handle this situation.”
Angela: No adulting today. Exactly. But it’s normal no matter what field you’re in and it and doesn’t last forever. There will come a point, it may be the next day, it may be the next week, could be longer. We don’t know. Depends upon the situation. But it will go away eventually, so we just wanna talk about some strategies to make that time in between maybe a little less scary.
Stephanie: Right. I think one of the first things to do as you pointed out in the article that you wrote for this is to relax. Try not to freak out that you have writer’s block, even if you’re on a deadline. Just relax, take a deep breath. Taking those nice deep breaths and getting the oxygen in helps your brain function better.
Angela: Yes. I think for me, the harder that I push, the more tense get and the worse the writer’s block gets.
Stephanie: I get stuck in that loop, maybe you do, too, where you’re, “Oh, my gosh!” All you’re focusing on is the fact that you can’t write, so then all you’re focusing on is the fact that you can’t write. Of course you can’t write.
Angela: That “can’t, can’t, can’t,” chugging through your brain. But I think that’s one thing I love about the way we do our Editors Corner articles. One of us will take the main writing task and then when we’re done with it, we can send it to the other person and they go through it and edit it and tell us what needs change. Even on the times one of us is having writer’s block, we can get an article out, even just a rough outline of it, and send it to the other person and have that person back us up and get us back on track. Having that feedback, for me personally, really can make a difference if I’m feeling stuck. It gives me new ideas.
Stephanie: Absolutely. I think it’s important to point out that we still sometimes have articles that take us a month or more to write. But there’s just that slow, steady chipping away. I think some authors have talked about this before, some famous authors. Sometimes all you have to do, you just write, write, write. Even if it’s painful.
Angela: It is crap.
Stephanie: Yeah, sometimes you just have to get through that and just write and see where it takes you. You may end up deleting most of it, but it gets your brain in that habit of writing again.
Angela: Well, I think, too, I keep thinking ways that I try to distract myself if I have writer’s block. I get it a lot with Editors Corner articles just because we put out so many of them. We have a specific number that we’re trying to do at any given time. There’s that pressure. “We have to get one out. We have to get one out.” I feel like when I’m in that, where I start getting blocked, I have that tendency to get online and start clicking through things and trying to just distract myself. It almost makes it worse because it takes that, what would you call it, the length of time you’re able to concentrate and shortens it. When you try to-
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely.
Angela: Yeah, do you know what I mean? You’re reading really quick Twitter feeds or really quick Facebook posts and stuff, I think your brain almost shrinks down to snack size so that when you’re trying to back and actually write the meat of an article or a story or a book, it takes my brain some time to actually expand back out and be able to handle that length again.
Stephanie: Right. Well, and there is actually something to that. Social media, especially, and most electronic things are focused on the novelty factor. They’re giving your brain something new all the time and when you’re trying to write, that’s not what you want at all. You need to be able to have that long focus. I actually find that if I’m having an issue with writer’s block, what I will do is read someone’s book about writing.
Angela: That’s a good idea.
Stephanie: I talk a lot and write a lot about William Zinsser’s work. Quite often, if I am at an impasse, I will go back and read those books for inspiration. Sometimes I end up completely discarding for a moment whatever I was working on because reading that will give me an idea.
Angela: That’s true.
Stephanie: That’s something I find that works very well for me when I have to write something and I’m having issues
Angela: Well, it actually made me think about we quote Stephen King’s book “On Writing” quite a bit in our Editors Corner articles. I think it’s almost like having that gentle reminder that, “Hey, what you’re doing is important to you and you’re a writer and it’s a big deal and you can handle this.” A lot of those books on writing actually talk about the author’s experience with writer’s block and it just makes you-
Stephanie: You know you’re not alone.
Angela: Yeah, exactly. It makes you feel less alone. That’s exactly right. I’m curious, though. Have you ever found if you’re having writer’s block and you force yourself to write that it comes out really crappy? It’s actually better to just push all of the writing away, even for a little bit of a break, and then try to come back to it.
Stephanie: Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes what I do, then, is I get up and go for a walk outside even if it’s just a couple of minutes. I think it has to do with the oxygenation. You’re taking a walk, you’re moving those large muscles, you’re getting more oxygen flowing through your body. Have a big drink of water. I do think that helps because if nothing else, I find a lot of movement helps clear out a lot of those stuck thoughts in your head. If you’re not thinking very clearly, the walking can clear your mind completely and then sometimes you get that idea that comes in.
Angela: I think just getting away from the noise and especially the responsibilities of your daily life, it just gives you a chance to relax and actually have that creativity flow again, you know?
Stephanie: Right. I remember in the article that you wrote somewhere, someone was talking about sometimes even writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.
Angela: Yeah, that was Charles Bukowski. Charles Bukowski, a really awesome, interesting poet if you’ve never read him. I think another one was Maya Angelou saying you’re basically sitting down to just writing. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, just, “The cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” Just so that you can keep your brain going in that writer’s mode.
Stephanie: Right. That’s what I find. I get up and go for a walk and then come back. Then if i still need to write, I do that. I had a professor in college who suggested to us that if we wanted to write like someone famous, we should read a lot of their books and then even start by picking a page at random and just typing what was on that page to get you going.
Angela: I like that idea.
Stephanie: I have actually found that that has helped me sometimes whenever I just don’t know what to say. I will pick, say, William Zinsser if I’m trying to write about writing. I’ll grab a Zinsser book and just pick a page at random and start typing that. Sometimes that something you see there sparks that idea in your brain and it’s not quite like just reading the page because you’re writing, your engaging those writing muscles when you’re typing those and it can spark something.
Angela: I like that idea a lot, actually. I think it actually reminded me of a writing teacher I had that said you start off with the sentence, “What I don’t wanna talk about is” and go from there because I think sometimes not so much with articles but if we’re trying to actually write a book, one big thing that holds us back is that fear of almost opening yourself up. You have to forget about the people that might be reading the book in the future and just focus on all of that stuff that’s inside that’s dying to come out and just let it go.
Stephanie: Another thing, this goes along with the idea of writing in your journal. I think you mentioned in your article that it was Steinbeck, I think, who said, “Pretend that you’re not writing to your editor or your audience.” If you start to feel intimidated, I guess, by the idea of who might be reading this and how you can possibly please them or write something that someone will like is write like you’re writing to a friend or a loved one. That can really make a difference. I’ve always said before in our … oh, my gosh, now I can’t even think about it. The exercise, the writing exercise that I’ve done-
Angela: Yeah, show versus tell, like you’re sitting around a campfire telling a story to a best friend.
Stephanie: Exactly, because a lot of times that helps us because a lot of us get stuck in that idea, “Don’t write how you speak.” We have that pounded into our heads in high school, college, whatever. Then you’re like, “Oh, I’m not gonna be able to say it right.”
Angela: Yes, yes.
Stephanie: The important thing at the beginning, though, is to just get your ideas out. You can always make it pretty later, but you have to get those ideas out. Sometimes when you’re thinking about talking to someone you know would love this story that you’re trying to write, that can help take some of that intimidation and that scariness out of the process.
Angela: Exactly. We have to remember the very first time you’re sitting down with a pen and paper or computer or whatever, you’re creating a first draft. You don’t get to the end of the first draft and go, “Okay, well, it’s published now. I’m gonna go send it out.” That’s not how we work. We’ve been trying to let our listeners know there’s a process to it. You do that first draft and it may be a mess, but that’s okay. It doesn’t matter. As long as the words are coming out, that’s what we’re looking for. You don’t need to worry about what the editor’s gonna think if you put in a comma in the wrong place or a word is misspelled or, “Oh, my gosh, what if a reader out there is offended by this one idea I’ve put in?” None of that stuff matters. You will have time to fix all those things as you’re working through different revisions, working with an editor, or all of that time that’s gonna pass between when you’re writing and when the book’s actually published. Exactly like you said, you get down what you can and then you worry about the editing and stuff later.
Stephanie: Yes. I always had professors, I don’t even remember which professor this was, who always said, “Don’t edit as you write, just write.” Of course, at the time, I didn’t understand what that meant because it’s just my brain, “I need to do it right the first time.” I had never full conceptualized this idea of just getting it down and not worrying about how it looked. You know, I also didn’t appropriately go through the stages of write and revise and revise and revise.
Angela: Right. I think-
Stephanie: So many college students often do. They write it the first time and call it good.
Angela: Oh, yeah. Well, you don’t really learn the process until you’ve had to go through it and figure out what you’re doing wrong.
Angela: But that is the one part I hate about being an editor is that now when I’m reading or writing, it is extremely difficult to turn that part of my brain off.
Stephanie: It really is.
Angela: Yeah, just let the words pour out. I talked before about having you to bounce ideas off of and help me work through Editors Corner articles and vice versa. I think that’s a really interesting idea for a writer. I don’t think you have to join a writer’s group. A lot of writers are introverts and that’s fine. But maybe just having somebody that you can bounce ideas off of and, I guess, check in with once in a while that’s gonna say, “Hey, what have you been writing the past couple weeks?” You’ve got that motivation to keep going even if it’s, “Well, I got one paragraph.” That one paragraph, that’s fine. Let’s see it. Let’s see what it looks like. Somebody that you trust, somebody that you get along with, that will be honest with you but construction. I guess somebody to almost, like I said, check in with to keep you on the straight and narrow about those things.
Stephanie: I think when you talk about that it makes me think of NaNoWriMo.
Angela: Yes, yes.
Stephanie: It’s not a writer’s group, necessarily, although writers groups participate in it. But there’s a lot of support for the month of November for people who wanna get together and do that because there are challenges that they can accept, too. That always makes me think of it because I do have a friend who participates in NaNo every year. That’s what she really does. She uses that opportunity to get feedback on ideas, maybe stuff that she’s written previously months before.
Angela: Yeah, I think it’s a great idea. I like, too, with NaNoWriMo, it’s hard to really say it. I don’t know if I actually said it right. I can say it long form but give me a break on short form today, please. But that it allows you to participate in groups and stuff only as much as you want. If you want to get super involved and go to physical, actual writers groups and stuff you can do that, or you can just read through some forums, check in with some Twitter feeds, and you still get that opportunity to see what everybody else is doing and I think some people are really motivated by that. It’s not a competition, but just having that, “Well, gosh, they did that? Well, I wanna do that, too. I don’t wanna be the last in line.”
Stephanie: Right, something to aspire to.
Angela: Yes, yeah. I like that, actually. I don’t know, because some people work better with deadlines, some people work better without them. I don’t know if I think they’re a good thing to have if you’re just trying to finish a book. I think you’ve been working on your book for a while.
Stephanie: A long time, yes.
Angela: I was gonna say a while, but you do have that timeline. “Okay, I’m gonna be finished with this part of it by this date,” right?
Stephanie: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah, and I miss that periodically because life interrupts. Unfortunately, not a full-time writer. But yeah, that helps me stay focused. Again, I miss it quite frequently but it does help me stay focused. If I don’t have a deadline in mind, then I can just let it lie there unattended for months at a time.
Angela: It’s almost like not having any kind of accountability. If you have that, even if you tell person that deadline or write it in big, block letters on your calendar or something, it’s that little nagging voice going, “Well, you know, you said you’re gonna be done by that point.” Some people thrive on that stuff. Maybe that’s another thing to consider, as well.
Stephanie: Well, I have found social media, having people know that this is your deadline and people who are excited to see what you have, you will periodically get that reminder, “Oh, hey, I’m so excited! Last time I saw you were gonna have this done. Have you done that yet?” There’s that little bit of guilt, “Oops.”
Angela: Yeah, totally, totally. You’re still sitting there hastily scribbling the next page and you’re like, “I’m totally done with that. What are you talking about?”
Stephanie: That brings up something, too, that we haven’t talked about yet. Sometimes writer’s block, we have no idea why it happens and sometimes, for me, my book is about a very personal subject and a very tough time in my life. I’ve had a lot of books that I’ve edited over the years that are memoirs. People are looking at very sensitive times in their lives and trying to write about that, and sometimes it can just be overwhelming sometimes. In that case, it’s not always writer’s block but it’s that resistance to writing. You’re like, “I don’t wanna go through this again.”
Stephanie: A strategy that I find when I do that, when I can’t write about the particularly challenging emotional times on those days, then, sometimes I go back and a lot of times I will edit something on paper. I will write and then I’ll print it and whenever I have a chance, I’ll edit it on paper. Then if I can’t focus, I just can’t deal with that stuff, then I’ll go back in and enter changes in the electronic document from paper. That’s one way you’re still working on your book, you’re still getting past that block, that resistance, and still making progress. If you find that your block is not, “Oh, my gosh, I have nothing creative to write about” but it’s that scariness or that fatigue of it, you can do something like that to still get yourself moving.
Angela: Well, I think some days, too, we feel stronger than others.
Angela: On those days that you’re not feeling strong, just be gentle with yourself. I think especially in memoirs or even I would think really tough historical contexts for nonfiction, so wars or Holocaust or anything like that, I mean, you’re not a machine. You have feelings, you have all these things that you’re going to have to work through as you’re going through this. Even in fiction, some of the storylines and the character arcs these characters are going through, it’s gotta be extremely tough for a writer to actually put that stuff down without getting emotionally involved in it, you know? I think you have to get emotionally involved or you’re probably not writing as well as you could. You have to be gentle with yourself on those days. If you can’t quite get there, I think it’s a genius idea to just work on some other aspect of the manuscript.
Stephanie: Right, well, most writing involves research of some sort unless you are writing only about your life, although even then sometimes I find I have go back and research something. I’ll mention something in my original draft, “Oh, well, I remember blah blah blah maybe happened.” Sometimes it’s just a matter, “I can use Google now and go find some research.” Sometimes that’s a good way to do it is to go research something if you’re writing a historical novel like you mentioned. Go research something that you need to know about the clothing or something of the time.
Angela: Well, it’s interesting. I haven’t ever written memoirs, but when I actually have writer’s block, if I’m writing a book or a short story, mine always comes because I am trying to force something that doesn’t actually work. The writer’s block is trying to fit a square block into a round hole. I think that’s another thing to consider, too, that maybe the reason why it’s not working is because it just doesn’t work. I think in the article, we talk about writing down a purpose statement. I think that’s one place that that might actually help. If you’re struggling and you wanna write but you can’t quite find what you’re trying to say or it’s just not working, that writing down a purpose statement might actually push you through that.
Stephanie: I think that you pointed out, too, when you’re crafting that purpose statement you can even then focus on an outline. It might help, coming back to something you mentioned earlier, which is even if you’re not sure exactly what you wanna talk about, you can list the things you don’t wanna write about, that you don’t wanna talk about, because sometimes you can look at that and say, “Okay, if I don’t wanna talk about this, what aspect is it that I really do wanna talk about?” Sometimes you just haven’t given a lot of thought to what you wanna do or you’re overwhelmed by all the possibilities.
Angela: Or you’re so focused on the lichen on the trees that you can’t see the forest.
Angela: You have to take a broader point of view.
Stephanie: Yes, I really think that an outline, like you say, go back to the basics and write down all of those things and say, “Okay, this is what I wanna do, what I don’t wanna do.” It really does help you think through that process better.
Angela: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I think we’ve covered way more than we talked about in the article, so I’m glad we got to throw around some ideas today. Do you have any other tips or anything that you use when you get writer’s block?
Stephanie: I don’t. We’ve actually hit upon everything that I try.
Angela: Me too, me too.
Stephanie: If you are listening and you have ideas that we haven’t covered, please share them. I’m sure readers and listeners would like to know about those. I would like to know about those because I’m always looking for anything. Sometimes your standbys just don’t work.
Stephanie: Please do, if you have any of those, share those with us. You can email me at email@example.com. Next time, join us next time when we are going to talk about something we’ve seen quite a bit of at Dog Ear in the past few months, which is posthumous publishing, publishing the stories or work of people who have died. This is actually, like I said, something that we’ve come across several times in the past several months. We had authors who started a work with us and then passed on and their family members stepped in to finish. We will talk about that next time and until then, keep writing.