How to Overcome and Deal with the Writer’s Block Wall
“Writer’s block is just another name for fear.”
–Jacob Nordby, author
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, of giving voice to thought. This writer’s block might go on for hours, days, or years, and even the most talented aren’t immune.
The next time you begin to have the sense that the words are somewhere off in the periphery, just out of reach, there are some strategies you can try to tear down that wall.
First, relax. Breathe deeply, loosen up your shoulders, and remember that you are not alone. Step away from whatever you’re working on, and take a walk, cook a meal, or go to spin class—anything physical that moves your mind away from the anxiety about a loss of words.
When you come back to the desk, write something, anything—whether it’s related to your current project or not.
What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.” (Maya Angelou, poet)
Prolific author Graham Greene kept a dream diary, and poet Charles Bukowski believed that “writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all” (The Last Night of the Earth Poems). Rage, rage against the dying of the word and write something down!
Another idea for overcoming writer’s block is to try something different when you write. A different place, a different time, a different method, a different purpose: any and all can help you push past the block.
- Head to the local coffee shop, a bench by the lake, or the middle of a forest.
- Write late at night when the house is quiet, or sit on the porch at sunrise, pen in hand.
- Turn off all social media, leaving open only your word processing program. Better yet, go offline entirely by making use of a pencil and paper.
- Try forgetting the reader for a while, and write as if addressing a favored friend or beloved child—advice suggested by John Steinbeck to George Plimpton, who related the story in PEN America 4: Fact/Fiction:
Many years ago, I met John Steinbeck at a party in Sag Harbor, and told him that I had writer’s block. And he said something which I’ve always remembered, and which works. He said, “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.”
The idea worked, and Plimpton went on to write an article that was bought by Harper’s Magazine (1).
Yet another idea to try when writer’s block hits is to get back to the basics of the writing process by crafting a purpose statement (one or two sentences that explain the overall course of what you’re trying to write) or an outline. The reason is simple: Sometimes we’re blocked because we’re trying to push an idea that doesn’t fit. Purpose statements and outlines make the unsuitability of an idea immediately clear and can help get us back on track. As Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
The next time you’re staring down an empty page with no words in sight, be kind to yourself. You are not alone, and you are not a failure. The block hits every writer at some point, and the only thing we can do is remember that nothing lasts forever. Case in point, Henry Roth, who wrote his first novel, Call It Sleep, in 1934, then suffered a “monumental block” that kept him silent for sixty years (2). In 1994, he finally published again: Mercy of a Rude Stream, a series of four novels that has been described as a “rare work of fiction that creates, through its style and narration, a new form of art.”(3)
The lesson is twofold: (1) There is always hope, and (2) tomorrow is a new day.