Monday, June 13, 2016

Conquering writer's block

A good friend wrote to me last week. She was feeling despondent because she was in the middle of a long dry period. This is a lifelong writer who confessed that she was not writing, and that fact made her feel miserable and wasted.

I have a lot of thoughts about this. Note, first, my use of the word “confessed.” The writing world makes us feel like we’re ignoring holy orders when we’re not putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and “confession” is just the vehicle for that feeling.

Many important writers put regular hours in at the keyboard. Two hours, four hours, six hours—some “clock in” and don’t stand up until they finish their commitment. Anthony Trollope was famously that way; he wrote every day from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m., a schedule he stuck to doggedly, and he required himself to produce 250 words every quarter hour. As a result, his lifetime output was immense.

Plenty of successful writers have reported similar habits, and that kind of regularity may be a desirable goal to shoot for. However, my gut tells me that this kind of habit may not be something every writer can achieve—not a single parent who works full-time, not someone with chronic health problems, not someone who lacks a home or means of self-support.

I also suspect that some people don’t think this way—they don’t plug in the writing machine at 5:30 and power it down three hours later. And that was my main message to my friend: She should honor her processes, even as she strives for discipline and productivity.

The fact is that some writers benefit greatly from breaks. For these writers, there is active harvesting time, when words meet the page, but there is also time for germination and growth of ideas, as well as times when the field is left fallow.

What I told my friend is straightforward wisdom from the field of composition studies, and that is that sometimes not writing is, in fact, writing. A compositionist would tell her that time spent thinking and planning is part of the composition process—to wit, it is prewriting, and much of it happens off the page. We know, too, that writing processes are very individualistic, and people approach the task of writing at different paces.

The takeaway is that writers should not castigate themselves too severely for those times when they’re not being productive—not actively producing words, that is. We should respect our processes, which may include some apparent dry spells.

A strategy I like to use when my active writing isn’t happening is to approach the page with a small project. Just yesterday I started such a project, with plans to write an example of a brief, one-sentence poetic form every day. I’m also in the midst of a daily poem challenge, which forces me to produce something (not always the very best something, but something) on a daily basis.

It’s useful to remember that writing itself is no great feat. If you’re having trouble writing, grab a piece of paper and write down any ten words, right now. There—you’re writing again. The magic happens in the rearrangement and revision of those words, but where there are words, there is an opportunity for art to happen. Time and attention, and particularly regular effort, à la Trollope, maximize our chances to express ourselves in language.

But in my experience, a writer whose word production is stalled can restart at any time. While it’s whimsical to think of a visiting muse bestowing words upon us, the words exist in us; language, in fact, is hard-wired into us. We don’t need fairy dust; we don’t need to coax back language, because in fact it never left us. We left it.

And when we’re ready, the writing will always take us back.


  1. "We are usually doing the most during those times when we think we are doing too little." - Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916)

    1. That was me, Karen, Geoff.

    2. Love this quote! It's practically tattooable. :) Thanks for sharing it!