I’ve heard people say that claiming you have writer’s block is akin to a plumber saying he’s got plumber’s block. To me, that comparison is ridiculous.
A plumber has the exact same wrenches and other tools he uses every day on the job. He has a clear-cut list of skills he needs and issues he’ll face, and he’ll use the same tools to fix them. Chances are he’d better make use the same fitting he did on a similar job yesterday, or the connection will leak.
The plumber has no need to find a unique type of pipe, a never-before-seen kind of glue, a brilliant way to use a wrench. Rather, if he’s good at what he does, he does the same thing over and over again, and can probably do a lot of it without giving it too much thought, at least after he’s done initial evaluations and calculations. He might enjoy a periodic challenge because that would mean a change to his daily routine.
But writers can’t use the same “pipe” or “glue” over and over. We can’t pick up the same wrench, use it how we (and thousands of others) have used it before, and expect to end up with a great story.
No, writers must invent something new and different every single time time we sit down.
I know of writers who claim there is no such thing as writer’s block. In a sense, that’s true. If a gun were put to your head, you almost certainly could put your hands on the keyboard and plunk out a bunch of words. They’d probably be terrible words. But technically, you could write them.
Yet all too often, we force ourselves to show up at the keyboard anyway, assuring ourselves that writer’s block isn’t real, and that “real” writers do BIC-HOK: butt in chair, hands on keyboard. And yes, BIC-HOK is typically a good rule of thumb for developing writing “muscles” and for learning to kick the inner critic to the curb so you can ditch the anxiety and get the work done. (Yes, like a “real” writer.)
But there will be times when showing up isn’t the best thing to do. Sometimes you may feel stuck because the story is headed off into a ditch, but you don’t realize it. Or a character isn’t acting true to themselves. Or a motivation isn’t believable. Or it could be one of a hundred other things that just isn’t working.
When I feel blocked, I generally don’t know why, not right away. It could be that the piece I’m working on truly sucks. It could be the fact that I’m really tired because I accidentally stayed up late watching a series finale the night before. It could be something in between. Chances are, it is something in between.
When I get that stuck feeling, I allow my creative side to have a break from the pressure.
And that means stepping away from the keyboard.
Paraphrasing an interview I once read with Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, writers can often solve problems by coming at them sideways, and one way to do that is working on something else creative. Niffenegger paints and lets her mind drift. When she’s working with her brush, she doesn’t force herself to think about her characters or her story. Sometimes her mind goes there anyway, and as she’s mixing paints and layering colors on her canvas, her characters may decide to come slip into her mind, showing up with their own answers.
I’ve have the same experience. The more I try to force the story or the characters to face me head-on, the closer I am to grabbing hold of them, the more likely they are to elude me.
But if let my mind roam free and do something else, eventually, the problems show up with their answers at their sides. The whole thing sounds a counter-intuitive and maybe a little “woo-woo” on the “artists are crazy” scale, but it’s true.
I’ve had success letting my mind drift until the story answers reveal themselves by setting up my sewing machine and tackling the giant pile of mending my children’s clothing.
I’ve found solution while cleaning out a closet. By pulling out my knitting needles and starting a new project.
I’ve gone one long walks several days in a row, each time letting my brain think all the crazy, racing, messy thoughts it wants to. Every time, as long as I walk far enough, my mind stops racing. Its slows down to the pace of the world around me and unkinks. And then my relaxed mind is ready to find the answers drifting to it.
Often I find answers while driving long distances. Years ago, when my children were small, if I wanted driving to relax my brain, I had to be alone in the car with the radio turned off. Now that they’re older, I’ve found that mother-child road trips are great for relaxing and finding writing solutions. As with other “unkinking” situations, I’m not trying to force a story solution, but I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve found them anyway while belting out songs beside a teenager as we cruise the freeway.
Other activities that unkink the mind: weeding a garden, mowing a lawn, scrubbing a kitchen floor. In the winter, shoveling snow. Washing dishes. Hand washing is particularly effective for overcoming blocks. So is folding laundry.
So many of these are chores. (Darn it.) But they work. The important part is to find something you can do that doesn’t require a lot of mental energy.
That last part is key, because it help you trick the mind: you’re getting something valuable done, yet you’re not under pressure to be creatively productive, to be “on.”
As you are productive in a mindless way, your creative side gets permission to play . . .
A tiny part of your mind, usually so small you aren’t even aware of it, drifts off . . .
You may (or may not) become aware of that something at the fringes of your awareness is peeking at the story.
And then WHAM! The answer pops into your head as clear as day.
I’m always amazed when the answers show up. They’re clear. They’re vivid. They sparkle.
And they’re always something so much better than I could have come up with by forcing myself to keep pounding out words.
That’s not to say that writing goals don’t have their place. They’re an effective and important tool, one I use regularly. But when the occasional block smack me in the face, I pause and take stock. I ask myself if it’s time to step away from the manuscript and give my brain some time to play.
If you’re hitting the wall of writer’s block, don’t feel guilty about stepping away. Do so deliberately, making a plan. You’re not abandoning the book. You will try again tomorrow. And you won’t give up. But today, brain, you can have a little recess.
Take that break and wait for the answers to come, whether that means sitting down to darn a sock or standing up to bake a cake. You’ll draw the answers to you.
(If you make a chocolate cake, save some for me.)
Annette Lyon is a USA Today bestselling author, a 4-time Best of State medalist for fiction in Utah, and a Whitney Award winner. She’s the author of over a dozen books, including the Whitney Award-winning Band of Sisters, a chocolate cookbook, and a grammar guide. She’s a regular contributor to and former editor of the Timeless Romance Anthology series. She’s represented by Heather Karpas at ICM Partners.
Connect with her online: