There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You’re staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer’s Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)
You might not have heard of another writer condition, one similar to Writer’s Block, but it differs in a significant way. I call it Writer’s Speed Bump, and knowing how to treat it is critical.
Writer’s Block can often be cured by pushing through no matter what, plowing ahead and showing the block who’s boss.
Like Writer’s Block, Writer’s Speed Bump slows you down. And while it makes writing harder, you can still do it, and easier than with Writer’s Block. Unfortunately, Writer’s Speed Bump can show up during drafting or during revisions, or (worse) both.
But Writer’s Speed Bump is not Writer’s Block. Knowing the different is imperative, because if your push on, full steam ahead, as you might do with Writer’s Block, you could mess up your whole story.
Think of driving a car over speed bumps. If you punch the gas, you hit the bump so hard the car ends up slamming into it, possibly hurting the suspension and giving you whiplash. Oh, and that slows you down. But if you drive slowly over speed bumps, you (seemingly paradoxically) travel faster.
It’s the same with Writer’s Speed Bump. You need to slow down and pay close attention, not go full bore and slam into the bump.
In fact, sometimes the best and ultimately faster thing to do is to back off completely. Yes, I’m suggesting that you walk away from the keyboard.
Briefly, but yes. Really.
In my experience, the “bump” is a moment where I know I could keep going, but something doesn’t feel right. This isn’t the dreaded feeling of Resistance trying to get me to stop writing; it’s the work itself whispering, trying to help me write the story the way it deserves to be told.
I know something is wrong, but I don’t don’t know what it is. Even if I did, I probably wouldn’t know how to fix it.
The few times I’ve ignored that whispered warning, I’ve driven the story off into a ditch. Trust me on this one: getting a story out of a ditch and back on track requires much more work (and strength—you may need a backhoe) than avoiding a ditch altogether.
Several years ago, I was working on a novel revision and hit many whispered warnings across several days. While I was tempted to drive right over the bumps, fast (I was on deadline, after all), I deliberately listened each time. I knew from experience that if I wanted the revision to be done on time, and done well, I needed to back off.
Walking away from the computer at those points was the best thing I could have done. Sometimes I did something else for an hour while letting my mind drift and wander to the story, drift being the operative word. Concentrating to figure out what the problem was wouldn’t have worked.
I picked activities that kept my hands busy but didn’t require a lot of mental effort. That’s how you trick your creative mind; you’re telling it, No worries. We aren’t working. No reason to stress out. Deadline? What deadline? Hah! Ahh, folding laundry is so relaxing.
And then, by the second load, EUREKA! I knew what to do.
Sometimes I’d find a family member to talk to about the story. Who it was didn’t matter, as I wasn’t looking for advice. Just hearing myself talk about the story often made solutions appear like a rabbit from a magician’s hat.
Whatever I did after walking away from the computer, knew it couldn’t involve chasing down the story and demanding a solution. That would have only sent the story into hiding.
Think of stories are like shy animals: try to chase and capture them, and they’ll do everything in their power to elude you.
So wait for the story to come to you. Hold out your hand as an invitation and call to it sweetly. Don’t make any sudden movements. And definitely don’t demand anything.
Without fail, each time I left the story and quietly did something else to coax it to me, an “aha” showed up. I knew where to pick things up next time I sat down. Several times, the answers led the story in directions I hadn’t anticipated, always making the whole better in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I hadn’t paid attention to the speed bump and chosen to slow down.
Be sure you can recognize the difference between Writer’s Block and Resistance. How do those feel you? How do they differ from Writer’s Speed Bumps? If you’re experiencing Writer’s Block or Resistance, you really do need to press on.
But if you know the difference, use that knowledge to your advantage. Next time you’re typing away but feel a gentle nudge saying . . . hmm, something’s not quite clicking into place . . . listen.
Walk away. Think about it. The answers will come.
Just like the little squirrel my sisters and I used to coax to us with hazelnuts in our outstretched hands.
We named her Fredrina.
Annette Lyon is a USA Today bestselling author, Whitney Award winner and League of Utah Writers winner of several publication awards, including the Silver Quill. She has won Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction five times.
When she’s not writing, knitting, mothering, or eating chocolate, she’s typically ignoring the spots on the kitchen floor and binge watching Gilmore Girls. She has four kids and a Siamese flame-tipped cat with an attitude. She (Annette, not the cat) is represented by Heather Karpas at ICM Partners.