The Cure #2: Writer’s Block

Long-term readers of this blog will recall I’ve written about writer’s block before, both here and here. I divided the difficulty into two types, major and minor. I’ve discussed the symptoms of both types but only discussed the cures for minor writer’s block.

writers-block-2Today, I’ll delve into major writer’s block (MajWB) and its cures. I define MajWB as the state of being unable to start writing a new work, a condition of long duration. It can last for years and can end a writer’s career.

I’ve never suffered from it, and hope I never do. It must be especially devastating to those for whom writing is their primary source of income. One thing we can rule out in discussing MajWB is the current work in progress; it’s not a matter of being stuck in a plot hole, or being dissatisfied with certain characters. MajWB is the state of not being able to perform any creative writing whatsoever.

With Minor Writer’s Block, I considered that the block was most likely a symptom of something else, an effect. To resume writing, the blocked writer should work on the cause.

Although the causes of Minor Writer’s Block can be large or small, the root of MajWB can only be large. Nothing but a significant event or condition can cause you to be unable to write.

If we assume a writer has MajWB, then presumably there was a time when he or she was writing, and then a later time when not writing. In between, something happened; some significant change occurred. These changes include:

  • A major illness or disease
  • Major depression
  • An ended relationship, whether by death or other cause
  • Financial straits
  • A feeling of failure
  • A feeling of inferiority in comparison with previous success

Whichever of these it is, it must be addressed, not the inability to write. The writer needs to examine what it is about the cause that is resulting in a block. I have no magic pill here, no universal cure-all. Each of these causes will be different, as will the writers involved.

Some authors may be able to resume writing by remembering why they became a writer in the first place, and returning to that frame of mind. Others may find it useful to use the event causing the block as an inspiration for further writing. That is, they could seize the raw emotions of the disease, depression, lost love, etc., and incorporate them in stories.

If some perverse writer’s demon told me I had to endure major writer’s block, but I could pick the cause, I’d choose the last one—the belief I couldn’t live up to past success. This can afflict writers who produce best-selling first novels. It might be difficult to recapture that achievement. At least that one presupposes there has been past success!

You can find out more about writer’s block from reading this post by Ginny Wiehardt, this post by Jeff Goins, this list of famous author’s comments compiled by Emily Temple, and this Wikipedia article.

I believe cases of MajWB are rare, so you should never have to deal with it. Still, forewarned is forearmed, and now you’re both. Although I’m no doctor, I am—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 13, 2016Permalink

Emotional Roller-coaster

As you and the story you’re writing go through time together, do you find yourself on the same type of emotional roller-coaster as with a personal relationship? Do you feel elated by positive events and dejected by negative ones? I’ve been through the process enough to detect a repeatable pattern. Maybe it will be the same for you.

Let’s follow through as I experience the highs and lows of writing a story and getting it published. This is my relationship with a single story, so the line will overlap with other stories in various stages.

Emotional RollercoasterGetting a story idea is enjoyable, having it mature in my mind while I imagine the possibilities, the characters, the plotline, the settings, and some of the dramatic scenes. It’s a good feeling to go through that, because that imaginary, unwritten story is as good as it’s ever going to be. Once the reality starts and I put words down, the story never reaches the exalted heights of perfection that it achieved when just a dream.

Still, putting words down has a gratification all its own. I feel I’m making progress, producing product, assembling widgets on my keyboard / word / sentence / paragraph assembly line.

Until I get stuck with writer’s block. Here I mean the minor writer’s block I’ve described before, where I can’t get out of a plot hole, or I need a character to act contrary to his or her motivations, etc. Although temporary, this is a real downer. I don’t always experience this, (as shown by the reddish line) but there’s usually some drop-off in enthusiasm as the glow of the original idea fades a bit.

Reaching THE END of the first draft is a definite up-tic in satisfaction for me. The mad rush of getting words down is over. It’s good to know I can start the reviewing-editing-improving phase.

For simplicity, my graph only shows two drafts, but there may be more, with minor wave crests for completing each one. I get to the highest emotional state so far when I consider the story done and submit it for publication. “Here, Dear Editor, this is my newborn! Don’t you love it as much as I do?”

That emotional high fades, as they all do, while waiting for a response. Usually I’ve begun another story by then, so I get an overlap with a similar-looking graph displaced in time.

My graph depicts two paths here, one showing a rejection. Despite my earlier advice to look at rejections positively, I still find that hard to do. Rejections stink. Maybe not as much now as my first one, but still…

An acceptance of a story is a very high emotional state, especially the first time. It’s time to celebrate, indulge, and surrender to the grandeur and magnificence of me.

No one can maintain a very high or very low state forever, so I do descend from the grand summit as I get through the rewrites and signing of the contract, though these are not unpleasant.

The launch of a story is another sublime pinnacle of emotional ecstasy, and that’s no hyperbole. “For all human history, readers have awaited a story like this, and today, I, yes I, grant your wish and launch this masterpiece, this seminal work of ultimate prose, so you may purchase and read it. You’re quite welcome.”

After the story is launched, you’ll get occasional uplifting moments, such as favorable reviews, or book signings, etc. These are never quite as exciting as acceptance or launching, but they’re gratifying anyway.

I’ve not gotten through all these stages with a novel yet, but I suppose a novel’s graph is longer in time, and has many more ups and downs than that of a short story.

Also, your mileage may vary such that your graph looks quite different from mine. Leave me a comment and let me know about the emotional stages of your writing experience.

Remember, when on a roller-coaster (emotional or state fair-type), it sometimes helps to raise your hands in the air and scream. Whee! Here goes—

Poseidon’s Scribe

October 26, 2014Permalink

Got a Good Case of Writer’s Block?

Writer’s Block gets a lot of bad press.  Authors fear it.  It’s called an occupational hazard.  People write about how to avoid it and how to get unblocked, and I’m one of those who’s written posts like that (here and here).

Could it be that Writer’s Block (WB) might really be a good thing?

Writers block on a pedestalToday I’ll try finding some positive aspects of WB.  I’ll put it on a pedestal and let it shine a bit.

I came across this brief quote from author Gay Talese and it caused me to look at WB in a different light.  He says it’s a signal we’re not ready to write at our best; it’s an inner voice that is doing us a favor by holding us back.

True, WB is an interruption in your production of words, and you will earn no sales from future works until production resumes.  But Talese is saying there are worse things, such as creating stories of inferior quality.  At best, those low-grade stories won’t get published.  At worst, they will, and your reputation as an author will suffer.

Perhaps, then, you should think of WB as an opportunity.  It’s the stranger who grabs you by the shoulder while you’re hacking your way through the forest with your machete and says, “There’s quicksand, and a hungry bear, and a steep cliff that way, Mate.”  Then he vanishes somewhere into the foliage.

It’s decision time for you.  You could ignore him and continue hacking.  Or you could consult your map and compass and discover he is right.  You were going the wrong direction.  The lost city of gold lies that way.

Note: this mysterious guide only detained you.  He didn’t point out the right way, let alone lead you straight to El Dorado.  Writer’s Block by itself doesn’t get your story going aright.  It only stays you from going awry.  It’s up to you to figure out the proper path.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying WB is something to seek out or strive for.  It’s best not to be hacking your way toward the quicksand in the first place.  It’s just comforting to know that if you are headed for trouble, some strange entity, some being from your unconscious mind, may seize your shoulder before you’ve gone too far.

Maybe changing the name will cause us to think of it in a different light.  Writer’s Block sounds dreadful, like some career-stalling or hobby-killing disease. Perhaps Writer’s Pause or something like that would be better.  If you can think of a more positive term for Writer’s Block, let me know by leaving a comment.

Got you to look at it differently, didn’t I?  You’re welcome.  Don’t worry; I’ve already thought of a way you can express your gratitude.  If you do get a good case of Writer’s Block, and it causes you to rethink your story, and a publisher gives you a million dollar advance, it would be only right for you to mail a modest but significant check to—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

January 19, 2014Permalink

Cure: Writer’s Block

Earlier I blogged about writer’s block, but focused on symptoms and causes.  Today, let’s talk about getting over it.

Writers blockAs before, I’ll limit the discussion to minor writer’s block (minWB), the short-term state of being stuck while in the middle of a writing project.  I’ll blog about Major Writer’s Block (MajWB) another time.

My many fans—both of them, actually, including my Dad—will recall that I stated there are several types of minWB, which I divided as follows:

  • Story-related problems
  • Writing-related problems, but not about the story
  • Personal, but non-writing, problems

I also stated that if you pinpoint which problem you have, that suggests a cure. For story-related problems such as plot, character, setting, or others, here are a few things you can try:  (1) set the story aside awhile and let your subconscious (your muse) work on the problem, (2) try sketching a mind-map of the problem and creatively come up with multiple solutions, then select the best, or (3) ask your critique group or beta reader for help.

The craft-related problems all boil down to matters of attitude leading to negative mental associations, leading to stress.  Since one type of craft-related problem is the pressure of the audience seeming too close, I have to point out what some might consider a contradiction in the advice I, Poseidon’s Scribe, have given out.  In this blog entry I suggested, if you’re feeling the ‘presence’ of the reader too intensely, just forget about that audience and write freely for yourself.

However, just two weeks ago I urged you to keep the reader in mind, always.

Which advice is right—ignore the reader or be ever mindful of the reader?

(Aside:  witness the clever way I get out of this paradox.)

I was right both times.  In general, it is always wise to acknowledge that you’re writing to be read by others.  Therefore, you should write with precision, avoiding ambiguity, so as to be understood.  But if the fear of being criticized or disliked is paralyzing you into inaction, if the anticipation of bad reviews leaves you trembling before your keyboard, then forget about those readers for a while.  Ignore them during your early drafts and focus on getting your story done.

Then in the later drafts, I suggest you visualize yourself as a sort of super-editor, far more critical of your own work than any reader could be, and yet able to fix every problem you find.  In this way, you minimize your fear of the reader and substitute confidence in yourself.

That ‘visualization’ method may work for many of the minWB craft-related problems, by imagining a near-future version of yourself having already overcome the problem and working steadily on the story.  Visualize yourself being in the flow, and once again gripped by the same enthusiasm you had when you first conceived the story idea.  In this way you can change the mental linkages you’ve developed and re-associate writing with fun, success, and confidence rather than stress, fatigue, and inadequacy.

As to the last category of minWB, that of personal problems such as illness, depression, relationship difficulties, or financial woes, you need to confront those problems head-on first.  Until you have a plan for solving them, and start to execute that plan, it will be tough to concentrate on writing.

Do these suggested cures work for you?  Do you know of others I should have recommended?  Unblock yourself and leave a comment for—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

September 21, 2013Permalink

Diagnosis: Writer’s Block

Have you experienced writer’s block?  That condition where you feel the desire or pressure to write but you can’t actually come up with any words?  It’s a real thing, an occupational “hazard” first diagnosed in 1947.

I think there are two forms of it–Major Writer’s Block and minor writer’s block.  I define MajWB as the state of being unable to start writing a new work, and of long duration.  On the other hand, minWB is a short-term state of being stuck while in the midst of a work.  MajWB can last for years or even be a career-ender.  But minWB is almost always temporary, lasting a few hours or days.  I have yet to experience MajWB, but get the minor version often.

In either case, the symptoms are pretty much the same.  Words won’t come out, try as you might, and after a while you don’t feel much like trying.  I pay attention to the blogs of writer Andrew Gudgel (full disclosure:  Andy and I are friends), and he wrote a great blog entry on writer’s block on May 3, 2011.  In it, he states that the condition of not writing is only a symptom, not the problem itself.  He makes the case that only when you know the problem can you begin to solve it, and that the problem itself points to the solution.

He divides the spectrum of possible problems into craft-related problems, and problems with other aspects of the writer’s life.  I’ll divide writing block problems a different way, as follows:

  • Story-related problems:
    • plotting problems–the story isn’t going in the right direction
    • character problems–a character isn’t fully fleshed out, or is taking over the story, or is otherwise not proving suitable
    • setting problems
    • other problems with the story itself
  • Craft-related problems that are writing-related, but not about the story:
    • overwhelmed by task
    • inferiority complex, thoughts that your writing won’t measure up
    • lost interest
    • pressured by deadline
    • paralyzed by own success
    • pressure of audience too close (more below)
  • Personal, but non-writing, problems:
    • illness
    • depression
    • relationship problems
    • financial difficulties

Again, identifying which real problem is present can point toward the solution.  The stress caused by any of the problems above can really inhibit the normal creative process.  What’s thought to happen in the short term to the human brain under stress is a shift of activity from the cerebral cortex to the limbic areas.  In other words, the focus shifts from the areas devoted to attention, consciousness, language, memory, and thought to the basic, instinctual fight-or-flight area we inherited from the dinosaurs.  Extended periods of stress damages brain cells, weakens memory, and causes depression.  All of that is bad news for writers.

Most of the items on the list of problems above are self-explanatory, but I thought I’d discuss the pressure of the audience in more detail.  Writing expert Dr. Peter Elbow wrote a much-discussed essay called “Closing My Eyes As I Speak.”  He claims writers feel the presence of an audience as they write.  Unlike performance artists such as singers or stand-up comedians, writers do not have their audience physically present, but they often imagine how readers will react to their work.  Dr. Elbow considers the pressure of this unseen audience can disrupt the flow of words, and suggests writers disregard the audience as they write their first drafts.  The writing will be more natural and genuine.

As a non-writing example, look at this picture of world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma in performance.  He often plays with eyes closed, as if he’s deliberately distancing himself from his audience and playing only for himself in his own private world.  Metaphorically, we should all write that way, too, at least in our first drafts.

I’ve discussed the condition of writer’s block and potential causes, but never got around yet to how to overcome it.  Getting unblocked will have to be the subject of a future blog post by–

                                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

February 12, 2012Permalink

Writing by Number

Today I calculated I’d blog about daily word counts.  For you writers and would-be writers, do you count your word production and log it?  If you do, are you finding it helps you or not?

Here’s my take.  I used to do that but no longer do so.  I think keeping a daily log of writing progress is very valuable in the beginning to establish the habit of writing.  It may even help you get through a slump period, the so-called “writer’s block.”  Once the writing habit is established, such logging may no longer be necessary.

What I’m talking about is the idea of keeping a log of how many words you write each day.  If you write on a computer with a word processor, it’s pretty easy using the software’s own word count feature.  If you write some other way, you might have to count by hand.  You’ll have to figure out how to count words on the days you’re editing previously written text, as opposed to creating new text.  I tracked those distinct acts separately, since editing previously written text yielded much higher daily word production.  Once you get the log going, you can find out what your daily average is over time and even set goals.

Why would anyone do this?  There’s a sort of magic in measuring your progress with numbers.  You will find yourself feeling guilty on those days when you have to log a zero because you did no writing.  You’ll have excuses for that, of course, but they won’t change the fact that your log still shows a fat zero for that unproductive day.  On days where you’re feeling tired and teetering on the edge about whether you want to try to write a bit or not, the knowledge of your numeric log looming before you may spur you to write when you otherwise wouldn’t.  In some mysterious way the habit of logging progress can actually prod you to into the habit of writing more.

It turns out your attitude toward these sort of personal metrics comes into play.  It’s vitally important that “zero days” not get you depressed.  The point of the log is to promote progress, not incite negative thoughts.  If the very idea of seeing a zero besides a date will cause you to think you’re not cut out for writing or might make you want to give it up, then perhaps the idea of daily word counts would be adding too much stress for you.  This thing only works with those for whom occasional failure is an inspiration to greater achievement next time.

You may be thinking that counting words is stupid because not all words are equal.  Isn’t the point to learn to write well, you ask, not to simply write a lot?  Well, yes and no.  Of course the point is to learn to write well.  The few words of a brilliant short story by a talented author do far outweigh several trashy novels written by a bungling hack, even though the word count is less.  But in the first place quantity has its own kind of quality in writing, in the sense that practice makes perfect.  The practice comes from writing a lot, and that practice can be roughly measured by word counting.  In the second place, it’s very hard to measure the quality of prose.  There is no menu item or icon in your word processor for that.  Yet.  (Software programmers, take note:  the world screams for exactly such a feature!)

I’m counting on you to leave a comment for me about whether you log your word counts daily and whether you find it a helpful exercise or not.  Including the end of this sentence, that’s 627 words written by…

                                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe


December 25, 2011Permalink