Wright’s Writing Corner: Writer’s Block

I was going to write about something else today, but I decided to put it off. Instead, I think I’ll tackle the topic of Writer’s Block (which was brought up by one of the nice folks over at John’s blog.)

Only, I can’t think of anything to say on the topic:

Writer’s Block about Writer’s Block.

Okay…more seriously: when we talk about writer’s block, we are really talking about problems with two different phenomena: “finding an idea” and “expressing an idea.”

By “finding an idea,” I mean picking a subject to write about, the idea, the theme and concept of the story. By “expressing an idea,” I mean choosing what words and images to put on the page while writing.

The first comes when we don’t know what to write about. The second, when we know what to write about but we just cannot think of how to say it.

The first requires a concept, and the reason it is difficult is that one idea is not enough. A story with only one idea is flat and strained. Every story has to have two ideas to it, two concepts that are somehow juxtaposed to create interest. Sometimes these two ideas are obvious. Sometimes, they are not. The two are intrinsically included in one larger idea that comes to the writer.

But if you’ve ever tried to write a story that seemed still and flat and would not move in your imagination no matter how much you flogged it, you know what it is like to try to work with one idea.

To overcome writer’s block when you have only one idea, what you need is that second idea that clicks with the first to bring it alive.

The second type of block is the one that requires perseverance. You’ve got a good concept, you like what you have, but the next scene is still a blank to you. What you need to do first, is sit down and try to beat through the wall. So often, it’s really a matter of laziness. A little effort and the “block” breaks.

If that doesn’t work, what is needed is a “second idea” for the scene, a fresh start. I sometimes find that I can get moving on a scene that seemed stalled just by changing the location. Changing the physical scenery described in the scene causes me to picture the scene anew. Often, that is all that is needed to continue.

When that doesn’t work, I often pick up Donald Maass’s Breakout Novel Workbook and try a few of the exercises. The exercises often give me a chance to shake loose my thoughts and perceive the scene from a new perspective. Often, that is all it takes.

The problem comes when steps such as those just mentioned don’t help.

Then what?

Then, often it is really a case of problem one, not problem two. What looks like the inability to finish a scene is actually a flawed concept. It is not the scene that needs reworking, but the whole idea. Sometimes, this requires ripping out some (or even much) of what you have already written and starting again.

The big trap for writers is that we can’t tell which problem we are facing until after we try. If we do not sit down and face the blank page—bravely and with only a modicum of fear—we will not know whether what is blocking our way has the resistance of a tissue paper or a brick wall.

Often, writers assume the worse and moan about their lack of ideas, when what is really needed is just a bit of BTTC (butt to the chair). On the other hand, the temptation to keep trying to force writing when what is needed is a revamp of the whole idea can also be very strong. Only with time, honesty, and diligence can we tell the difference.

Every writer you meet has his own advice on what to do to conquer writer’s block. Some writers read reviews (or even bad books) to inspire them to do better. Others make themselves write for a certain amount of time every day, whether or not what they produce is worth reading. Yet others, try changing the location where they write, heading down to the library or the local bookstore or Starbucks.

The best advice I’ve ever heard about overcoming writer’s block—both kinds—was from author Gene Wolfe. He said that the cure is to stop doing intellectual things and do something physical. Stop watching TV, Checking your email (he didn’t add that. He said this back in the 80s), stop talking on the phone, anything that is an outlet for ideas or that is mind-numbing. Then, go outside and do something physical: take the trash out, rake the grass, take a walk, that kind of thing.

After a few hours or days, your mind—denied other creative outlets—suddenly perks up again, and ideas begin to flow.

This advice is hard work…but it works.


17 thoughts on “Wright’s Writing Corner: Writer’s Block

  1. My struggle with writer’s block has gotten much better since I joined a writer’s group. Meeting with other writers every other week makes it easier to stay in the right mindset. Reading their works and offering criticism, too, gets me in the right frame of mind.

    • I’ve found that, too. Having a group of readers is motivating and reading others work helps ideas flow.

      I meant to talk about how it is sometimes important not to talk too much about your ideas before you write them down…how the drive to share the story idea can help. Maybe that’s a good topic for another day.

      • Funny you should say that– Maybe this is related to that, maybe not, but I never take notes on ideas I have– If I put things on paper, I forget about them. If I let an idea sit in my head, and let it run the risk of being forgotten about, it fleshes itself out. Go figure.

        • I haven’t had trouble with notes, but I can’t write an outline until I’m more that 3/4s done with something, or the fact that I’ve outlined it makes my head/muse/imagination think that I’m done. Doesn’t need to be worked on anymore.

          A similar thing with talking about the ideas. Sometimes, I can, but it works best if I know there are other people waiting to read the story, so telling this one person, say John, doesn’t make it so that I’ve now expressed the story and am done.

        • Interesting.

          Writing down ideas fixes them in my memory so I am less likely to have to consult the paper.

          Yes, ideas die on me after having been written, but fewer than the fugitive horde of thoughts that pop up and vanish without memoralization.

          • Exactly. For me it’s the tactile nature of writing. I used to hand copy the professor provided notes for some of my college courses, just to fix the stuff in my head.

        • This is exactly how I am too. I think that subconsciously I let go of the concept once it’s down on paper, and then when I return to it later I’ve only got the cold skeleton to look at rather than the beginnings of flesh I had begun in the past.

  2. ideas

    I would say that one idea is just right for a short-short. in fact, you should mercilessly excise everything excess to that idea — a proper short-short idea is about as sticky as a ball bearing.

    You need two ideas for anything more complicated. Or more. Or lots more. (It works better if they’re sticky, which I pontificated about here at length too great for a comments thread. 0:)

  3. I like this! Very sensible.

    I get writer’s block for weeks, even months at a time. Mostly when the messy business of Real Life disrupts the tranquility of my mind. Eventually it passes.


  4. This is a very stupid question, but…

    I’m trying to work out what you mean by two ideas and having trouble wrapping my brain around it. An idea is different that the conflict in the story, or can it embody the conflict? Can they be as simple as two people who are in love but can’t work out philosophical differences, and as complicated as aliens crashing landing in medieval Germany?

    • Re: This is a very stupid question, but…

      It’s not a stupid question at all. Probably deserves its own post at some point.

      And…yes. It can be girl from the mountains meets man from the sea. It can be aliens in midieval German (aliens idea one, medieval Germany idea two.) It can be “Tolkien meets Chandler.” It can be “Snow White in India.” It can be a simple story but just with some new twist “What about Snow White if her personality was a bit like my friend Sally?”

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