How to Tackle Writer’s Block (By Indirection!)

posted by Noor

We have all encountered this beast at some point in our writing careers. Sometimes you can fight it head-on; other times you have to cheat it, find a way around it, and give it a surprise defeat.
These techniques may work for you!

1. Start with Chapter Two. Pretend that you have already given all the background information about your characters. Start writing the second chapter.

2. Dessert First. When you’re just writing, write the delicious parts, write the parts that you like.

3. Resist the rapture of research. Stay away from Google, the library, reference books. Look up information later. Write now.

4. A good idea that doesn’t happen is no idea at all.

5. XX factor. When you don’t know a fact about your story, don’t stall to ponder it. Put XX there and move on. When you are ready, go back and fill the gaps later.

6. Listen to your characters. How do you know who they are?

7. Interview your characters.

8. Take a shoebox and put physical things in it that remind you of your character. For example, you see an easy chair in a catalog and your character should be sitting in that chair or you can imagine him/her sitting in it, cut it out and put it in the box.

9. What if? Ask creative what if questions that might just jump start your story.

10. Even if you feel like life is interfering with your writing, remember that you need that life and its activities in order to write.

11. Banish the devil on your shoulder – the critical voice. You need a critical voice at some point, but certainly not when you’re blocked.

12. Write letters. Besides being an emotional catharsis, it also leaves you with a bank of emotions that you can withdraw from later.

13. Responsive writing. Keep asking yourself questions, they can be random questions, and keep answering them. Question-answer loop on a page to break out of the block answer by answer.

14. The Hemingway Technique. Hemingway often stopped writing at a high point, frequently even in the middle of a sentence. Instead of writing and writing until you get stuck so that the next day you’re dreading the point where you left of, you should perhaps stop when you are in the zone and you’re loving to write, so that you will be looking forward to the writing the next day.

15. Sometimes writer’s block is a message to you that you have picked something inherently wrong to write about – emotions, material, characters, voice, it can be anything. Once you have recognized and acknowledged this message, the writer’s block becomes a building block.

16. Sometimes the silence of the black screen is really a shout – it’s the silence of incubation.

Useful Resources, Good Books, Websites:
Publisher’s marketplace
Halldor Laxness – Independent People
Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein
Enzo – book written from the perspective of a dog – Garth Stein
What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers – Anne Bernays, Pamela Painter
The Paris Review Interviews (3 volumes)
Bird by Bird – Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

Piled Higher and Deeper – writer’s block of an unusual kind

posted by Shehla

I once watched a documentary on Leonard Cohen and was struck by his discipline in writing. He insisted that to be a writer, he had to “go to work” every day, and therefore, to write every day. I’m much more liberal in my approach to writing, choosing to wait for revelation, the right mood, the perfect environment. It is one of the main reasons why I often tell people I am not a “real writer”.

So imagine the gravity of the task at hand. Writing the introduction chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation. Is there ever a perfect environment to sit down and regurgitate facts about prostate cancer and molecular signaling pathways? Can one ever be in the mood to describe, in great length, the zonal anatomy of the prostate, the gaping holes in knowledge about the disease, and the dearth of treatment options available for advanced stages of said disease? No prizes for guessing the right answer.

It hasn’t been all that bad. I’ve learned some very intriguing things, which 5 years of doing experiments and reading the literature never taught. Did you know, for instance, that prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia – the precursor lesions that lead to prostate cancer – can be present in men as early as at 20 years of age? Now there’s a reason to be grateful I’m not a man. Sadly, this documented, reference-able fact takes up only one line to communicate. I’m supposed to write an entire CHAPTER. It also makes for very strange conversations, as I go around punctuating dinner with my treasure of “believe it or not” prostate cancer facts.

As stuck as I’m feeling, this is a very exciting time in the life of a graduate student. Years of hard work has finally shaped up to form a coherent theory. And nothing can match the feeling of coming up with and proving a novel hypothesis. My thesis mentor told me writing the intro will be hardest part of the process. I couldn’t imagine what would be so hard about collecting background information on a topic I have lived and breathed for years. Turns out (as always) he was right. It’s not so much collecting the information than figuring out how best to summarize it. Gives a whole new meaning to the term “writer’s block”. For inspiration (or for lack of it), I have resorted to perusing my favorite comic website, Yes, it’s real. Yes, they really do put up comic strips on the life of graduate students. I can safely credit them with hours of procrastination, and in addition to providing the title to this blog post they have also been an amazing support group over the past half-decade. Too bad they can’t summarize the different stages of metastatic adenocarcinomas.

There’s Death, Good Sir, And Then There’s Death

There’s death in a blinking cursor; death in a blank page.

I often find myself staring at the John Doe of poetry titles, ‘Document1’ (Microsoft Word); a thousand words bled white. I then look through my poetry archive [read: ramblings of the poor man’s Stephen King/M. Night Shyamalan] and think Holy Frack, what the pig’s scrotum happened to me? I could find terror in a teacup, a tale of macabre waiting to unfold behind the steely blue eyes of a doorman.

Now, there’s only wretched white noise. I think ‘vampire’ – bam! Head stuffed with images from the latest episode of ‘The Vampire Diaries.’ Next thought: evil fetus that drives its mother insane through violent nightmares – hello, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ slash ‘Splice’ slash ‘Alien.’ Every thought is unoriginal, derivative. Where once all I needed was a word [‘Whack!’ was my inspiration for ‘Incubus’], a phrase [‘Eat some of my remorse’ from ‘a la carte’ just came to me], or a character [suicidal closet-homosexual, for example – see ‘Sodom’], now I find myself fishing for inspiration; forcing my hand on the keyboard. I wrote two poems recently – they were as effective as Stephenie Meyer’s take on Nosferatu [my umpteenth ‘Twilight’ reference; do you see where I’m going with this?]. To her credit, though, I found ‘The Host’ to be a particularly riveting read. Gaah – I’m digressing again. I can’t write 224 words without – sigh. Moving on.

I once wrote a concept about a little boy who walks in on his parents having sex; he’s told they were playing a ‘wrestling game.’ I must have forgotten all about it: just came across the document while cleaning up my ‘My Documents’ folder. [I also came across a document that only read: ‘PRIVATE MALE ESCORTS NOW AVAILABLE, HANDSOME GUYS FOR YOUR SWEET MASSAGE, DINING AND NIGHTLIFE PLEASURES’ – and before you triumphantly pump your fist in the air, Shehla (she insists on interpreting ‘Sodom’ as my subconcious urging me to come out of the closet!), that was character research: I played a gigolo in a Lahore Grammar School production – but that’s a story for another time].

The draft/concept read:
“9 year old boy (8? 7? How young is too young?) sees parents in Kama Sutra position number – oh just pick a number. Goes batshit ballistic till daddy tells him they were ‘wrestling.’ Boy wants to ‘wrestle’ with sister – [comment added later: ‘You’re fu***ng sick, Obi, make it girl from school.’], scary freaky shit – to show or not to show?
‘I drew mommy as a trout’ / daddy as (what’s a really big fish? Shark? Lol, this gives ‘Jaws’ a whole new meaning.)”

When I couldn’t think up of anything more original than that concept, I decided to write out a poem based on the material my perverse mind conjured more than a year ago. This is what I came up with:

I drew mommy as a trout; Snotty Steven thought it was a grey
SpongeBob SquarePants – he doesn’t know they don’t have
spines; silvery freshwater seafood – Steven laughed when
I used the fuchsia pink crayon to fill in mommy’s cheeks; but that’s her
only camouflage against the rose bed spread when daddy plays
the wrestling game with her. Mrs. Trellis was quite bemused (I learnt the word
in English-II today) when she saw daddy
devouring mommy; a great big shark, or the whale that wolfed down Geppetto
“Why would you draw your parents that way?” she asked me; but that’s how I saw them,
Swear on the old ghoul that lives in the attic. She said she’d call home when it’s
After dark, but that when’s they play the wrestling game most; the trout and
The shark. Tonight, canvas in hand, I opened their bedroom door, just as
Daddy was done wrestling her on our hardwood floors; they were so quiet after those
Three seconds I was sure he was going to dogheaven (just like old Scooby did)
From a heart-attack, just like that mostly shirtless man from mommy’s favorite soap opera –
And mommy was going to be crushed under that human grand piano
(Sylvester does many times, but a cat has nine lives, doesn’t he?)
They were staring at me but not staring too; so I asked mommy if what they were doing
Was just for fun; and my heart skipped a beat – what if daddy turns into Jaws and mommy’s
No more – sometimes I wish Steven hadn’t made me watch that movie – but then mommy
Laughed in a voice that was much too hoarse, and said of course, baby, of course.
Daddy took me to my room, and while fidgeting with my Transformers model said
that it’s not scary what they do; that might be true
I’ve seen them pray sometimes in between their game; just yesterday I counted
Mommy taking the Lord’s name
Five times (or was it six?) – so maybe it is holy and daddy’s not a monster after all; he crinkled
His eyes and laughed when I showed him my picture;
he tousled my hair and said
I’d have my fill of the wrestling game one day
Little Peggy makes me all funny inside, with her painted toenails and
Maple syrup scent; I wonder if she’ll be at school tomorrow
I wonder if she’ll play.

After writing this, trying to change and alter it into something worth salvaging [read: making it so complex it seemed as though the poor boy was spewing Sanskrit], I have now resigned myself to the following:
a) I should stop trying to enter the mind of an eight-year old (as poetry protagonist, gaah – this reads like I’m a bizarre Inception pedophile),
b) I should stop trying to write poetry that rhymes,
c) I should just … stop?

Oh sweet Krishna, I started off this blog post saying there’s death in a blinking cursor.
Well, there are some things worse than death.

Lightning…thunder! LIGHTNING.

Writer’s block. You hear about it a lot, but the concept is a relatively new one, created like all new things by the American writers. Blocks weren’t considered or even accepted by the English speaking world at large, until the Americans came along and decided to compartmentalize the world’s woes. Don’t believe me? Do your research. I did. What can I say? I’m curious.

But I jest – it traces its earliest roots to the Romantics – it seems a little “artistic” to justify a lag in creativity by suggesting that the artist is so talented and immensely chock full of ideas, that when something’s wrong, it’s presumably because something has happened stemming that flow. Does it exist or is it just an excuse? I think it’s a bit of both, but I do believe with careful dedication and determination, you can push right through.

“Writer’s block? What writer’s block?” That kinda thing. I remember reading a quote somewhere about having to chase creativity with a club, instead of waiting for it to happen, which is a sound concept. You can’t expect lightening to strike twice, after all. Or you can subscribe to the Romantic notion, and imagine it does.

But what about Edison’s golden rule? Genius is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration.

Although writing is part of the arts, in general, it does merit respect on its own. The wonderful thing about writers is that they’re able to see art in everyday life. What separates us from the rest of the world, after all? One of the major things we’re always asked is: where do you get your ideas from…I mean, that’s just it isn’t it? We don’t wait for them to come to us, because how does that separate us from the people who write occasionally or the office worker who sits on his report for the next big thing, because the idea hasn’t “come” to him yet?

I used to be among the lightning crowd, not realizing that writing, like its counterparts, requires discipline. Sit down each day and go after the idea, honing, refining, allowing it to bide its time, and you’ll never suffer a writer’s block. Your mind isn’t blocked – it’s a state of mind – if you want to think it, you’ll want to believe it, because isn’t it just so much easier to say you’re “suffering” from writer’s block instead of “I lack the drive to finish what I’ve started”?

And I find when I open my mind up to new and different ideas, they come with no hint of subsiding. As long as the wheels in your mind are turning, what else do you really need? And let’s face it: the mind never stops working. If you’re serious enough about your craft, you’ll chase the words down, and they won’t stop until you tell them to. Because writing is a lot about control – it’s part of the reason why writers feel like gods in their worlds – they’re in total control. What happens when you let it slide?

You get lazy, that’s what.

No idea what’s on the horizon next. As it is, I don’t feel this was written quite as well as my other posts. Oh well…long day. Lame argument, I know.