You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been there. During a day of mind-numbing boredom you think of not one but five great ideas, and all the while you engage yourself in your chores you nurture these ideas until they grow and swell inside your head, ripe and ready to burst forth. All you can think of during the day is the moment when you can wrap things up and dash away to your computer so that you can give birth to your babies and see them come alive on the page.
And yet when you sit down to write you find that nothing comes out. For every three words you write, you erase seven. The most (ab)used key on your keyboard is easily the backspace. After about twenty minutes of this you decide that enough’s enough and begin freewriting. For ten minutes you allow yourself to go on without looking back at what you’ve written. But then temptation strikes. You take one little peek. You hate it so much that you select-all and delete. The blinker comes back to the top corner. You remember someone having mentioned this queer phenomenon called the Writer’s Block and wonder if you have it. The thought makes you feel a little better because if you have Writer’s Block, it must mean that you’re a writer. (All writers get writer’s block, therefore everyone who gets writer’s block must be a writer.)
Except that writers – the professionals – never speak about writer’s block. To be sure they don’t deny there are times when their pens don’t move, but they understand there are reasons for that happening, and that they have to find them and fix them before they can go on. Those who’ve been in the business for long enough know by now what blocks them, so they take all necessary measures before they begin writing.
That is the primary difference between a professional and an amateur. An amateur throws up his arms and says, “It’s no good. I’ve got writer’s block.” The professional sits down and works out why he’s not able to go on and what will ensure that he does. It’s a small but significant shift in attitude that the amateur must adopt. Tell yourself that there’s no such thing as the writer’s block. It may make things easier.
Here are three common reasons why I think writers get blocked.
1. The beginning
Ideas come to us in flashes. They generally begin as a ‘what if’ question and build into complex structures inside our heads. We think of cool lines of dialogue, of the little quirks of our characters, of the plot twists, even of the climax, perhaps, but we never consciously think of the beginning. And to write anything, we have to begin somewhere. So try this next time: for the thirty minutes before you arrive at your writing desk, think of nothing else but the first few lines of your piece. Experiment with three or four different beginnings and decide on one at least five minutes before you sit down. That way you know exactly what you’re going to write.
Human thought is a tangled mess. We don’t think in terms of introduction-body-conclusion. We think in images and associations, and often these take us in numerous directions where we never intended going. While this is an excellent aid (maybe the reason) for creativity, it doesn’t help when we wish to create something tangible. We must learn to temper our minds so that they conform to structured thought. Many authors write plans and summaries before they begin writing a piece. Here they define the structure of what they’re going to write – where to begin, where to end, how to handle transitions, how to drive conflict, how to establish character – so that when they finally get to writing, they know both the ‘what’ and also the ‘how’.
Fear is the most fundamental instinct of all animals, and human beings are no different. Fear of embarrassment, of being misunderstood, of not being good enough, of failing in the eyes of our loved ones (and of strangers); these are all very real, and very natural. As a writer you’re allowing people you don’t know a glimpse into your mind, and of course you’re afraid that they may not like what they see. Of course you’re scared that they may think you’re not good enough, or that you don’t matter.
To make it worse, these fears are well-founded too, when you’re just starting off. You probably are not good enough, your chances of failure are quite high, and it’s likely that you will not be understood. But who cares? We all exaggerate our own importance in the scheme of things (and that is as natural as fear). We think that once we embarrass ourselves, people will remember that blight forever. We imagine people have nothing better to do than to point at us and giggle, to judge us, to tell stories about us and laugh. But guess what. We’re not that important. People move on. You will too.
Write because you find enjoyment in it. Write because you love it. Try and not give a rat’s behind as to what people say about you (whether it’s good or bad), and just keep on writing. If you suck, it doesn’t matter. We all do, to varying degrees. You will suck less and less the more you write, and ultimately that must be your aim: to suck a little less today than you did yesterday. That’s all that matters.