Monday, 11 May 2009

Beating the Block

Not everyone gets it – or should I say suffers from it, because it is something you suffer from like warts, except with warts you can see them and like a wart it is annoying but not life threatening.

There are different degrees of block. There is the one where something is there but you can’t get it down on the page and end up writing nothing. Or the one where there is nothing there, your head feels empty and the only things in it are the tumbleweeds blowing round in the void.

Those are the two I’m going to talk about because those are the two I’m well acquainted with.

In the case of the first the blockage needs to be cleared. I have a vision of my mum at the sink with a towel. I can’t remember the technique but I know it involved scrunching up the towel in and over the plughole and a lot of pumping and it worked.

How to clear it? I’m afraid I don’t know. If I did, I would have finished the novels I have queuing up in my optimistically labelled “book” folder on the desktop. And those five or so magazine stories I have in another folder which have brilliant beginnings but have no middles or endings. And the more serious stories, started . . . waiting.

I have no doubt that they’re in my head somewhere. My problem is finding them and getting them out and if I’m perfectly honest with you I know what the solution is. It is to sit down and work at it. But it is easier to catch that passing story idea which is almost fully formed in my mind and write that instead.

Writing is my living. Without it I wouldn’t eat – and perhaps given my ever increasing beam that would be no bad thing. But there is my neat little excuse for not getting on with it – I have to write the short stories I can finish. And what about when I’m not working on them or when they won’t come out either . . . well we’re back to displacement activities and I don’t want to go there again today.

Maybe then what is started and unfinished doesn’t feel right and it’s easier to ignore it than to find out what’s wrong.

My mum used to knit – oh boy she used to knit. And if she made a mistake, a tiny one that no one else would notice, she would go back and start again. So maybe that kind of “there’s something there that won’t come out” block has something to do with a need for perfection.

I think it is something that writers of short stories probably suffer with more than most. Correct me if I’m wrong – I’m sure you will. But in a short story you can keep going over and over and over it as you write, going back, editing this, changing that, removing a word here and adding another there. With a novel if you do that . . . well, you’ll end up with loads of unfinished manuscripts and every time you go back to them you’ll start tinkering from the beginning again and by the time you get back to where you were the creative steam will have gone and you will have edited your story out of existence.

I hadn’t meant this to go on so long. I hope you’re still with me. I don’t blame you if you’re not – or if you’re thinking “I wish she’d get blocked and end this.”

So what’s the solution? You could try sitting down and working through it and if you don’t know what happens next but do know what happens further along – leave a gap and fill it later. The important thing is to get the flow going. I’ve heard more than one writer say that it is better to write a page badly than to write nothing at all. At least you can edit a bad page.

Emptiness. Now that’s a different feeling. Your ideas notebook is wearing a coat of dust and all you have on your Word document is the little number 1 at the top of the first page. Ideas, if they come at all, are weak or elusive.

You start to despair. That’s it. You’ve done it. You’ve reached the end of the road, used up all the ideas you were ever going to have. You look back to the days when you first started to write and found it impossible to keep up with all the ideas, days when you had to abandon ideas by the wayside because there just wasn’t time to write them all.

Brains are not like ovaries! They don’t have a sell by date. Well they do but it comes a lot later for most of us, sadly much too early for a few.

The first thing to tell yourself is “I am not finished!” And the second is to stop beating yourself up about it.

So how to get those ideas coming? Well I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog that pictures are a good starting point. Choose a picture and write about it. Doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary. I like the one above. Tiny girl alone in the woods - this picture speaks to me – not quite sure what it’s saying yet, but I will eventually write about it next month, next year or in the distant future.

For some people having a break from writing works wonders. I find it works the opposite way for me. The less I write, the further I seem to slip away from it and the harder it is to go back – and why writing, which I love, turns into an ordeal to be faced I don’t know!

Get yourself a copy of “Writing from Life” by Lynne Hackles. Lynne knows how to banish those tumbleweeds. She’ll have them swept out of your mind and set you off on a voyage of discovery through your own experiences. One idea will spark off another and before you know it, you’ll be off, fingers flying over the keyboard.

Write something different. Write a poem. Write a letter. Write to someone you don’t like or someone you admire (remember this is just for fun – I’m not suggesting you start firing off letters for real – these are just for your own consumption).

A string of rejections can knock your creativity on the head and make it hard to keep going. But we all get them. They hurt, but they are proof that you are writing and you’re sending it out. If you’re writing because you want to be rich – forget it. If you write because you have to and would do so even if you won the lottery, keep at it.

And read. Read as widely as you can. If you don’t love reading, why are you writing?

Oh hell. I’ve just done what I promised myself I wouldn’t do when I started blogging. No long blogs I told myself. Just nice little short snappy ones.

You can beat the block, but the answer doesn’t lie in swallowing tons of Ginkgo biloba (said to be good for mental fuzziness) or listening to Paul McKenna CDs (although having said that, he does seem to have a positive effect on the confidence!) or even drinking Absinthe – The answer lies within you. You have the power!

There’s probably nothing in the above you didn’t already know and hadn’t already tried, but if any of this waffle helps just one person to get going then I’ll be happy. And if anyone wants to write about the picture, feel free and if you do, let me know if you’re successful!


  1. I like the 'unknitting' analogy for when you have to go back and fix something that isn't right before you can go forward. Great post.

  2. Fantastic advice. Thank you so much. It's really hard when words and ideas don't flow. Your techniques for easing the way back into writing are very welcome.

    Am afraid I have to admit to being one of those who listens to Paul McKenna CDs - he hasn't made me rich yet (or thin) but you're right about his effect on the self-esteem.

  3. Thanks Helen and Suzanne!

    I've 2 or 3 Paul McKenna CDs - they haven't made me slim either, but the confidence one is really good. Maybe he's the reason I started writing a blog!

  4. Sooo glad you posted this! I thought it was just me and have been berating myself soundly. I'm struggling at the moment, but I think that's got a lot to do with recent rejections and general lack of response from mags. I find it best to force myself to write something - anything and often when I read it back later I don't find it's quite such rubbish as I initially thought. Sometimes, with work, it even turns into a story after all. So great to have found this blog.

  5. Hello Lydia - I used to think it was just me too until a few years ago when I started meeting other writers through the internet. It's reassuring to know most of us are in the same boat (I have a picture in my mind now of a Noah's ark type boat crammed with writers - I'll turn that picture into a posh cruise ship - there that's better!)

  6. Brilliant post :o) My mum used to that with her knitting as well!

    With the novel-in-progress I'm trying to limit myself to ONLY editing the chapter I'm working on as I go along, otherwise like you said, I'd never get any further.

    I find walking the dog nearly always unblocks me, as it were!

  7. Interesting post, Teresa.

    I don't exactly get writer's block. It's not that I don't believe in its existence, just that I know with regards to myself when I fail to finish a particular writing project that it's a lack of discipline on my part.

    I'm a procrastinator.

    I have four published novels but I also have four unfinished ones. One only needs another chapter or so to complete the first draft, another is a complete draft that needs editing, the third is almost complete and the fourth [which is a follow up to a published novel is halfway through].

    I think the mistake I made was not to keep plonking myself down in front of the computer to finish those one at a time. Somehow I lost momentum.

    The quicker I get the first draft down the better.

    I have decided to go back to the fourth one and carry on with it, inhabiting that world once more.

    The difference with my published novels and my unpublished [unfinished ones] is that for those I lacked self discipline and allowed myself to get distracted by starting new projects.

    By the way, I enjoyed your story in last week's Woman's Weekly! :)

  8. Thanks for the brilliant advice, Teresa, and I'd just like to say that this letter writing business actually works!
    I was a bit dubious about it this morning, but I wrote a letter to somebody I admire as you suggested and then went on to start a short story. I didn't hold out a lot of hope because I've been having trouble writing for months, but I have now done the first draft of a story, which is going to be about 2000 words.
    There's a lot of tweaking to do and it will probably be days before I can send it off, but I'm so pleased to have actually accomplished something for once, so a huge great big thanks!
    Might try the picture idea next. Won't use your picture though because although it's lovely, I'm sure you will come up with an idea for it in the end.
    Thanks again

  9. Good luck with that, Karen. It’s very hard not to keep going back and editing isn’t it. I used to find walking the dog was wonderful for getting unblocked in the old days, but now I’m either falling over or getting stung by the nettles or getting told off or running away from tractors . . .

    Thank you Lynette! Trying to work on four at once must be a nightmare. I'm a terrible procrastinator - well I'm not really, I'm very good at it!!

    Wow Susan, I’m thrilled! That’s brilliant. Good for you and good luck with that story.

  10. Great post, thanks Teresa!

    I sometimes try the 'just write anything' to get over an emptiness block. I just open a document and start waffling, and sooner or later something happens and a character emerges or a plot line, or an image - which can then become the kick-off point for a new story.

    I also believe in not beating yourself up if you are not writing as much as you feel you should. If writing's a sideline, as it is for me - it doesn't pay the mortgage! - then giving yourself permission to not write for a while if it feels like it's becoming a chore is refreshing. Trick is (and I've done this a couple of times over the years) is to pick a date/day on which you WILL write something, but not allow yourself to do any writing until then. You find yourself desperate to write and bursting with ideas long before the allotted time arrives!

  11. Paula Williams13 May 2009 at 07:14

    I certainly get days, weeks even, when other things, even housework, suddenly become much more attractive! But I always have several pieces of work on the go at the same time, in various stages, ie first draft, second draft etc. Then, if I'm not in first draft mood (and that's the one I find often really, really difficult), I can tinker around, polishing, editing and generally fussing about which usually gets things moving again - and cleaning the windows goes back to its proper place, down the bottom of the list again.

  12. Elizabeth McKay13 May 2009 at 15:50

    What I like about reading this blog and others such as Womag's (quick wave) is that I've come come to realise I'm not such a strange person after all (at least no stranger than the rest of you!). I can identify with so many of the comments everyone else has made, especially those who say that while writing is one the things they love doing the most, it can sometimes be the hardest thing to sit down and actually do! I now forbid myself to start writing a story unless I know how it's going to end. So now I've got lots of 'brilliant' ideas floating around in my head, going nowhere.

  13. I’ll have to try that picking a day and not allowing yourself to write beforehand, Womag! In fact I’m going to apply it as from now!

    Funny that, Paula – I’ve been busy cleaning windows this week!

    It’s not we who are strange, Elizabeth – it’s all those others!

  14. Hi Elizabeth! (waves back)

    We are strange. But so what.