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The Writing Life: Writer’s Block

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February 2013
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Monday, February-11-13

Dave Hood

What is writer’s block? It is a psychological state in which the writer is unable to begin, or  continue, or end a piece of writing. Sometimes a writer is blocked for a short period of time, such as a few days. Other times, the writer is unable to write for weeks, months, years. The writer who is blocked might feel there that there is a lack of inspiration. Or the writer might feel  unable to develop an idea into a poem, or essay, or story. Or the writer might feel that their work is not good enough for publication. Whatever the reason for the mental block—the writer is unable to write.

Many writer don’t believe in writer’s block. In “The Poet’s Companion,” a splendid book on how to write poetry, author Kim Addonizio, who is a well-known poet and writer and instructor of creative writing, suggests: “We don’t believe in writer’s block. We believe there are times when you are empty and times when you are full” of ideas to write about.

However, many writers, including myself, believe that sometimes writer’s are blocked. Grief, depression, addiction, anxiety, illness, fear of failure, self-doubt, burnout,  and the internal critic who demands perfection or undermines your confidence can empty the well of creativity, leaving you with a lack of inspiration and a blank page.

Some writer’s also believe in the  “muse”–some sort of higher power that provides them inspiration to write. This is just myth, just like Greek mythology.  The ancient Greeks  believed in the various Goddesses of the muse, who provided a select few creative geniuses with inspiration. In my view, it is the writer who must find inspiration and continually write, even when he/she doesn’t feel like writing.  The writer creates his/her own muse.

By nurturing creativity,  you can bring an end to writer’s block or  prevent it.  For a writer, creativity is about uncovering ideas to write about and then applying techniques of fiction to craft a complete story, or using various poetic devices  to compose a poem. Sometimes a writer might have a good idea, but he/she doesn’t know how to begin, to develop , or to end the piece of creative writing. Or the writer is stuck in the middle of a piece of writing. Or  the writer might not have any ideas. And so the well of creativity is empty.

How do you nurture creativity and prevent writer’s block? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Maintain a work-life balance. There must be time for work, time to socialize, time for fitness, time for solitude, and time for play. Often people who are burned-out have spent far too many hours writing—and forgotten to attend to other aspects of their life.
  2. Keep a writing journal or writing note book by writing in it each day.  What can you include? Anything related to the art and craft of writing. You can  freewrite, make a note about something eventful, write down the word and meaning of a new word. You can experiment with the techniques of fiction or poetry, such as simile or metaphor.  You can write about an overheard conversation, something on the news, a memory, your anxieties, a movie, song, poem, someone you loath, what happened in your day, a fleeting moment, something you’ve learned. You can add  photographs, news clippings, recipes, quotations, anything that is inspirational to your writing journal. Not only will the journal keep you in the habit of writing, it can also supply you with ideas to write about.
  3. Go on an artistic date every week or so. Author Julia Cameron, who wrote “The Artist’s Way,” suggests that you can find ideas to write about if you go on an artistic adventure by yourself each week or so. You might visit a bookstore, buy tickets to see a music concert, attend an art gallery, visit a craft show–do something new.
  4. Read widely and deeply for pleasure. Not only should you read books on the craft of writing, but you should also read the best poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction available.  Marvelous contemporary poets include Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, and Billy Collins.  For a list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century, see www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels . Or select and read a novel from Time’s 100 All-time novels. You can find countless other poems and poetry at The Poetry Foundation. You should also stay informed–by reading magazines and newspapers. All aspiring writer’s should read literary journals and The New Yorker magazine. Reading can be a pleasurable escape, an easy way to discover new ideas, a simply way to learn, and one of the best ways  to expand your vocabulary, providing you look up the meaning of a words you don’t understand in a dictionary.
  5. Make fitness part of your daily routine. Take vigorous walk or engage in some other aerobic exercise each day. Do yoga. Pump some weights. Join and attend a fitness club. Take a bike ride. Physical exercise, especially aerobic,  will build self-confidence,  clear your mind, and release tension from your body. It is one of the best ways to combat stress and refresh a tired mind.
  6. Find an hour each day for solitude or personal time–away from the solitude of writing. This quiet time can be used for personal reflection, to meditate, to take a walk in the woods, to rest, and so forth. The purpose of solitude is to provide you with a break from the stresses of life.
  7. If you are unable to write because of burn-out, you must take a break. When you’re burned-out, you won’t be able to give your best effort. The break will reenergize you. You might take a trip, go on a vacation, or just stop writing and use the time to in leisure activities you enjoy.  How long? It all depends. Once you’re feeling refreshed, you can begin writing again.
  8. If you don’t have anything to write about, do some freewriting. There are two types: Focused and unfocused. Unfocused freewriting is about sitting down with a pen and notebook, and then writing about anything that pops into your mind. Focused freewriting involves sitting down and writing about a particular topic. For instance, you might freewrite about why you cannot write. And when you are freewriting, answer the journalistic questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how.
  9. Find an outlet or enjoyable leisure activity. Play baseball, tennis, squash. Do some cooking. Socialize with a friend. Take up photography, learn how to play the piano, or some other musical instrument. What every you do, be sure that you are doing something enjoyable that is not about writing.
  10. Sometimes you must continue to write even when you don’t feel inspired to write, unless you are suffering from burnout. Why should you continue to write? The act of writing will  provide you with inspiration and content.  This material can always be revised or discarded. Writing each day will also keep you disciplined, and allow you to capture ideas or expand on them.

For more information on preventing writer’s block or finding ideas to write about, read:

  • The Writer’s Idea Book: How to Develop Great Ideas for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Screenplays b y Jack Heffron
  • A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judy Reeves
  • Where Do You Get Your Ideas: The Writer’s Guide To Transforming Notions into Narratives by Fred White.
  • The Right to Write by Julia Cameron
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • The Artist’s Way By Julia Cameron
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