How Do Professional Writers Handle Writer's Block?
By Sam Figura
Have you ever written a paper in college and experienced brain fog, irritability, drawing a blank, frustration, inability to focus, and/or lack of motivation? According to a well-known medical website called Mental Health Daily, these are some symptoms of writer’s block. Writer's Block is the result of stress and anxiety. MHD also defined it as a condition in which writers are unable to think of what should be written next. I have taken many college writing classes, and I know firsthand the struggle of writer’s block. It stinks! I decided to explore the issue of writer’s block because I wanted to find solutions that would help me, and other people overcome writer’s block. Many professional writers know how to handle these situations very well. They overcome writer’s block by using many different tricks and techniques, and each writer uses them uniquely different. Understanding how different professional writers handle writer’s block will help us find our own method that we can apply to our writing.
My theatre instructor at Lane Community College spoke to me often about stress and anxiety in our advanced acting classes by explaining, “Tension is simply misplaced energy.” His quote is very useful in the realm of theatre arts, but it also seems to correlate to writer’s block as well. Since the main symptoms of writer’s block are stress and anxiety, we can say that writer’s block is also a form of misplaced energy. But how do we get rid of this misplaced energy? In theatre arts, actors practice relaxation techniques to overcome the tension of being a performer, but what do professional writers do to overcome writer’s block? Writers must find ways to handle that tension as well.
First, we need to know that writer’s block is very common. Carol Shields, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for “The Stone Diaries,” was also a teacher for creative writing for over 20 years. Shields has also identified why she believes writer’s block is so common. Shields has had many students who suffered from writer’s block. She wrote about it a column called Writers on Writing posted in The New York Times article called “Opting for Invention Over the Injury of Invasion.” She said, “I never once encountered a student who didn't worry, at some level, that a friend or family member was going to be violated, punished or crucified in a piece of writing.” She describes the fear as if the fear happens to the writer during the writing process. She continues saying, “The concern was real, and often it afflicted young writers with classic writer's block before they'd written so much as a single word” (Shields). I found this compelling that she picks out fear as the core aspects of writer’s block. I feel like stress and fear are similar because they are so closely related. According to dictionary.com, stress is pressure or tension, and it also defines fear as a form of pressure or tension. Shields believes writer’s block is common because everybody who writes experiences fear. I have felt that fear writing on many occasions. My most memorable time was on a scientific article about the complexities of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
Secondly, in order to overcome writer's block, we need to know that everybody has different methods to overcome it. Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, had some very strange techniques! According to interestingliterature.com, they described his technique saying, “So he decided to take all his clothes off, take himself off to a room where he had only pen and paper for company, and force himself to write, without even the distraction of clothes to derail him from his task. His servants reportedly had orders that they weren’t to return his clothes to him until he had written something.” His unique method does not mean everybody needs to do the same thing, but it shows us that other people use different techniques, and not everybody uses the same. He needed solidarity from anything distracting himself from the writing. We should explore techniques that we can use to help us overcome writer’s block.
Sometimes the phrase “practice makes perfect” has truth in it. For example, it is important to practice writing in different genres. Marge Piercy, another author who wrote a column for “Writers on Writing” published in the The New York Times, wrote “Sometimes I say that if a writer works in more than one genre, the chances of getting writer's block are greatly diminished” (Piercy). What does Piercy mean by writing in different genres? According to dictionary.com, a genre is a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, etc. I can name a few examples of genre, for example, an annotated bibliography, nonfiction/fiction, argumentative essay, song lyrics, poems, etc. Piercy claims that if we learn to write in different genres, or practice writing in different ways, we are less likely to encounter writer’s block! I agree with Piercy’s logic because we generally improve our writing abilities through practice, repetition, and expanding the writer's toolbox.
Another popular concept professionals use to overcome writer’s block is freewriting. For example, Maya Angelou, the great American author and poet, experienced several spouts of writer’s block. According to an article from The Huffington Post written by Jeryl Brunne, Angelou reported, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try,” said Angelou. “When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’” When Angelou struggled with Writer’s block, she just kept freewriting. The same article also provided an inspirational quote from Mark Twain that said, “The secret to getting ahead is getting started” (Brunne).
Although we may be impressed by the number of books Stephen King has published, he also suffers from writer’s block! King wrote an article for The Washington Post in 2006 called “The Writing Life.” He talks about what it’s like to be a writer. He has a strong sense of comedy also in his writing by describing the writing life as, “Dig this: The so-called "writing life" is basically sitting on your ass.” After his joke, he becomes more serious when he talks about writer’s block. “There may be a stretch of weeks or months when it doesn't come at all; this is called writer's block. Some writers in the throes of writer's block think their muses have died, but I don't think that happens often; I think what happens is that the writers themselves sow the edges of their clearing with poison bait to keep their muses away, often without knowing they are doing it” (King). I was shocked when he described the duration being maybe weeks or months at a time. I’ve had writer’s block for several days which seems long enough. Nonetheless, the rest of King’s quote seems to be full of imagery to give us a sense of understanding from his point of view.
James Patterson, author of Alex Cross, and hundreds of other novels, claims he never has writer’s block because of his technique. In an interview with Noah Charney for The Daily Beast, Patterson talks about why he never struggles with writer’s block. “I never get writer’s block, because I always have a good dozen projects that I’m working on, so if something isn’t working I’ll just switch gears” (Charney). Patterson’s method seems practical because it gives you a break to work on something else, and it gives you a chance to come back refreshed. I have used this technique in college by switching from biology to writing homework or vice versa.
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, also has writer’s block! In a YouTube video interview called, “J.K. Rowling's Struggle with Writer's Block,” she talks about how she handles writer’s block. Rowling carefully articulated, “I had my first burst of publicity about the first book and it paralyzed me. I was scared the second book wouldn’t measure up.” They mentioned during the video that she once tried to break her own arm to get out of the writing business. I have never gone that extreme, but I have missed a few assignments in grade school from writer’s block and stress.
Recently, I purchased a book from an educational store called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost. Provost is also known for being author of The Freelance Writer’s Handbook. Provost wrote about nine different ways to overcome writer’s block. I found these nine ways extremely helpful. The nine ways are copying notes to spark ideas, keeping a journal, talk about what you’re writing about, touch your toes ‘exercise,’ do writing exercises, organize your material more, make a list, picture yourself as a reader, and ask yourself why you are writing (Provost, 17-25). I really liked these methods he presented because they were straight forward, and they all help the process of brainstorming. I have practiced these techniques in many areas, and I found them all very helpful to some degree. My favorite method is picturing myself as the reader.
Since we looked at how these professional writers deal with writer’s block, we can identify many ways that will help us overcome it. Since I’ve done this research, my ability to overcome writer’s block has improved greatly. I recently saw a noticeable difference with my writing assignments for my college classes and outside college. One time, I wrote three essays in two days for college, and I did not experience any symptoms of writer’s block. I found that many of these techniques really helped me. We need to know that writer’s block is common, and everybody has different methods to overcome it. We need to work on finding our own techniques, and practice writing in different genres. It will ultimately help us broaden our writing skills. I have practiced many of these techniques, and they have all helped me improve my writing. Just don’t break an arm or hurt yourself to get out of writing. Keep practicing your writing skills, be unique, and never give up!
Brunner, Jeryl. "Famous Writers Share How They Handle Writer's Block." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonpost.com, 29 Jan. 15. Web 30 Nov. 2016.
Carol, Shields. "Opting or Invention Over the Injury of Invasion" The New york Times. Writers on Writing, April 2000. Web. Nov. 2016.
Charney, Noah. "How I Write: James Patterson." The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
"Dictionary.com - The World's Favorite Online Dictionary!" Dictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
InterestingLit. "Five Fascinating Facts about Victor Hugo." Interesting Literature. N.p., 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
King, Stephen. "The Writing Life." The Washington Post. WP Company, 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Piercy, Marge. "Life of Prose and Poetry -- and Inspiring Combination" The New York Times. Writers on Writing, Dec. 1999. Web. Nov. 2016.
Rowling, J.k. "J.K. Rowling's Struggle with Writer's Block. YouTube. YouTube, 26 June. 2015. Web. Nov. 2016.
"Writer's Block: Causes, Symptoms, & Cures (Overcoming It)." Mental Health Daily. N.p., 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.