Writer’s Block: The 12-Step Cure

BookBaby helps authors publish ebooks and I recently did a guest post on 7 Ways Digital Publishing Can Change Your Life over on their blog. Today they return the favour so this is from Chris Robley, marketing coordinator for BookBaby and editor of the BookBaby blog.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

At his first inaugural address, FDR helped launch his presidency with those famous words. He was, of course, talking about measures the United States needed to take in order to pull itself out of the Great Depression. But he could have just as easily been giving a pep talk to writers wallowing in a creative slump.

99% of the time, writer’s block is nothing more than fear. You’re afraid you’re out of ideas. You’re afraid your best work is behind you. You’re afraid that you’re a phony. You’re afraid that you’ve exposed too much of yourself, or not enough. You’re afraid of failure. You’re afraid you’re not the genius you wanted to be when you started.

Rid yourself of the Genius Curse

Elizabeth Gilbert did a great job in her 2009 TED Talk of illustrating how we’re crippled by an obsession with our own intrinsic genius. We’re limited by the notion that every utterance we make, every phrase we write, every idea we have, should be pure brilliance. No pressure, or anything!

Do we really think our work should be transcendent at every turn?

No wonder we end up going through extended periods just staring at a blank page or hating absolutely everything we’ve recently written. Creativity requires a sense of hard work and discipline as well as a sense of play and discovery.

Here are 12 ways to free up your writing and cure you of your fear of failure:

1. Don’t be married to results.

This first tip is common curing-writer’s-block advice, but it’s also absolutely critical! Most people have to write pages of utter crap before they stumble upon that moment, phrase, idea, or character that really makes things click. No one else has to see that pile of crumpled papers in the trash. It’s your little secret.

Remember, brilliance has no deadline. Just sit back and enjoy the sound of your fingers on the keyboard or the scratch of your pen. If you DO have a deadline, be easy on yourself and accept the fact that not every sentence you write will sparkle.

2. Don’t compare yourself to other writers.

While you should constantly be reading other peoples’ work, it does little good to bemoan the fact that you do not posses the same kind of talent that, say, Nabokov or Dickens wielded. Your talents are unique. And Jealousy is bad for the soul; it is energy poorly spent.

Plenty of authors have been praised in their day, only to be forgotten decades later. Plenty now-infamous writers were relatively unknown while alive. Poet X might have you beat in terms of vocabulary, lyricism, rich imagery, and clever turns of logic, but your simple, conversational style may communicate with readers in a far more raw and visceral way.

Basically, there’s no way to assess how your audience (perceived or real) is going to react to your words in comparison to any other writer’s, living or dead. You just can’t know. So don’t worry about other writers. Don’t worry about your perceived audience. Just write. Once you’ve written enough material, judge yourself (but not too harshly) and revise from there!

3. Remember rejection letters are made of paper.

And paper can be burned. It makes an especially pretty glow at night. Rejection letters do NOT reflect upon you as a person or on your writing. They simply mean that your submission wasn’t a perfect fit for a particular editor, a particular agent, a particular publisher, a particular issue of a particular magazine, a particular theme or season… a particular particular. Keep trying until you find that fit. Your audience will follow.

4. Ask if your intentions are holding you back.

W.H. Auden was asked what advice he would give to a young poet: He said he would ask the poet why he wanted to write poetry. If the aspiring poet said, “Because I have something important to say,” Auden feared there would be no hope for this young writer. But if, on the other hand, the novice said he wanted to write because he loved to play with language, Auden thought there was some promise since he the young writer was open to the discovery aspect of the poetic process.

Just because you have something to say doesn’t mean that it is interestingly said. Is what you have to say less interesting than what you have to discover? If so…

5. Write ahead of yourself.

Get out in front of your conscious, deliberate, critical mind. Free yourself from patterns and intentions wherever they’re stifling your writing. You may uncover something interesting you never even knew that you knew.

But how? It’s difficult to offer particular advice here, since every writer is walled-in by unique habits and proclivities. But I would recommend that you NOT start relying on drink or drugs to free up your creative mind. Your writing will suffer in a completely different way. Instead, try some of the free-writing prompts you can find online. (http://creativewritingprompts.com/)

6. Cannibalize your older writing.

Everyone knows you shouldn’t be afraid to “kill your darlings” when revising current work. But don’t be afraid to dig up the dead for spare parts, either. I know it’s embarrassing to go back and read your younger work, but it can be a fruitful scavenging experience. I once went through a whole notebook of dreadful poems I’d written in college and filled up 3 pages’ worth of decent lines and titles that spawned newer, better poems. The same could be true of your old poems, stories, essays, etc.

If you’re feeling particularly brave, try combining some of those surviving lines and see if that launches something unexpected.

7. Break old habits of voice and style.

After you’ve been writing for a while, your style can grow stale, especially to YOU! So try something else for a change. Trade your typical Hen Lit romance for dreary Sci Fi, your dreary Sci Fi for historical fiction, your long and lyrical lines for terse and choppy fragments, your satirical smirk for a somber frown, etc.

8. Similarly, break from your assumptions.

This goes along with my earlier point about divorcing yourself from your intentions, but your assumptions can hold you back too. Maybe you’ve spent 6 months writing a light-hearted romance with characters you absolutely love, but the plot has dead-ended. Great! Kill one of your characters off and turn it into a murder mystery. If such a radical shift works to reinvigorate your writing, you can always use the revision process to balance out the narrative and style, or not!

If you have spent your whole life smack-talking love poems, spend the next few months trying to craft the most beautiful love poems you can muster! If nothing else, you’ll learn something.

9. Take a lesson out of the Ray Davies songwriting book.

A story or poem idea is never more than just a newspaper away. Inhabit a character from current events. Write rhymed verse about the underwater photography in National Geographic. Look to the outer world to inspire you. If it resonates you’re your inner life, you’ll be able to take the subject in a new direction.

10. Write every single day.

If you’re having fun simply writing, and if your work doesn’t have to be unbelievably brilliant every single time you put pen to paper, then there’s no excuse not to do it as often as possible. Practice doesn’t make you perfect; it makes you a better problem-solver.

11. Join or start a writing group.

The encouragement that comes from a writing group can be invaluable. If you trust and respect the other members of the group, your confidence and skills as a reader and writer will grow. You’ll also be challenging each other with weekly writing prompts. Check out BookBaby’s advice on how to start your own writing group and run an informal workshop. (http://blog.bookbaby.com/2011/06/top-5-tips-to-starting-a-writers-group/)

12. Combine all of these approaches.

Make a habit of habit-breaking. Since you won’t be staring down the barrel of any deadlines (right?), you can try as many crazy approaches as you like. Write as often as you can. Don’t be afraid to write absolute drivel. Once you’ve amassed enough material you can throw out the garbage, keep the good stuff, revise, and release only your most polished prose or poetry into the world. Everybody but your trash collector will assume you’re a total genius all the time!

13. ___________________________________.

Ah, lucky #13: the mystery step. This is one for you to fill in based on your own experience, tastes, talents, and limitations. The above suggestions are just the advice of one occasionally humble man. Trust yourself. You probably know better than anyone else what you need as a writer.

Chris Robley is a writer, poet, and marketer for BookBaby.com. Publish your book on the Kindle, iPad, Nook and more. Learn more about BookBaby Publishing

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Not only does this post help to serve battling writer’s block, but I also see it as treatment for DESPAIR, which can be even worse to deal with. As always, Miss Pen, your words are encouraging. Thank you. :)

  2. says

    Great post. I love the focus on change and reinvigoration – so often we can get in a rut, think we have no ideas and nowhere interesting to take our art. Thank you, Chris and Joanna!

  3. says

    Sometimes it helps to remember that the purpose of writing is to tell a story in a manner that the reader will find entertaining. The role of the writer is to to amuse, to divert and to establish a theme in such a way as to make the reader want to read. Sometimes I get caught up in wanting to deliver the theme of the story and a block occurs. When I consciously forget about the theme and focus on letting the characters live their lives, the story starts to move and the block crumbles to dust. The characters have a way of knowing what they want to do. I just have to get out of the way and scribble what I observe them doing and saying and magically, the story finds its way to the end.

  4. says

    Hi Jo. I’ve never had Writers’ block but I know it exists because I have friends who claim to have it. I have two beliefs which prevent Writers’ block in me and one way to get rid of it.

    My beliefs are “There is no such thing as good writing only good editing” ergo no matter what one writes you are probably going to need to edit it so get on and write. And as you have already stated “you can’t edit a blank page.”

    My training to get rid of it is to try nanowrimo. If you try it seriously instead of half heartedly you will learn that even when you have to force yourself to write to reach a word number target you will sometimes write something quite good. In a way it’s like writing a report at work – you don’t want to do it, you can’t do it, you might not have time to do it; but you do it because your boss told you to do it – he/she will not accept “sorry about the report boss, but I got writers’ block”.

    • says

      Hey Christopher,

      I love that quote: “There is no such thing as good writing, only good editing.”

      It relieves all that initial pressure for creating something brilliant off the bat. As long as no deadline is looming, then you have all the time in the world to make it great!

  5. says

    Hey all,

    Glad you found this article useful. It was really fun to write. I don’t often suffer from writer’s block, so it was interesting for me to sit down and think “well, why not? And what starts creeping in when ideas DO stop coming?”

    Most of the time I have the opposite problem from writers block. I’m constantly writing, and sometimes it feels like being prolific is a kind of doubled-edged blessing (my writing friends always get mad at me for saying so, though). Generating ideas comes easy. First drafts come easy. Even revising is easy. But the place where I struggle most is in finding that internal balance between critic and explorer.

    As subsequent revisions pile up, I find it more difficult to trust myself. I continually ask “Is this getting better? Am I ruining it? What happened to the original spark?” And all the while, new ideas keep coming and I’m off onto another poem, leaving the old one to languish for 6-12 months before I have the energy or discipline to return to them.

    I realize there are far worse problems for writers to have. But I’d be curious to hear from y’all if you have any tips or tricks for me to try. I don’t want to just block out new ideas, but I’d like to sorta “go underground” for a little while and tend to the plants that have already taken root.
    ——-
    On a tangential note, I recently started a new poetry blog called YRTREOP.COM (“Poetry” spelled backwards) where people can contribute what I’m calling “1-Minute Poem Reports,” basically quick blog posts (3-4 paragraphs) about a favorite poem and a few of the personal details that went into first discovering or relating to that poem. If any of you feel like sharing your writing and recommendations for great poems (along with links to your website and work), please feel free. I’d love to get your voice added to the blog.

    best,
    Christopher Robley
    ————————
    editor@yrteop.com
    http://YRTEOP.COM (that’s “Poetry” spelled backwards)

    • says

      Thanks Chris and your new poetry blog sounds interesting. I had a huge poetry phase which I fell out of and am now interested about exploring it again. I know what you mean about ideas. I have 4 books I want to write in 2012 and since I have been at 1 per year so far, it’s a tall order to switch up so some of those will have to wait. The ideas keep crowding my mind though. I think the best thing to do is write down 1 sentence of whatever the idea is and then put it aside and refocus on what you want to go deeper on. This captures the idea but you’re not spending too much time on it. I think Steve Pressfield goes into this in the War of Art as well. It’s a good problem to have but one that still needs managing. This is definitely more my problem than writers block!

  6. Melanie says

    Thank you so soo much!!!!!!!! I’m a senior in high school and I’m applying for scholarships! So pressure builds up as I try to write my essays.. but after reading your delightful comforting words, I think I’m less worried and more.. confident now! THANKS A LOT, JOANNA! My burdens had just been lifted.

    Sincerely, Melanie

  7. Ragnarok says

    Now I can’t use any of this. As I type I use my plot and do not switch or change anything. It works out extremely well and it takes hours/weeks to write even a letter. I suppose too much entertainment today doesn’t help and I sometimes lose interest in writing – my one true love. I personally don’t give two fucks if my book sells, I just want it out there.
    Now as a sixteen year old high school student, mind if I ask how I can regain interest in my work? It’s not really writers block, but, a lack of interest.

  8. says

    Interesting post. I’d like to add a new piece of advice: Save your brilliant writing and/or scenes for the adequate occasion.

    Sometimes you have a interesting idea, or think about a special sentence or scene that does not fit in your current book. Write it down and save it for the next one! You will often get a lot of inspiration from these little pieces that you jotted down, and build a plot around them. They are specially interesting when you feel uninspired, such little jewels will bring you back to action!

  9. WattpadWriter says

    I am sorry to say but those don’t help writers like me. I write for fun. These are for writers that actually want to go somewhere. I am suffering from writer’s block now and I already follow those steps for just normal writing. I am not trying to be offensive or anything by the way. I wish everyone luck if you are trying to go somewhere with your writing. I am currently just writing for fun and just so you know, I am 14 years old and I have been writing for about five years now. :)

  10. says

    Joanna,

    A great post, easy to follow and a range of ideas. I wrote about writer’s block in my new book Opening the Creativity Diamond and focussed in part on re-framing, a posh way of saying redefine your goal to something achievable at that point in time.

    Much of the rest of the book explores creativity and starts from drawing out assumptions – your point 8

    Keep up the good work!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Writer’s Block: The 12-Step Cure. This is a good list of tips — not all the usual stuff. Comparing yourself to other writers is a big problem. Remember, writers are all on different paths of writing careers in terms of expertise, experience, length, medium. […]

  2. […] Don’t be afraid and don’t be too hard on yourself. According to one article I read, most writers fall into writer’s block because they’re afraid they’re out of good ideas. Fortunately for us, ideas are an endless resource. There is absolutely no reason to fear running out of them. In addition, it’s easy to get upset with ourselves when we don’t reach our goals. For example, I promised myself I’d blog once every week in 2013. As a new blogger, that seemed like a hefty goal, but I was determined to accomplish it. Now, here I am, and this is my first blog in over a month. It’s hard to accept that I fell short of my goal but honestly, had I accepted that two weeks ago, I might not have fallen into such the rut I find myself in. […]

  3. […] “99% of the time, writer’s block is nothing more than fear. You’re afraid you’re out of ideas. You’re afraid your best work is behind you. You’re afraid that you’re a phony. You’re afraid that you’ve exposed too much of yourself, or not enough. You’re afraid of failure. You’re afraid you’re not the genius you wanted to be when you started.” (http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2011/11/30/cure-writers-block/) […]

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