Saturday, July 31, 2010

WHEN WRITERS GET BLOCKED: Breeds of Discontent

(NOTE: Writers have issues, especially the more sensitive. The rants about where the book is going are temporarily shelved to address another important issue that plagues every writer worth his or her thin skin. Insensitive writers could care less about rants or issues. They sit with their laptops in the local Starbucks and crank out prose by the ream, only looking up to sneer at the barista that sweeps the floor and replenishes the napkin holders between making strawberry-cherry-mocha-soy milk lattes. The barista doesn’t like the insensitive writer that much either. He or she should quit sitting around and get a real job. This is difficult for the insensitive writer since many video stores have closed and those still open are not hiring new staff.)

Writing isn’t easy, and when writer’s block hits, it’s impossible. No words will smash into each other on the page like senior prom dancers zonked on overproof rum-spiked punch. You stare at the screen or the paper and nothing comes. Insecurity creeps in, confidence skulks out. The hours turn into more hours and hands tremble over the keys unable to start a simple sentence. Brain refuses to function. Whatever happens outside the window becomes very interesting, even an airshaft.

Some claim that writer’s block is caused by excessive use of alcohol and recreational drugs, listening to popular music, and improper diet. These reasons are hogwash since any of the above can be used to the writer’s benefit. A semi-comatose writer does not question his or her talent, especially one deafened by the White Stripes and bloated with Doritos. Mind you, they can’t write worth a damn either.

The block has its source in the usual calamities: the agent dumps you, a colleague says your work is dull and pointless, a receding hairline recedes further, rent is two months late and going for three, a girlfriend or boyfriend or partner finds someone better, the refrigerator conks out with nothing to spoil except ice cubes, a novel written by a hack first-timer hits the best-seller lists and it’s better than anything you’ve come up with, cable is cut off from lack of payment, and the water stain on the ceiling keeps getting bigger. The result is that you cannot write. Not a word. Not even email or a postcard. You’re screwed.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the walking and talking polymath, had this as a maxim: Mut veloren, alles veloren (Courage lost, all lost). Copy in big letters on a sheet of paper and hang it over your desk. Keep writing and you, too, might be a cultural center. Likely not but one never knows.

Never blame. Tossing around blame is dumb. Yes, this year’s summer movies sucked, the healthcare initiative was a bust, last night’s gnocchi boiled into unappetizing goo, and Lady GaGa’s last seventeen outfits were an assault on the eyes. Big deal. You have most of your fingers and part of your brain. This is enough to tell a story that will enrich writer and reader.

Change how you do what you do. Write while standing if you depend on a chair, or go for the horizontal on the divan bought at a yard sale, the one with sprung springs twisting through the brocade upholstery. Have a clear narrative to follow, like Bob and Sam go to the haberdashery store and try on gloves. What is the relationship between Bob and Sam? How do they get to the store? Are the gloves expensive? Let Bob and Sam shoplift at least three items and they have to match. No argyles, please.

Take a page from a novel or short story by a favorite writer and type it out. This will get the feel of writing well into your starved fingers. Take a page from a novel or short story by a writer you despise for the right reasons and type it out. Now go through and rewrite the junk until the prose starts singing a happy tune. This is only plagiarism if you publish the thing under your own name. Use the name of a former employer instead.

Rummage through old notebooks and travel journals for ideas. They may be ridiculously out of date or full of blather about the human imperative, but a source is a source. Make the embarrassing less so with retrospective speculations. The result will still be embarrassing so delete it. Write something new, better, shinier, and with fewer big words.

Never, ever, give up. Writing is how we come to understand each other, and still carries a weight and power undiminished by technological advances. Support other writers as you stumble through another depressing day of not one original thought in your head, buy books, go to readings, sit in your local library, and know that tomorrow you will start on your best work. Got it?


Missing from the last post was a plug for THE DOG WALKED DOWN THE STREET: AN OUTSPOKEN GUIDE FOR WRITERS WHO WANT TO PUBLISH (Cypress House, $13.95). For many readers and writers, this book is an essential part of their home libraries. Now you can purchase one for your very own from an independent bookstore. Log on to, where friendly bits and bytes will provide directions. I mean, heck, THE DOG WALKED DOWN THE STREET: AN OUTSPOKEN GUIDE FOR WRITERS WHO WANT TO PUBLISH (Cypress House, $13.95), is a treasure that cannot be measured in mere lucre. Now that I’ve mentioned the book twice, can I go play outside?

NEXT: Bones for the Boneless

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