Techniques for beating writer's block?
November 10, 2004 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any good techniques for beating writer's block?

The particular flavor of it that I'm going through is a total deflation of my writing confidence. I used to be able to sit down and crank it out, completely convinced that I was awesome and this was total gold I was creating. But for the past year or so (during which I've started doing a lot more writing for money, which may or may not be a factor, I'm not sure), I've had a lot of trouble with doubt. I'll start a project, and before I'm even a thousand words into it, flaws on both the macro and micro scale become really apparent to me and I'll decide that it's just not worth pursuing.

At this point, I can still spit out an (uninspired) article if there's a deadline, but actual creation has pretty much ground to a halt. If anyone has success stories on getting through this sort of feeling, I'd love to hear them…
posted by COBRA! to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have about a hundred stories, but the question would be where to start.

and before I'm even a thousand words into it, flaws on both the macro and micro scale become really apparent to me and I'll decide that it's just not worth pursuing

Here, I would have to say: give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft. I'm always getting panicky halfway through writing something because I realise that it's total rubbish. The trick is to turn off that editor until you've finished and you actually have something to work with.
posted by different at 9:00 AM on November 10, 2004

Different nailed it. It's ok to write crap. In fact, writing crap is worlds better than not writing at all. You don't have to let anybody read it until you're comfortable with it. My writing teachers used to say that there's no such thing as writer's block, that it's a myth and an excuse. Just keep writing. There is no other cure.

If that's true, why am I reading AskMe instead of following my own advice?
posted by muckster at 9:37 AM on November 10, 2004

maybe i'm way off-base here, but i write software for fun, and also as a living. three things have cltered the amount of enjoyment i get from those:

first, random fluctuations. even when i was in my best job ever, very happy, etc, i had a good 12 months when i had very little interesting in writing (software). i got my paid work done, but did nothing outside work. in the end i stopped worrying about it, bought a bass guitar, and had fun with something else instead.

second, interesting assignments. for me, creating something new is much better than rehashing old idea (or, more accurately, bringing the deepest insights from old ideas to bear on apparently new problems, exposing hidden connections).

third, exhaustion. i had a job that drove me into the ground. for many months after, i wanted to do nothing. this passes with time.

so my conclusions are hopelessly unoriginal - if you have the luxury not to worry, dont; try something new; relax.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:39 AM on November 10, 2004

I'll append that with a few ways that I've found to give me a fresh perspective: it's always good to look at the work from a new angle, for example by printing it out and taking it to a cafe, by forgetting about it and doing something else for a while (non-verbal activities are good: swimming, walking, dancing, playing pinball), by dictating a new draft into a voice recorder, writing longhand for a bit, imagining the story from a different character's point of view, and so forth.

But eventually, half of that is procrastination, and again, there is nothing that will help you write aside from sitting down and putting your fingers on the keyboard. A schedule might help, or writing drunk, writing early in the day, writing late at night. But ultimately, you have to write, and you have my complete sympathy, because it can be the most punishing, lonely, frustrating thing in the world.

I think every artist deals with the confidence issue at some point, and some (most?) never get over it, no matter how many publications they have or prizes they win. But try to remember that very little is invented wholesale--it's always a tedious process of adding and removing ideas over a long period of time until you reach something that is satisfying. As for flaws: every work of art has flaws. You want to aim for perfection, knowing that you'll miss. It's still better to have the result of that miss than to not have it. It's a good thing, in fact, that you recognize flaws: instead of giving up, you ought to try and fix them. It's a lot of work, but if you're not going to do it, the story won't get told. So, damn the torpedoes and soldier on, COBRA!, because the world is bound to be a slightly better place for having your work in it. I salute you.

Now go write.
posted by muckster at 10:04 AM on November 10, 2004

"Writer's block is my unconscious mind telling me that something I've just written is either unbelievable or unimportant to me, and I solve it by going back and reinventing some part of what I've already written so that when I write it again, it is believable and interesting to me. Then I can go on. Writer's block is never solved by forcing oneself to "write through it," because you haven't solved the problem that caused your unconscious mind to rebel against the story, so it still won't work - for you or for the reader." -- Orson Scott Card

It's a thought.

I'm also a fan of stuff like the Artist's Way. Cultivating the poet's eye is essentially the way I find things to write about that are interestiong enough to me to work on effectively.
posted by weston at 10:17 AM on November 10, 2004

I agree with Different: allow yourself to write crap. The second step is to write that crap every day.

About a week ago I started a new project with exactly that intention as, though I know that's the way out of the block, I'd forgotten it. So now I'm 8 days in and every single day I sit down not knowing what I'm going to do and cursing myself for starting. However, a few hours later I have something I'm happy I've done. When the whole project is done (couple months, I'd guess), I will re-read it. Right now I'm only reading yesterday's work in order to start today's, but with the promise to myself that I will not correct any of it.

I've tried this a few times in the last year and it's always failed so this time I decided to do it online and tell a few friends about it with the thinking that, though I've had no problems letting myself down in the past, hopefully I won't go back on my promise to them. This may not work for everyone, but it's worked for me for blogathons and other online projects.

Also, I'd recommend the book The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield.
posted by dobbs at 10:27 AM on November 10, 2004

I'm also in the "allow yourself to write crap" camp.

I also recommend finding a new place to write. For my latest project I've sworn off the computer for the first draft and am going to a nearby Whole Foods and sitting in their cafeteria area to write. It's bright, it's not too busy, and it's someplace new.

I also also recommend reading -- not just books about writing -- but something that you find inspiring, or by an author that you love.
posted by papercake at 10:42 AM on November 10, 2004

Its already been said here but the best way to break out of the block is to just write. Write whatever comes into your head, don't edit anything, just write and write and write some more.

You will realize, hopefully, that you're actually writing what you want to again before too long.

Either that or I tend to get really, really drunk on red wine or whiskey and mash the keyboard for a few hours. The grin inducing screeds are great fun the next day (or day after, depending on how over the top you went with the wine or whiskey, note the "or", don't do both!).

Loud music tends to help too.
posted by fenriq at 10:45 AM on November 10, 2004

Get a timer, or use the one on your microwave. Set it for fifteen minutes. During that time write. No matter how drecky or bad. At the end of the fifteen minutes go do something else. Come back later and set the alarm, lather, rinse, repeat.

Also as a songwriter I run into writer's block with lyrics sometimes. What has helped is making sure I jot down little ideas, little phrases, etc and keeping them in a notebook or in a folder...scratch paper, envelopes, whatever. When it is time to write I have a jumping off point.

And at some point I need to add, perfectionism is a killer. You can over work a piece, whether written or painted or some point you have to say "good enough" or you will wind up with nothing.
posted by konolia at 11:02 AM on November 10, 2004

Breaks only for masturbation and a Tivo'd backlog of Simpson's episodes. Not allowed to leave writing place for any other reason.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:11 AM on November 10, 2004

Drink alcohol before and while you're writing. Try using a pen or old typewriter instead of a computer. Dictate into a tape recorder. Look at your old notes and ideas and flesh them out. Attempt to write as poorly as possible, or to write about completely uninteresting topics. Do cut-ups. Meditate. Turn a newspaper story into something fictional. Write a thinly-disguised autobiographical anecdote about a seemingly minor event. Write poetry. Write a kid's book. Get stoned. Drink coffee. Use famous people as your characters. Get a kid to tell you a story. Get a room. Don't take yourself too seriously. Never think of writing as an "exercise." Read.
posted by swift at 11:12 AM on November 10, 2004

Yes. Good enough is important, the knowledge that you can always get it exactly right the next time; because you won't die tomorrow; and if all else fails, you can always ask yourself: who reads it anyway. Relativism is good. And another thing: real writers keep office hours. And weekends off. Really.
posted by NekulturnY at 11:13 AM on November 10, 2004

Writer's block is a common topic on AskMeFi. I wonder why?
posted by fuzz at 11:15 AM on November 10, 2004

I'm facing a similar drought lately. Try caffeine. Exercise. Drink a little. Get really excited about creating something and just start typing until something cool comes up, and follow every lead that you can. Later, you can go back and rewrite what really caught your interest.

Try going to Wikipedia and hitting random page. Same thing at Type random shit into Google. See what sort of interesting things you can find that have happened or are happening to people. Write about something off the front page of Metafilter, if you want.

From the sound of it, you're not a fiction guy, but maybe you are, or someone reading is. There's a helpful little exercise for coming up with ideas, where a bunch of people write down characters and character dilemmas on separate scraps of paper, then pair the two up by picking them out of hats. You can get stuck with something like "a magician" and "wants to kill himself" and see if something comes up. Write on it for a while. If it doesn't work, oh well. Draw something else, or stare at the blank page again.

Re: seeing flaws in your work shortly after starting, sometimes when that happens I just stop, take a break, come back and start writing all over again, with a better sense of where I want it to go. This isn't much different from the "shitty first draft" advice, but it's sometimes easier for me to just start anew.

Best of luck.
posted by rfordh at 11:32 AM on November 10, 2004

When I can't write, I go to a public place with noise and people all around and try there. Also, I don't begin creative projects until late at night. Or I go for a long bike ride or car ride.
posted by ParisParamus at 11:55 AM on November 10, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, all.

(except for konolia's specific bit about using the microwave timer for non-microwave timing; I did that once for something else, and wound up overheating the microwave and irritating my wife greatly. Otherwise, right on)
posted by COBRA! at 12:27 PM on November 10, 2004

People who decide they have "writer's block" don't have to write.

Perhaps you could raise the stakes on yourself -- not in a dire manner, but something you found effective. Perhaps you could tell someone whose opinion you value highly that you will have something to show them in a week.

Then you would have the fear of disappointing them hanging over your head. If that didn't do it, find something more effective.

If you were going to lose your job, and thus your car, your house, deprive your children of food, etc. because of your "inability" to write, I assure you that you would get over it. Swiftly.

I got a chance to interview one of my heroes, legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko, when I was a newspaper intern. Royko did a column a day for the Tribune in his latter years. He had a legman -- a reporter who he sent out to do his bidding -- but who does a five-day column any more?

Anyways, I asked him about writer's block. He snorted.

"Do construction workers get jackhammer block? Do cops get dark alley block? If I don't write, I don't eat."
posted by sacre_bleu at 12:44 PM on November 10, 2004

Response by poster: "Do construction workers get jackhammer block? Do cops get dark alley block? If I don't write, I don't eat."

Yeah, but like I said, I can will myself to do the bill-paying writing. It's the noncommercial creative stuff I've had trouble with.
posted by COBRA! at 12:53 PM on November 10, 2004

I am in the fifth year of a dissertation. I've been working full time for much of that period, I'm doing stuff that I haven't done before, my spouse has inserted herself into the process, my adviser is invisible, etc. etc. but still, it is a nightmare from which I hope to awake some day.

So, I'm not qualified to address this, but the work by Robert Boice is pretty good and gives me a little hope. If you have an email address I'll scan in an article and send it, otherwise dig around.

You can distill much of what he says from these summaries and links (google search for "robert boice writer's block)
posted by mecran01 at 12:56 PM on November 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

It's the noncommercial creative stuff I've had trouble with.

OK. Me too. After 18 years of professional writing, I'm nearly useless without a deadline.

What are you trying to do? Detective novel? Epic poem? Personal essay?
posted by sacre_bleu at 1:19 PM on November 10, 2004

Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies are a great source of inspiration.
posted by Espoo2 at 1:19 PM on November 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

about using the microwave timer for non-microwave timing; I did that once for something else, and wound up overheating the microwave

Well, you don't actually do it with the microwave on! Use the "stand" or "cool down" or "pause" setting (i.e. no power). On my microwave this is power level 0.
posted by kindall at 1:58 PM on November 10, 2004

Response by poster: What are you trying to do? Detective novel? Epic poem? Personal essay?

The pattern's usually something like: start a short story, decide it sucks, abandon. Start a personal essay, decide it sucks, abandon. New short story, etc. etc.

Actually, now I think I'll try a science fiction novel about a guy who overloads his microwave and is miraculously sent back in time.
posted by COBRA! at 2:03 PM on November 10, 2004

Marijuana works wonders. Also, isolation can become heavier with time, so maybe walk to the corner bar and jot down some ideas to hammer into lines when you get back to your typing instrument.
posted by four panels at 3:03 PM on November 10, 2004

The pattern's usually something like: start a short story, decide it sucks, abandon. Start a personal essay, decide it sucks, abandon. New short story, etc. etc.

Well, of course it sucks. It's not even a first draft, because you've got draftus interruptus.

Sounds like you've got lots of ideas. So: finish something. (I know, I know, easy for me to say.) Reward yourself with a pre-set prize: a CD/DVD you haven't let yourself buy, dinner with someone special.

Put the manuscript aside. Go on to something else. Finish that. (Reward.) Go back to the first manuscript, which will probably be showing obvious flaws on subsequent readings. Make the story better.

Resist impulse to show to others, at least at early stages. That tends to pollute the relationship between you and the work.

When you pick it up again and can find no clear way to make it better (for the 12th time, if that's what it takes), then show it to a selected audience. One that can be relied on to be honest with you, and not just say nice things because they love you and know how long you've been working on it.
posted by sacre_bleu at 4:11 PM on November 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

start a short story, decide it sucks, abandon. Start a personal essay, decide it sucks, abandon. New short story, etc. etc.

Do you decide it sucks, or that the idea doesn't have potential? There's a difference.

It happens to me all the time that I don't have enough material to complete a song, despite the fact that I have a kernel of idea. It happens to me all the time that something I'd like to write about is so short that it ends up being a paragraph rather than an essay. It's OK to stop in this case... do develop the idea a bit, and keep it in a file, just in case, but stop if there's no path to walk down that seems promising (or at least fun).

But if it's that the execution seems poor, or that there could be good development but you're not sure how yet, or you're worried you're inadequate to the idea... these forms of suckiness are polished off by spending time and hard work, and what sacre-bleu said is true: you need to stop judging prematurely and shake things out the old-fasioned way.
posted by weston at 6:33 PM on November 10, 2004

I hate to ask y'all, 'cause I hate to sound like a pinafored pettifogger pushing a cheese wheel over your toes, but with so many MeFites advertising as professional writers, why don't I see much marketed product out there, in the there place, in the out-of-here-and-beyond place, the seeing of which I could celebrate with a delighted "Hey, I know who that is!" exclamation, accompanied (if I were accompanied), by a nudge and a wink and a gloating smirk and a sexy toss of my scalplock?

Is everything in pre-debut? Is it all commercially anonymous? Is it niche-enshrouded? Otherwise entombed? Is everyone shy? Am I a pinafored pettifogger pushing a cheese wheel over your toes?
posted by Opus Dark at 1:42 AM on November 11, 2004

Response by poster: If you lived in Minneapolis and read the less-respectable press, you'd see my marketed product (and you'd then pick your wheel of cheese up and, horrified, whap me in the head with it). Here's a slice of the unmarketed.

And anyway, thanks again to everybody for the suggestions. Last night I had my first productive session in weeks.
posted by COBRA! at 7:06 AM on November 11, 2004

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