Describe Your Writer's Block
March 24, 2010 6:27 PM   Subscribe

What does your writer's block feel like?

I generally insist that I don't get writer's block, but I'm not sure if that's true, or if I'm just using a different definition of "writer's block." Does everyone with writer's block have the same problem?

If you're a writer, and you get writer's block, what's it like? Are you unable to come up with anything at all, or just anything good? If someone told you to write an original 500-word story or they'd kick your dog, could you do it? Does it involve a lot of writing and deleting/erasing/throwing away, or just staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper? If you spend an hour suffering from writer's block, do you spend it trying to work, or trying to avoid work?
posted by lore to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Like it's suddenly the most important thing in the world that I search the Internet for that one thing I've been wondering about for a while now. It's just plain old procrastination. (Speaking of which, no more MeFi for me.)
posted by stargazer360 at 6:31 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Paralyzing self-doubt.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:33 PM on March 24, 2010 [7 favorites]

All of the above. If I'm cleaning my desk instead of writing, it's because I'm stuck. If I'm rewriting the same sentence 47 times, I'm stuck.

If I'm checking AskMe for the ninth time this hour- I'm stuck. If I'm on my third hour researching something that will appear in ONE line in the book- I'm stuck.

And I have actually pounded my head on a keyboard before when I was stuck. Not good for the keyboard. Not an effective method for curing the block. But! Strangely satisfying.

I could always produce 500 words of something- it's just that when I'm stuck, it won't be a good 500 words, or 500 words I could use in anything.
posted by headspace at 6:37 PM on March 24, 2010

Part is just frustration/procrastination: knowing I have to do something, not doing it, then being angry that it isn't done. The other part is just like that feeling when you're trying to remember the name of that guy in that movie, you know, where the guy was with that girl who was in that movie with the airplane, but he wasn't? It's that feeling, but with each individual word that you try to write. While it's still possible to write in either case, it's far less fun than when writing comes easy.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:42 PM on March 24, 2010

I get hit with aggressive procrastination urges when I'm almost always able to fcous at least somewhat reasonably. Usually this happens with short term stuff [I have a 1500 word article due in two days, this is not hard for me, I know I can do this, why am I not doing this, I am watching myself not do this, what is wrong with me]. Usually I'll find myself trolling for the perfect clip art, or fucking around with the thesaurus a lot, but the upshot is, if I'm trying to write something for more than a few hours and it's just not happening, I'll move off and do something else. I don't have the long range writer's block that lasts for weeks or months, though maybe I would if my deadlines were spaced further apart or I weren't so afraid of missing them.
posted by jessamyn at 6:49 PM on March 24, 2010

it feels like i am collecting brilliant lines in my head and have perfect clarity and then when i get to a keyboard or a pen, it's on a different level and i can't find what i wanted to say anymore. if someone made a threat to my dog or something, i could pull it out for sure. interesting.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 7:32 PM on March 24, 2010

and deadlines don't help me in the least, they actually make it harder to come up with something decent. so i don't have a lot of techniques to get over writer's block except now what you mentioned so i may have to get some thugs to push me around a little ;)
posted by lakersfan1222 at 7:35 PM on March 24, 2010

Definitely "paralyzing self-doubt" with a considerable dose of frustration that I can only describe as feeling almost like mental claustrophobia.
posted by synecdoche at 7:39 PM on March 24, 2010

Sometimes it feels like this.

Sometimes it feels that it's not working because I can't start writing the boring stuff at 10:34. Only if I start precisely on a quarter-hour increment will it flow. And only if the room around me is tidy, and the toilet lid is down and I'm sitting up straight at the table and my shoes are on and I've just had a cup of coffee and washed and put away my cup and as jessamyn said, have finished with the aggressive procrastination stuff like checking all the most recent status updates and updated Bloglines posts and and and... that's all why the first line just won't come - the line from which all others will flow. SOMETHING is clogging me up. Seeing what's new on a gossip site is like jiggling the handle. Random Googling of words I might use is like plunging a bit. Checking other sites to see what else has been written on the topic is like the old vinegar and baking soda trick.
posted by peagood at 7:39 PM on March 24, 2010

I get a lot of different strains of writer's block. Sometimes it's just hard for me to articulate a particular idea, and I can work on other projects or do a page or two stream of consciousness writing to help get past that.

In other cases, I'm staring at a blank screen for hours, and I might as well clean the apartment or go grocery shopping until I get past it. Particularly if I'm writing something that requires a lot original thought, then I have to be in the right mental state, and I'm sort of the victim of my mood, caffeine, foot position, cat, and so on.

Oddly, though, this never happens when I'm writing on a deadline. I can always start writing if an end point is established.
posted by _cave at 7:50 PM on March 24, 2010

What it feels like:

A) I have no idea what happens next. There is nothing *there*. I could write something contrived where a naked person runs through the door with a machine gun, but it's not the *right* thing that happens next, so what's the point?

B) I can see in my head what's happening in the story, but whenever I try to put it down in words, the rhythm is wrong. The voice is wrong. I can't write these words, because they aren't the words my character would say.

C) I look at my story. I think about the next line. I look at a sudoku, or my e-mail, or my RSS feeds. Some time later, I look at my story again. Somehow, the next line has failed to miraculously appear. It's not the same thing as just procrastination - it's as if there's something in the story itself that's repelling my focus. And I can make my way through 500 words in two or three hours like this, so it's not an absolute block, but it's like treading through a swamp.
posted by Jeanne at 7:56 PM on March 24, 2010

My concept of writer's block is exactly like Philip Roth's concept of writing:
I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.
When I find myself working like this, I know I'm in trouble. I write best by messily spilling ideas all over the page and then tidying them with an editing pass; if I find myself editing as I go instead of getting down new material, I have writer's block.
posted by danb at 7:56 PM on March 24, 2010

I'm never at a loss for ideas. I always have more ideas than I can use. I'm able to come up with a lot of things, and plenty of them are good, but none of them are right.

When I'm "blocked," it means either two things:

1. In this particular moment, I cannot get this sentence to come together in a concise, non-clumsy way. Whether this actually counts as a block is arguable though, because I simply bracket the thing off and append it with an ungrammatical string of words that suggest what I'm trying to get at, and move on.

2. Things don't feel right. This has always meant that I've overlooked certain structural things, usually character motivations, that don't quite mesh with what I've set up. Sometimes a big tenant is flawed or unrealistic and I haven't figured out what it is yet. This is when writing grinds to a halt because I don't want to build on a shaky foundation.

When that happens I don't force anything. I think up random scenarios. I mill around and do other things, thinking about this, sometimes for months, until it hits me what's wrong and what needs re-evaluating.

To answer your particular questions: if someone asked for a 500 word story, I could do that pretty fast. Something that short is going to succeed either by conveying a single emotion or scenario well, or will else have a grand concept or plot twist to give it a punch. Those are all easy for me to write quickly because none of them need a ton of detail in terms of causality or the interactions of multiple people.

I get caught up having to juggle the motivations of multiple, vastly different people with how they'd necessarily interact with each other and what options are available to them. Something two pages long isn't going to have a lot of that, and when the story isn't very long, people are more willing to buy short, simplistic explanations for things because there's less space in which to question it and they know that they can judge whether it made sense in a minute or two when they finish reading.

I never stare at a blank piece of paper. I'm either revising a sentence unsuccessfully and moving on, or I'm typing out plans (plot, characterization, world building -- anything that isn't the actual manuscript's text). If I'm not at the point where I have plans to write out, I'm not staring at paper. I'm wandering around or reading something or listening to something.

I'm never blocked "for an hour." Either I move on from the sentence within fewer than ten minutes -- often less than a minute, but sometimes I get stubborn -- or writing is postponed to whenever the solution to my structural issue hits me. That time in which I'm waiting isn't active so I don't consider myself blocked for some length of time, but it's not passive either in that I'm milling over things in a casual way.
posted by Nattie at 8:49 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me, writing is exclusively one of two things. On good days, things just flow and it's like thoughts are draining smoothly from my brain, though my fingers, and onto the screen. Outside, the sun is shining and birds are singing. On bad days things just get slower and slower until I'm having to wring words from my brain like blood from a bandage. And I know that when I get to that state I'm usually writing crap. Fortunately I usually have the luxury of being able to walk away for a while until things unclog and it starts flowing a bit more. Writing good stuff is hard and, to me, a big magical in its unpredictability.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:04 PM on March 24, 2010

Natti nails my particular experience of writer's block with this:

2. Things don't feel right. This has always meant that I've overlooked certain structural things, usually character motivations, that don't quite mesh with what I've set up. Sometimes a big tenant is flawed or unrealistic and I haven't figured out what it is yet. This is when writing grinds to a halt because I don't want to build on a shaky foundation.

When that happens I don't force anything. I think up random scenarios. I mill around and do other things, thinking about this, sometimes for months, until it hits me what's wrong and what needs re-evaluating.

I realize this isn't exactly an answer to your question (what does it feel like?) but it's a hell of an astute observation as to its cause.

When I was younger, I had a tendency to FORCE the issue when I felt blocked. This was okay if the structural concerns were minor but generally disastrous if they weren't, to the point of driving me awfully close to a nervous breakdown on more than occasion ... or as Jacqueline noted up top: PARALYZING SELF DOUBT.
posted by philip-random at 9:26 PM on March 24, 2010

The art/science/craft/magic/hair-pulling of writing, however you want to define it (all of the above, at times, I think) is a tricky thing. Sometimes, it just seems impossible to "turn it on" and produce quality work. There is a great book called Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers.

It's full of anecdotes about various writers' processes, superstitions, and obsessions. It won't necessarily tell you how to solve your writer's block--this is a very subjective and personal issue--but it will certainly reassure you that you're not alone, and what's more, that you're in extremely good company.
posted by parkerama at 10:06 PM on March 24, 2010

It's not that I stop writing, it's that I start writing about ridiculous, terrible stuff. Suddenly my character is remembering a time he was in a school play where a kid got painted from head to toe and had to go to a doctor by a teacher who thought he had down syndrome. Summaries end up sounding like they were read by a breathless five year old.

Since I have no direction, I'll just meander all over the place with 2 good ideas and then have to scrap it all later. In situations like that I should've just walked away for a while and written ABOUT what I'm writing. That's what helps me the most.
posted by OrangeDrink at 7:31 AM on March 25, 2010

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