It's a rare writer who never suffers from writer's block. If you do, you're in good company: it hampers even the most successful writers. When asked the most frightening thing he'd ever encountered, Ernest Hemingway declared “a blank sheet of paper”. ALLi blog editor Debbie Young shares her experience.
I know how Hemingway felt. Decades ago, I was a staff writer on a monthly business magazine. At any time of the month, the casual observer could tell how close we were to our deadline by the level of activity in the office.
The Power of the Deadline
In the week after an issue had gone to press, we'd go shopping a lot and take long lunches. When in the office, we'd lark about. We amassed a fine gallery of photocopies of our faces. (We were VERY young!) By week two, we'd be halfheartedly flicking through press releases in search of news, but by the end of week three, we'd be burning the midnight oil. Around this time, writer's block would kick in, and we'd loudly bemoan our fate as if awaiting execution. But by the end of week four, we'd always file our copy, sending it laboriously by telex and fax to our US publisher's office (no email in those days!)
A deadline is a wonderful cure for writer's block, but when as a self-published author, your deadline is self-imposed, it's nowhere near as imperative.
I may still be a last-minute merchant, but at least I've now learned that when writer's block strikes, there are constructive things you can do to deflect it. Here are my five top tips:
1) Stop Trying – and Do Something Different
Don't sit staring fretfully at your blank screen or page, feeling your anxiety mount. That's about as likely to help as lying awake in bed at 2am, worrying why you're not asleep. Get up, go elsewhere. Do something constructive that uses a different part of your brain and body. Read a book, bake a cake, do the ironing – anything that distracts you from your writing. (This may or may not include photocopying your face.) Activity involving physical exercise is especially good because it releases feel-good endorphins into your bloodstream to lift your mood.
2) Practice “Good Writing Hygiene”
Just as doctors recommend “good sleep hygiene” to cure insomnia (i.e. retiring in an environment conducive to sleep), I think there's such a thing as “good writing hygiene”. Organise your workspace in the way that makes you most likely to write uninterrupted. If a particular stationery makes the words flow, indulge in it. Roald Dahl, writing in his garden shed, always used yellow legal pads and Ticonderoga pencils, especially imported from the USA. J K Rowling favoured coffee shops. Those choices may not work for you, but find out what does, and stick with it.
3) Move Your Writing Time
Notice when your writer's block strikes. If it's always at the same time of day, reschedule your writing time to when you are naturally at your most creative. It might be late at night when the rest of the household is asleep, or first thing in the morning before the distractions of the day kick in. .
4) Tidy Your Workspace
If you've ground to a halt, take a break to tidy your desk. Although my threshold for untidiness is relatively high, I find working in a muddle debilitating. Even when I'm on a tight deadline, taking half an hour out to rationalise my workspace can save time in the long run. Fans of feng shui will readily agree, and even cynics will enjoy the virtuous glow that is the by-product of a good tidying session.
In Dodie Smith's classic coming-of-age novel, I Capture The Castle, the teenage heroine locks her author father into his room after his writer's block has forced his whole family into penury. She instructs him: “Write anything – write ‘the cat sat on the mat' if you like. Anything, as long as you write.”” He takes her at her word, and once he starts writing again, the words and meaning flow. It's like cranking up an engine with a starting handle. (I've often wondered whether Dodie Smith was speaking from personal experience.) So write anything rather nothing – you can always edit it later, once you are creatively back on track.