Writer’s Block

Writer’s Block Hand Out for Loudoun County Public Library Program

Notes from my presentation for the Loudoun County Public Library on October 6, 2021.

A taped version of the presentation is available on the Loudoun County Public Library’s YouTube site at https://youtu.be/uogqiGj2zyY. 

Writer’s Block

Definitions – 

“the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.

“an inability to begin or continue writing for reasons other than a lack of basic skill or commitment.”

“a mysterious composing problem” “an inhibition”

The term was coined in 1947 by Dr. Edmund Bergler, an Austrian psychiatrist and follower of Sigmund Freud who practiced in New York City. He blamed it on “oral masochism and a mik-denying mother.”

Who gets writer’s block?

Every writer appears to get it at some time or another though some writers don’t believe it actually exists. Found across centuries and across various languages.

French writer Flaubert shared “You don’t know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word.”

Prevention

Writing is a creative activity and therefore, brain-based.  Maintaining optimum brain function through good nutrition, adequate sleep, and regular exercise sets the stage for robust creativity. Sleep is a critical requirement for creativity.  During sleep the brain performs reparative activities and it is not uncommon to awaken with the solution to a problem which plagued the sleeper when they went to bed the night before.  Not unusual to awaken with intriguing ideas for writing.  Recommendation is to keep a notepad or a voice memo device at the bedside to record these sometime evanescent thoughts. Exercise is also important as exercise helps a person maintain a positive mood. Writer’s block has been associated with anxiety and depression.  An example of the importance of the brain to writing is Alice Flaheerty, MD, PhD’s experience with hypergraphia (a compulsion to constantly write – the “flip side” of writer’s block). She had several post-partum bouts with this and wrote a book The Midnight Disease about it.

Writing daily or at least often and with regularity may decrease the risk of writer’s block.

Reading helps by exposing the reader to a variety of ways to express ideas and gives the opportunity to increase vocabulary.

Participation in a writer’s group can give the opportunity for brainstorming, group discussions, critiques, models of work, and networking with other writers.

Tap into science. At least one study has found, in a counter-intuitive result, that creative efforts may flourish in a person’s non-optimal time of day.  For example, if you are a night owl you might find your writing goes better during the day.  Early risers might try working in the evening on their writing. (2011 article in Journal Thinking & Reasoning)

Set general goals, use good planning practices and strategies, be organized. Break your goals down into small, achievable steps.

Each genre has set conventions.  For example, mysteries include red herrings. American romances end happily.  Follow these conventions and use established templates to make your writing more fluent and easy.

Avoid premature editing. Stopping to edit as you write interferes with your flow, interrupts your train of thought, and can distract you from achieving your big picture goals. It also can lead to overly revised first sections and poorly revised later sections if you rework and rework as you write.  Write the whole messy first draft then revise the entire document.

Do not get hung up in rigid rules as you create your piece. Stopping to make sure every grammar rule is perfect, the point of view is correct, and spelling is accurate can entangle you from forward progress.  These tasks come later.

Fluent writers often use heuristic practices – practices which are not guaranteed to be perfect or optimal but which are practical and effective enough to solve the problem at hand.

Things to do when you are stuck and facing writer’s block:

Exercise or take a walk.

Loudoun author Linda H. Sittig goes for a walk, ideally out in nature, and uses her phone to record any insights and thoughts. 

 In her 2019 Masters thesis, Sarah J. Ahmed surveyed over 100 writers. 100% of  those who exercised or went on a walk when blocked found this a good tool. 

Switch to another task. 

Sarah J. Ahmed’s study found this to be 55% effective.

Loudoun author Dixiane Hallaj uses this technique. She also starts writing with an idea of “where she is going.” She recommends writers “relax…understand the first draft is crummy…Perfection is a process , not a destination.”

I define writing tasks broadly. When not feeling up to tackling a problematic part in my writing project, I do another writing activity.  Examples are: research, taking a writing class, organizing my writing folders and files on my computer, planning a book launch, finding illustrations and images for my articles or book covers, writing in another genre such as poetry, refining or updating my written goals for the year.

Take a break from writing.

Loudoun author Sheila Sparks Ralph, Ph.D., is a proponent of this technique. Author of a popular nursing diagnosis manual, she is switching genres to creative nonfiction. She has scheduled a one-month break. Other writers use longer or shorter breaks to jumpstart their work.

Write your way out. 

ex. The Pomodoro technique – write for 25 minutes solid with no checking of email or other interfering tasks. Take a 5-minute break.  Repeat for 3 to 4 times, then take a 15- to 20-minute break. This helps you focus.

Talk with another writer. 

(If you are chronically or often blocked in your writer, consider seeing your medical provider to make sure you are not experiencing an underlying health issue.)

Consider the possibility that you would be well-served to abandon your current project. Set it aside. Save it. Often later (sometimes much later) you will discover a way to proceed forward or to use the incomplete bit in another work.

Resources 

Books –

On Writing by Stephen King – a compelling book (of course) with solid insight for writers

The Chicago Manual of Style – my favorite reference for those editing details you need tomake your crummy first draft sparkle. Available online or hardback. Newer editions Include how to deal with internet references.

Writer’s Groups –

Carver Center Seniors’ Writing Group – organized by Bobbi Carducci. Meetingsare currently virtual. Members pay a small annual fee to participate in this and other Loudoun Senior Centers’ activities. Members have published several short story anthologies.

Hellenic Writers’ Group of Washington, DC – organized and directed by Patty Apostolides. Connect with them through their public Facebook site or contact them by email (hellenicwritersgroup@gmail.com) No charge for membership. Meetings are currently virtual and participants sign in from around the globe. Members have published a bilingual poetry anthology.

James River Writers (www.jamesriverwriters.org) – based in Richmond, Virginia. Large organization which offers annual writing conference, Richmond-based activities, and regular sharing of newsletter with opportunities for writers. Membership fee.

Maryland Writers’ Association (www.marylandwriters.org) – multiple local county-based group (for instance, one is based in Frederick, Maryland) plus state-level programs. Annual conference. Newsletter. Membership fee.

Pennwriters (www.Pennwriters.org) – a Pennsylvania-based writing group which also welcomes those living outside the Commonwealth.  Membership fee. 

Round Hill Writers – organized by Bobbi Carducci. Meets twice monthly in the evening.  Currently the meetings are virtual. No charge for membership. Contact Bobbi Carducci through her email bcarducci@comcast.net.

*Loudoun and nearby areas host a variety of writers’ groups.  Some are genre-based.  One source to find a group is Meet Up (www.meetup.com).

Websites to investigate:

Dixiane Hallaj www.dixianehallaj.com – Her site includes writing tips in her blog, links to helpful resources, and information on Dixie’s books.

Medium (www.medium.com) – writers can self-publish blogs and articles on this site. Well-written articles may be promoted by the site. Large number of participants.

Reedsy www.reedsy.com – a British site which offers a variety of writing-related services and educational opportunities.

Linda Sittig www.lindasittig.com –The site includes her blog Strong Women and offers information about her and her books.

Submittable – (www.submittable.com) – a site which lets writers track their submmissions and find opportunities for submissions. Includes a wide range of opportunities (grants, fellowships, competitions, exhibitions) for writers and visual artists.