Writer’s Block

I’ve recently become (a bit) active on Goodreads, and that means answering a few questions about writing. One of the questions is, “How do you deal with writer’s block?” So let me deal with that by coming at the question sideways.

The English word “meditation” covers a lot of techniques from a lot of different traditions. However, one common type of meditation is (silently) naming what you’re feeling. This can include physical feelings (“My nose is itchy”) as well as mental ones (“I’m restless”).

Specificity is useful. For example, what are the physical qualities of restlessness? (Perhaps tense shoulders, a tendency to bounce your foot, and so on.) Specificity helps you pay attention to what’s going on in your body and mind. Specificity during meditation may help you recognize the same symptoms when you aren’t meditating, so perhaps you’ll be more aware of your feelings and better prepared to deal with them.

What isn’t useful is interpretation: stories to explain why you feel a certain way. “I’m restless because I have so much to do…” etc. Telling yourself this kind of story distracts you from your real feelings. It’s not that the stories are false (although they very often are). It’s that the stories take over your brain. You put your time and energy into the stories, letting them spin and suck you in. The stories replace your actual experience, so that you stop being aware of what you’re really feeling. Even worse, you can cling to stories for a long long time…as opposed to real physical and mental sensations which tend to come and go relatively quickly.

For example, suppose someone cuts you off in traffic. You get a jolt of fear and adrenaline. Then the actual experience is over. You may have a reaction of anger immediately after. Fair enough―you feel what you feel. But if you start making up stories, you can ruin the rest of your day: you feed your anger, you attribute all kinds of horrible qualities to the other driver, you might reinforce unfortunate prejudices (“Any driver who wears that kind of hat is a moron!”), and so on. The stories inflate a momentary experience into something that eats up a chunk of your life.

And for what? The incident only lasts a second. You may never encounter that driver again. Making a big emotional story about the experience does you no good at all. Conceivably, it might be useful to have some clearheaded thoughts about what happened―“At this corner from now on, I should drive extra carefully”―but that’s different from getting carried away with the story.

Now let’s come back to writer’s block. Writer’s block is a story. It’s a phrase that blinds you to whatever you’re actually experiencing. The actual experience may be sleepiness, or restlessness, or (often) some internal monologue about the story, your abilities, or whatever. But just like obsessing over a brief incident, calling an experience “writer’s block” isn’t useful. That’s just feeding an unhelpful story.

So if you’re having trouble putting down one word after another, try stopping for a few minutes in order to become aware of what you’re experiencing. Identify your physical experiences as specifically as you can, but just labeling, not interpreting: “I’m hungry”, “I’m cold”, “My mouth is dry”, “My arms are tense.”

Identify your thoughts too, but be careful. If you’ve got some big internal monologue going on, just identify it as, “Talk” without any further comment. Otherwise, you’re likely to get sucked into the story. If the monologue keeps going, every few seconds identify it as “Talk” again. If you can retain enough detachment to do that, the monologue will usually settle down and dwindle away. A new monologue may spring up again, but you can label that as “Talk” too.

After a few minutes, you’ll have a better idea of where your body and head are at. You can then deal more clearheadedly with your situation. Are you hungry? Have something to eat. Are you cold? Put on a sweater. Are you tense? Do some pushups, go for a walk around the block, or take five minutes to relax in some other way. (Notice the difference between this and procrastination. Procrastination is avoidance, whereas I’m talking about dealing with issues that you’ve observed through direct experience.)

Improving your clearheadedness also helps you with creative issues. You may realize that you’re having trouble because you can visualize a scene, or because you don’t know what happens next. Okay, that’s just a matter of brainstorming: get a piece of paper and scribble down a bunch of different ideas, or make a mind-map, or open a separate file and do some freestyle experimentation. Pull out the tools in your writing tool kit, and see what you can make.

So my point is that “Writer’s Block” is an unhelpful story that masks what you actually experience. If you’re having trouble writing, take five minutes out to pay attention to your body and mind. Identify what you’re feeling, and label your thoughts, but without interpretation. That will help you clear your head and make you aware of actual problems that you should address…as opposed to feeding unproductive narratives that just spin and use up your energy.

In a way, this is like the internet maxim, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Don’t feed unhelpful stories. Stop. Step away. Clear your head. Then do something that will actually be useful, rather than getting trapped in emotional quicksand.

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