to Knock the Block
©David M. Pitchford
What is Writers Block? Seems a simple question, doesn’t it? But it is not. We all seem to have an idea of what WB is, but how do we define it? The condition of being blocked from writing? This raises the question of what causes such a block. The answer to this is both simple and complex: the same thing that causes any mental block. Sometimes WB is as simple as the indiscriminate loss for a word-a condition easily remedied by use of a dictionary and/or thesaurus. Tougher forms of WB can stem from numerous sources, anything from sleep deprivation and fits of micro-sleep to burnout or amotivation.
How do we deal with WB? There are as many formulas for this as there are writers. Likely more. Breaking the block is mostly a matter of self-knowledge. By understanding ourselves, we can learn what causes these blocks. Knowing is half the battle, as the saying goes. If we study ourselves as we write, we gain a great deal of insight into our personal writing process-and thereby learn what starts, stalls, and stops the process. We can then take that knowledge and apply a reasonable problem-solving strategy to knock the block and get to writing.
Below are ten basic strategies to deal with some of the most common causes I know for WB. Most have to do with caring for the physical self as a catalyst for maintaining the mental self, whence all writing flows. And that is the goal of knocking the block: maintaining flow. Keep the machine clean. Keep the software clean. Keep the power on and uninhibited. These are the outcomes we desire and which facilitate healthy, productive writing sessions and careers.
These are, of course, merely suggestions. Use them sensibly and responsibly if you choose. Though I recommend keeping yourself healthy, any advice I give on nutrition or exercise comes with the caveat that you are responsible for your own health. As such, you might want to consult your primary physician before heeding such advice.
You know yourself. If you don’t know yourself, start learning! Experiment with yourself. You are the most willing subject you will ever have for the experiments it will take to get you to “having it down to a science.” Enjoy yourself. Enjoy your own writing. Learn to take great joy in both your successes and your object lessons (they are never failures if you learn from them).
1. Run Away 6. Re-organize
2. Write 7. Breathe!
3. Read 8. Listen
4. Stop 9. Eat
5. Suck it up! 10. Bathe
1. Run Away: Exercise stimulates the mind as well as the body. Stimulating circulation by exercise naturally stimulates the brain by increasing bloodflow to it. A bloody brain is a healthy brain! So to speak. Walking will suffice for beating the block. The point is to get away from the pen or keyboard and initiate physical activity. I, and many of the writers I discuss these topics with, find that physical activity also relaxes the mind in a way that facilitates the natural filtering of thought from the thought-blocked unconscious to the re-focusing conscious mind. It’s somewhat like opening the pores to your brain by increasing the bloodflow and decreasing the direct tension by flexing muscles elsewhere. This is, of course, common sense. But we all need reminded of life’s “lower” functions now and again.
If you suffer from a particularly stubborn block, I suggest finding new scenery in which to walk, jog, run or work out. I like parks any time the weather is not overly atrocious. In dire circumstances, I can walk or jog in rain or snow if the wind is not howling. The change of scenery stimulates my mind while the physical exercise gives my metabolism a lift, which in turn increases focus and keeps me alert. Possibly because I am Cancerian, a park with water, either stream or pond, works best for me.
Physical exercise is also particularly effective when writer’s block stems from a sudden change in direction. Often I have to break sessions into specifically writing, and specifically editing sessions. Exercising works like a charm to enable the transition from creative to mechanic mode. It is much healthier than the old habit I gave up a year ago: smoking a cigarette. Take care of your body, take care of your mind. Take care of your mind, it takes care of you.
2. Write: Writing little things can lead to bigger thoughts. Sometimes just creating a list is enough to get started. This is much like walking a few blocks to build up to running. It’s not exactly the goal, but it is necessary to keep from straining yourself on the way to the bigtime. Try writing mundane, inane, or gibberish things just to get your fingers ‘in touch with’ the keyboard. Again, this is like a stretching exercise, but it can be pragmatic as well. I often begin with a list of activities I plan for the day. If this overwhelms me or fails to generate ideas, I move on to wish lists and lists of household chores I want my house-elf to execute (my house-elf seems to be nothing more than myself in automaton mode between mental exercises).
These lists often become story and poem ideas-occasionally even poems unto themselves. They also act as a compass for me if I lose track of what it is I want to accomplish any given day or week. Keep in mind that, like any to-do list, these should remain flexible. Be reasonable if the list is to be functional, but permit yourself occasionally to create extravagant wish lists, which are healthy for Imagineering. Often writing lists opens your subconscious mind by requiring it to answer questions in regard to goals and priorities. It’s a sort of psychological slight-of-hand that I find wonderfully useful.
3. Read outside the Box: It is all too easy to get sucked in too close to the material about which we are trying to write. We just can’t see when we’re too close to it. So back off! Go read this week’s New Yorker cartoons. Or your horoscope on MSN.com or anything that is not your subject at hand. Read an article on travel, cuisine, or relationships-just make certain your reading is a hard shift from what you’re attempting to write on. The shift in thought patterns will help you shift your focus in such a way that you can go back and focus more effectively on what you’re doing.
Holding too tight can cause you to lose your grip, so lighten up. I think it was Frances Mayes in The Discovery of Poetry, or perhaps *that author* in Sin and Syntax who uses the term “composting” in reference to letting ideas settle. You don’t need to be an expert in the psychology of the unconscious to understand that sometimes we overfocus on a topic or subject to the point that we lose sight of it. How many of us wake up at four in the morning with that elusive word we wanted to use yesterday? Or the perfect solution to a character’s dilemma that actually fits the character’s character? Or the perfect answer to a plot twist that we were working on last week? We all have those moments; it’s the subconscious working, in its inimical logic and objectivity, to solve problems, questions, and curiosities unresolved in our waking hours. It’s truly a wonderful and miraculous process, and one of the most powerful tools we have. Learn to use it-if you listen to it, it will tell you how.
I strongly recommend, ironically enough, against studying books on writing. Notice I write studying. Browse them. Peruse them. Read one idea at a time and let it percolate. Incorporate one strategy at a time. This is the whole secret to self-improvement: deal with one powerful change at a time and build upon it until you assimilate this improvement into your being. Pick your greatest weakness, or the one you find most intolerable, and attack it with single-minded rabidity until you’ve turned it into a strength. Then move on to the next.
4. Stop! Prune the roses. Guilt and responsibility are tough taskmasters. Sometimes it is simply impossible to write past them. It sucks, but that’s a fact. Deal with it. What is it that keeps you from writing? Does your lawn need mowed? Roses need pruned? Tree or shrubbery trimmed or hacked? Driveway need swept? If your subconscious is trying to tell you something, listen! It’s your closest, best ally. Trust it; it is you. Trust yourself. If the roses are calling, answer. If you’ve put off checking the tar job you did to patch the roof and it’s a good day to get up there, take care of it and then come back to your writing. Congratulate yourself for being responsible and then dig into the writing.
Sometimes stopping for a brief respite is the only way to continue on any given journey. If your ‘urgent’ list has caught up to become your ‘important’ list, then stop and take care of business. Occasionally our subconscious struggles with the goals with which we program it and sends us signs that it is too conflicted to go on the present path-this is one source of writer’s block that is very difficult to overcome at the keypad, daisywheel, or journal. If the thing your subconscious is telling you to do is simply not reasonable due to conditions, try writing your subconscious a note with specific times and conditions under which you will take care of the task.
Last year I kept getting blocked because my roof is in less-than-prime condition. I could not sit through a sunny day and continue to write without that little voice in the back of my head grousing at me to get up there and spread some tar. This went on for several weeks. My goal was to write 2000 words a day on my novel, which would get me to a 100K wordcount within two months. I began to think my goal was completely unreasonable. I fretted and worried and stagnated. Then one fine morning I said something like “forget this!” and stomped outside. Half an hour later I cleaned the tar off my hands (no mean feat) and sat down to my laptop. I made my goal, and then some. By the time my wife returned from work I had made up six days of being blocked. I finished the final 30K words of my draft within a week!
5. Suck it up! This is the lousy weather answer to number four above. Carpet need cleaned? Clean it. Need to sweep the floor? Sweep it. External clutter often symbolizes internal clutter; if we clear the external, then, by metonymy, we clear the internal clutter. It’s a simple sort of magic, really. “Cleanliness is close to Godliness” and all that-clear your clutter and invite your inner godliness to come and create your writing with you. Vacuum the house. Put your stacks of books back in their proper shelves (those not immediately relevant).
There are always about a hundred household tasks we can knock out. Sometimes racing through these mindless tasks settles our minds to the point of opening that wonderful fount of infinity we call imagination. Wash the dishes. Do the laundry. Clean the toilet. Sweep the floor. Dust the bookshelves. Rearrange the cabinets (this is especially fun if you have a spouse that comes home to find everything where it doesn’t belong). What else can you do? Clean the litter box? Brush out your dog or cat-sometimes this will settle their spirit enough so that their pouting doesn’t play on your subconscious.
If you’re afraid you’ll get too side-tracked by household chores, you can always clean up your desktop. How many of us could better organize our files? Build more manageable folders? Delete or archive old files that seem to push themselves into deadends? Run a scandisk on your computer to keep it running as smoothly as possible. Keep the flow. . .
6. Re-organize your workspace: Cut the clutter! Karen Kingston has a couple of great books that deal with this subject: Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui and Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui. The latter is one of my favorite books because of the ironic humor in having it in our house to begin with. No other book seems so ubiquitous; it seems that any time I undertake the task of re-organizing piles and stacks in our dining room, which serves as my second and third offices, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui finds its way to the bottom of the pile. I’m not really into Feng Shui, but my wife is hip to it. I humor her, because I love her. Mine are the books on runes and tarot cards and a dozen or more biblical sources.
But I do believe in the power of the mind, the power of metaphor on the mind, and the power of suggestion, as well as the universal flow of energy. Many of the writers to whom I’ve spoken have offered explanations as to the way such things work. I certainly believe that if you believe something works for you, it works for you. It is likely to continue working for you until your belief is eroded by experiences you believe to be contrary to such beliefs. Try it out, see if you believe, if it works for you. Pay attention to how your own energy flows, and how it flows in relation to the things around you. Despite what our cosmic froufrou sources say, I work better facing south than east (although, in all honesty, the books suggest that this might have to do with the disparity between my current name and the name I was given at birth).
Keep in mind that you are who you are. If you organize your space, organize it for yourself, and not for anyone else. Organize in a way that facilitates your (better) habits. In extreme cases, it may help to organize the way you think your spouse, roommate, mother, neighbor, etc., would want you to, but this is a stratagem best used for cases of hard blocking caused by taking the same path so often you’ve worn yourself into a rut. In which case you need to jump out of the rut and go a different way to refresh your perspective. But in milder cases of block, you merely need to organize according to your own system. Beware your lazy self and its lies about having no system. If you had no system, you would be very challenged ever to find anything. What looks like total mayhem to everyone else likely has at its root a very simple or very complex system of associations for you. Changing the system is likely to be a time consuming strategy of procrastination as well as most likely being ineffective for any length of time. You have a natural flow and system. Figure it out and work with it.
7. Breathe! You’ll be amazed how much a good, deep breath can invigorate you. It seems that in these days of super-technological advances our bodies as well as our minds are often refreshed by the basest simplicities of our animal nature-especially given our tendency toward tortured posture at the keyboard.
Take ten deep breaths. Count as you inhale, hold for the same count, then exhale for the same count. Hold for the same count and then repeat. Many of the New Age materials use ten as a good measure; depending on your lung capacity or speed of counting, you may want to try five, seven, or fifteen. The point is to fully expand your lungs and improve your oxygen saturation, which helps with circulation, which helps optimize brain function, and so on.
If you’re into that, a little chant or psalm sometimes helps. Play around with it. Make it your own-and then write an article on it . . . Having asthma, I tend to be rather inconsistent with this; however, it is one of the most effective strategies for the space of time it takes. I can even enact this exercise as I write to keep the flow. The later it gets, the more effective this seems for me. I often stand to do it so that posture permits maximum expansion of my lungs. There’s also more than a little research that suggests breathing exercises are excellent for overall health-and overall health is a good thing.
8. Listen: What kind of music inspires you? What excites you? Charges your mind? Empties your mind? Knowing these things about yourself will help you to find the right music for the right kind of block. Mental blocks, especially WB, can come from numerous states of mind: over-clutter, void, tangential anxiety (worry over other things), sleep deprivation, sleep surfeit, boredom, amotivation, etc. Find the music that works with the source of your block.
If I’m stressing too much about my bills being overdue, I’m not thinking about writing. How to ditch the anxiety? Nihilistic rock! Anti-commercialism rock-Warren Zevon helps a lot, as does Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” (Ya gotta go make it happen; take the world in a love embrace…). Hard-edged rock also helps sometimes with amotivation; it’s hard to be bored with Creed and Pearl Jam thundering behind me. Sometimes my mind bogs down with too many words, to the point they begin to lose meaning. At those times, I either go for offbeat songs with challenging lyrics or music devoid of lyrics such as Jazz, big band, New Age, and Classical. Sleep deprivation calls for anything that isn’t soothing (though sleep really is the best remedy for sleep deprivation).
Other times, it may suit you to listen to books on tape. Your local library likely has plenty of these to check out. Find something that interests you and play it as you type. It is incredible how much inspiration you can get from hearing someone’s else writing. Whether the subject is anywhere near what you’re writing about or not, often the sound of our language seems to help it flow more smoothly as we write. You might even pick up a few words for your vocabulary, or recall some you’ve ignored too long.
9. Eat: How many of us write ourselves into a corner? We start out early in the morning and work until we finally find ourselves staring at the screen or keyboard with vacuous eyes wondering what broke our stride? I do this far too often. What causes it? Hunger. The physical kind. The kind that is my greatest paradox-ally/nemesis. Science has gone a long way to prove what humankind has known since knowing was invented: starve the body, starve the mind. Your body needs nutrition. Protein helps me far more than simple carbs. I’ve experimented with this extensively over the last four years, and I’m as certain of this as I am of anything: high protein is the writer’s friend and sugary snacks are the devil’s handiwork. Have the cheese, skip the crackers. Have the nuts, but not the chocolate coating. If you must have carbohydrates, make them the complex kind you get from vegetables! Fruit is good for an energy spike, but if you’re going to write for a few hours, I recommend you dip apple slices in peanut butter (the miracle food).
Reward yourself with drinks and sugary snacks only when you have time to kill away from the keyboard. Your prose will reward and thank you for it.
10. Bathe: I do not intend in any way to disparage anyone’s hygiene. This is about bathing for relaxation. We discussed earlier the adage about godliness and cleanliness; while that can be applied here, this is more for the benefit of relaxation and reinvigoration. Linger. Enjoy. Use oils or gentle soaps that smell good and make you feel good. Unless you’re an ascetic in your writing habits, bodily comfort is your friend. If you’re a part-time writer, this is often a fantastic transition between the world of work and the world within. It is a pseudo-ritualistic way to put aside your work persona for your writing persona. Such rituals are indispensable for writers who have day jobs that don’t dovetail with their writing-and many of those that do.
 Take note of this strategy. I cover it in a later chapter. It is a strategy for avoiding WB, versus recovering from it. Here I was blocked on the author’s name, but looking it up would have stopped my flow. So, instead of stopping, I plugged in a marker to tell myself to add the information later in the editing stage. The author is Constance Hale. The reference in question may also show itself in Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power.