The grey, the blank and the page: writer’s block and how to overcome it

Posted by 01418635 in writing

“When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Crumpled papers.

Photo by ds139. Used under CC2.0.

As I am writing this, I find myself struggling with writers block, and I discover Nietzsche’s famous words echoing through my mind, though slightly construed. As we stare onto the blank, the blank also stares back onto us, and so it goes, the terrible cycle of empty page and empty mind feeding one other. The question at hand: is writer’s block real, and if so, where does it come from? The notion that there is a psychological aspect associated with writer’s block seems to be wide reaching and yet altogether misguided.

Robert Boice notes in his essay on writing blocks that references to this problem have been strewn, and that they have often been based on a writer’s subjective experiences. Psychologists have little to say on the subject and yet the fact that the term is often used interchangeably with writer’s anxiety brings it again, though somewhat problematically, into the realm of psychology.

Is this so called block a manifestation of our own insecurities and inexperience as writers? This would seem to be plausible. During the write up of my own research, I often felt overwhelmed and unequal to the task at hand. However, there is hope for us yet. Keith Hjortshoj writes in his book Understanding Writers Block, “Young inexperienced writers rarely encounter serious blocks… writing blocks are most common among advanced undergraduates, graduate students, scholars, and other professional writers who are not supposed to need help” (2001: 3).

There appears to be a notion that these blocks are often associated with perfectionism, as writers strive for excellence. As researchers, we are frequently confronted with a crushing sense of self-criticism and the so called block stems from this awareness. It is out of this perception that Victoria Nelson argues that the conflict of the creative and the critical self, leads to writers block (Hjortshoj, 2001: 4).

We all share the overpowering paradox of being both critics and writers; we learn as we read and repeatedly our voices are lost in the pages of other writers’ words. Nelson argues that only once these counterparts (critical and creative) have been reconciled, does one become a more self-tolerant, self-accepting writer (Hjortshoj, 2001: 4). Writers need to learn how to navigate this critical mindset. But is it as simple as Nelson seems to suggest? How does one reconcile the creative and the critical? In my experience it has been quite a trying process to traverse these difficulties and abnegate the critic within.

Where ever this block stems from, be it psychological or elsewhere, I often found it an excuse not to write. Therefore it is important to know what writer’s block is not. Keith Hjortshoj has the following to say on what writer’s blocks are not:

  • A delay in the process of writing is not in itself a block
  • Lack of inspiration is not a writing block
  • Lack of motivation is not in itself a writing block
  • Incapability is not a writing block

Below are a few active steps that can be taken to overcome writer’s block:

  1.  Write anything. Writer’s block does not affect all writing; it is always specific tasks or assignments that are affected. Therefore one should spend time on other writing not affected by the block.
    “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’” — Maya Angelou
  2. Stop while you are ahead. Often people keep writing until they exhaust an idea, thinking that they will continue the next day. Always finish writing with a clear idea of what comes next.
    “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” — Ernest Hemingway
  3. Formalise your writing time. Block off writing time in your calendar and do not allow any interference with that time. It becomes too easy to make excuses and your writing often takes a back seat to lesser things.
    “Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.” — Norman Mailer

 

What are some practical ways that you found helpful to overcome writer’s block? Feel free to comment and share your experience.

 

Sources:

Hjortshoj, Keith. 2001. Understanding Writing Blocks. Oxford University Press: New York.

 

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