HOW TO BEAT WRITER’S BLOCK? Knowing how is a skill you need when you are stuck writing a book, essay, op-ed, blog post or personal essay. No matter how you refer to it — writer’s block, writers’ block, or writers block — whether it be possessive, plural-possessive or all-inclusive, it is a pernicious problem that seems to plague all writers at some point along the way. Do you feel stuck writing your book? Have you ever felt stuck writing your book? Do you fear getting stuck writing your book? Let’s fix that.
Getting stuck writing your book (or essay, op-ed or blog post), comes from one of three reasons, all of which can be fixed by the same solution. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to refer only to books, but please know that this advice applies to all forms of writing. And please know that as a published author of four mass-market books, magazine pieces for places such as The New York Times Magazine, Vogue and Good Housekeeping, as well as the writer for personal essays for National Public Radio, I have some real cred when it comes to getting things turned in on deadline and getting them published. And if you can feel just the eensiest bit of sharp elbows there, go right ahead and feel their points, since on this topic, one that is critical to your success as a writer, I suggest that if you are taking advice from anyone who has not actually had and met a series of mainstream commercial writing deadlines, that you stop doing so, at least on this one topic.
The History of Writer’s Block
The first reference to the term, “writer’s block” was seen in the nineteen forties, and attributed to Edmund Bergler, a psychiatrist who studied writers who suffered from “neurotic inhibitions of productivity.” (For a full discussion of the history and theory of writer’s block, as well as a wonderful piece of writing by Maria Konnikova, see this New Yorker piece on the topic).
Ever since Bergler first referred to it, the phrase has captivated us, beckoning our attention, so much so that writer’s block has been immortalized in story and in no fewer than 33 movies. And in that, it has seeped into the culture as an accepted concept. What is the worst result of this? It is the threat lurking behind every writing exercise and writing prompt, both of which are merely other ways to stay stuck by swapping one unhelpful behavior that prevents real writing with another equally unhelpful behavior that prevents real writing.
I’ve read widely online about how to beat writer’s block, and seen all manners of hocus pocus advice from people who have published only on their own blogs. Love them though I do for contributing to the conversation, they may not be giving you the kind of advice that will transform your work to work you can publish simply because those writing coaches do not know what writing pressure can be. These online writing coaches therefore have not experienced the resulting seductive siren call of being stuck. In a word, not knowing what to write for your blog is terrible. I know that. But not being able to produce when there is a deadline, money and business on the line is another kind of dread altogether.
I come from a long line of people who know about what to do when getting stuck. My father was a sportswriter. My mother was a reporter. My sister is a writer and former publishing executive. My husband is a newspaper editor, columnist and public radio show host. My best friend is the best science writer there is. And then there is the fact that I deal with hundreds of writers each month, working as a memoir coach and teaching online memoir classes. You want to talk about being stuck? Bring it on.
The Three Reasons Writers Get Stuck
If you’ve read any of my work, you know that I rail against writing prompts, writing exercises and morning pages as bad advice from people who do not really want you to succeed. For me, the key to work is to write with intent, meaning you study the form you want to write in, master that form and publish in that form.
That being the house I live under, I have identified three reasons writers get stuck. All three have happened to me, and all three have been cured, so it might help to tell you how I learned them, where I earned these particular stripes and why they work.
As I said above, I was raised by journalists, and when it came time to go to work, my first job out of college was at The New York Times, where every day a deadline must be met. In other words, it’s an institution where there is no writer’s block. It’s not good for business. No one ever talked about it. No one can have it, or else the paper would not come out daily. I marveled at this right from the start, the insistent typing going on all day in a huge room of writers, all sitting next to one another, literally banging out stories. And then I saw it – that moment when I noticed a reporter who did not know what do write next. It happened on my very first day, within ten minutes of being on the job. And then it happened again and again, reporters’ heads popping up with the same look on their faces. And I watched with eager anticipation as I waited for what they might do to get back to work.
“Copy!” came the call from one reporter to the next, a call that went out all day and all night while I worked at the Times. I was hired as what was then known as a copyboy, one of the last classes of entry levels jobs in the marvelous world of newspapers. “Copy!” The call went out across the newsroom, and whomever of the copyboys was closest went running.
“Copy!” meant I was to run over and get that reporter whatever he or she needed to get back to work. And that did not ever mean coffee or a cheese danish, neither of which I was ever asked to bring. They always got their own coffee and snacks. What they asked me to bring them was research.
“Get me the clips on…” and I would be given precise instructions on what topic that reporter needed to know more about. Maybe it was the NYC subway system; perhaps she needed to see photos of the Mayor, or wanted to know the leading causes of cancer. Off to the morgue I would run, that appropriately-named place where people worked day and night cutting apart the newspaper and filing every story in myriad ways to assure that the data was available for review. I’d wait at the morgue desk, pick up the files of clips and run back to the reporter to deliver those files. And into the pile of clips he’d go, reading, researching with utter accuracy, older references to the topic, all from the the New York Times, the newspaper of record, and on she would write.
Oh, I remember thinking: I get it. If you do not know what to do, you do research.
Why does this work?
- Because there is no option but to write when you are at a newspaper
- Because help is available
- Because if you take the help, you will write on
So, what are the three reasons you get stuck?
- Giving yourself the option not to write, you might take it
- Not knowing that help is available, you cannot take it
- Not taking the help that’s there once you find it
The Best Cure for Writer’s Block
That being the case, what are you to do? Research. Not knowing what to write means not knowing what to write next. And so, when writing memoir, when you get stuck, the thing to do is to call your sister and ask her about that childhood you shared; go to the local historical society and see what they know about the house you live in, the development in which that house exists, and the history of the land underneath your home. If you are writing an op-ed about your own Alzheimer’s disease caregiving experience and need to know how many other caregivers there are in America, you call the Azheimer’s Disease Association and ask. You do research.
How does this apply specifically to you? Well, if you’ve been reading this series on book structure, you know that an essential step to your success is answering the question, “What is this about?” So, let’s talk about what to do with the answer to that question. The answer is, several things.
First and foremost, it applies to your research. Read up in the Thesaurus (no, not the one on your computer) on the word or phrase you have identified as your answer to that question and broaden your palette of understanding on that word. Read the dictionary on that word and then read up in Bartlett’s Quotations, finding what Milton and Chaucer and Emily Dickinson and all manners of other people have to say about your word, and think deeply and read widely to become one of the world’s greatest authorities on forgiveness or authenticity, or the stages of grief, the theories of why meditation works, or the simple reasons how and why dogs do things for people that people cannot do for themselves.
Research. Period. It will change your life as a writer, cutting out those three challenging aspects of writer’s block in one swift effort. Don’t get stuck, get to your research.
But it will not solve all your problems. Not yet.
The Final Obstacle to Writing What You Know
And then there is this. What else did those New York Times reporters have that you do not have as they sat down and were able to let it flow every single day and night, and continue to do so every single day and night? What have they got that you do not yet possess?
At the heart of their success — and your continued blockage — is the answer to one single question, and this is the question that no other writing coach, writing prompt, or time-wasting exercise has ever made you answer. And you need to answer it or you will never succeed. And here it is.
What are you writing?
I know it’s a memoir. And no, I don’t want to know the plot line. Not when this is the question. You’ve got that material, and you’ve been over it so many times it thrums in your head day and night. You feel in your heart it’s a story worth telling, otherwise you would not be here, reading this post. You know it’s a good story. You know it’s yours, and you know the time is now to write it. But no one has asked you the single question that will unlock the tale, get you using the cure for writer’s block and barreling on.
What are you writing?
When those reporters at The New York Times sit down to write, they know their beat. They know their deadline They’ve been given a word count by their editor. And what else do they know?
They know the structure of a newspaper piece. It has a form, whether it be a straight news piece, a feature piece, an editorial or an op-ed. It has a pre-ordained structure. It opens, it explains, it closes, doing so at varying length and with a varying voice depending on what type of piece it is. It has a structure that supports it, and every newspaper reporter knows how to do it according to that structure.
What’s Your Book Structure?
Are you writing a story that begins with one moment, ends with another moment in your life, and in between tells us what you know about what you’ve been lived through? Of course you are, because you are writing memoir. But what if I told you that you would never again face the cold, blank page, but instead could go to work every time you went to work clear and assured what it is you will write next?
Or how about this: What if I told you that I know that right now you are waking up every day feeling like you had slept under a pile of every article of clothing you now owned, and that you can do nothing about it but crawl out from under that pile every morning and leave that pile there and then tonight, again, shamefully crawl under that same pile? What if I told you that I not only know how it feels, but that starting tomorrow – literally starting tomorrow, and for every day for the rest of your writing life – you could get up in the the morning and, no matter what article of clothing you found over your blanket, you’d simply get up, pick it up and put it securely and exactly in a well-organized closet?
Crazy metaphor? Not really. Because that is how one writer described to me the difference between her writing life before she learned about book structure and the writing life she now has, writing every day, publishing constantly, now that she knows how to structure her work.
She and I now laugh about it, my signature question for her every time we speak being, “So, what did you hang up this morning?”
Picture your structure as the closet pole, neatly organized into shirts, trousers, jackets or shirts, skirts, dresses and jackets, and then see yourself cowering under the weight of your own clothes (as in suffering from writer’s block) only until you realize, “Hey wait, I know exactly where each one of these articles of clothing goes.” And then merely get up and put it there.
And what is this super material that comprises that closet pole? What it is made of that, no matter the weight of the tale, it can withstand the pressure? Is it composed of a carbon fiber, perhaps? Or steel? Is it made up of some soon-to-be patented NASA product? What, exactly comprises the make-up of this super closet pole that will save your writing life?
Simple. Your argument.
That answer is the single best gift I can give you today, writers. And if you read back through this series you will learn to love the following sentence more than any other sentence that you have previously read, and it’s this:
Your structure is built from your argument; our argument is built from knowing what your book is about; your book is about something you know after something you’ve been through.
How do you figure out what your book is about? Need a reminder? Remember my little algorithm. It’s your best pal.
It’s about x as illustrated by y to be told in a z.
Working through this will banish writer’s block, get your books written and give you the writer’s life you’ve always wanted.
Let’s get to work.
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