Ron Brackin tells us, “Writers block occurs when a writer has nothing to say. Unfortunately not all writers experience it.”
But you are not like that. No, no, no. Obviously, you have something to say, even if you are not quite sure at the moment what that is. So how do you get unstuck?
Sometimes the problem isn’t solved by a tactic like the ones I suggest here and here. The issues may be larger and more pervasive. But there are still ways to overcome those barriers.
If your problem is a life event like
moving to a new city or having a new baby, you just need to be patient with yourself until things settle down. But set a date, like six months or a year afterward. Decide that’s when you are going to start up again, and then make the changes necessary in your schedule or commitments to get started.
If you are an extrovert who loves people and loves talking to people, you may find that whenever you start to write that ironically the words just stop. You have probably heard people suggest you start with an outline, but when you try that your mind goes blank. Even though you care passionately about an idea or a story, you have no idea how to organize it.
What to do? Here’s an option. Find a friend who is willing to sit down with you and listen as you tell him or her your ideas, article by article, chapter by chapter, or scene by scene. Then, with your friend still there (such a good friend), start writing. If you get stuck while writing, just say it aloud to your friend again, and then write down what you just said. In an extreme case, you may need to ask your friend to take notes as you talk and then give those back to you so you can start writing.
Obviously, this will be in very rough form, but at least you will have broken through. From there you can revise and edit. You can take the disorganized material you have and rearrange it into key ideas or plot elements that become your after-the-fact outline. (Or, again if you are stuck, ask your friend for suggestions for an outline based on what you’ve said.) Likely you will also find you’ve got some unnecessary or redundant material. Do what you know needs to be done–delete it.
extroverted author I know is an effective and powerful speaker who is constantly in demand. She desperately wanted to write a book, but each time she started, nothing happened. Finally, a friend told her to come and meet at her office for two hours every other week. She did, and she would talk to her friend for an hour about one topic in the book. Then, while the friend still sat there, she would write for an hour about what she had just talked about. What a gift of time and listening that friend gave! Eventually the book was finished and published.
If you are someone who likes details, doing research can be a great way to get unstuck. Start taking notes on information you find. Writing down the data and ideas others have developed can be much less intimidating than trying to create your own ex nihilo. But the notes you take down may trigger ideas of your own that you can put down in a sentence or two.
The problem that might arise is that you enjoy researching so much that you never stop, and never start actually writing. Again, you might try setting a deadline for yourself or find an accountability partner who can keep you disciplined. Once you’ve amassed enough notes, start organizing and expanding. You will have started writing and rewriting without even realizing it.
Maybe you’ve written a lot but just can’t finish. You can’t get it organized or can’t draw it to a close. You keep finding new ideas and plot elements to include. You find yourself polishing and polishing over and over, never quite satisfied. The drafting process never ends.
At this point you may need an accountability partner who is not a peer. It has to be someone you respect and will listen to, who has some kind of authority in your life. Give that person permission to be tough with you and to call you on it when you make excuses or are defensive. Together come up with a series of intermediate deadlines, such as when each chapter will be completed. Meet regularly to monitor progress. Then listen to your accountability partner and do what he or she says. Otherwise, you have no right to complain to anyone about your unfinished project.
Finally, give yourself permission to be yourself. This is perhaps the hardest advice to follow. It is a natural human tendency to compare ourselves to others, and often judge ourselves to have fallen short. The fact is, we can’t be someone else. We can only be ourselves. Write what and in a way that entertains you, that you find interesting or informative. We will still want to take advice for improvement, but not turn ourselves into some other writer.
I’ll give the last word here to a productive, skilled author I’ve often enjoyed–Malcolm Gladwell. “I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent–and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.”
I owe a number of the ideas on personality and writing in this post to Roy Carlisle’s reflections on the challenges that each Myers-Briggs type presents for writers and editors. (Working with Writers: How to Understand Creative Temperaments and Edit More Effectively, presented by Roy M. Carlisle, September 13-15, 2007, Academy of Christian Editors Annual Retreat.)