My grandfather was a security guard. He worked weekends, holidays, and nights when temperatures plummeted below zero and frozen winds blasted the empty parking lots. He never said, “I don’t feel like guarding the warehouse tonight. I’m blocked.”
My grandmother babysat. She never said, “I’m not watching those brats today. I’m blocked.”
When I spoke at Fort Lauderdale High School, a student asked, “What do you do about writer’s block?”
“Writer’s block doesn’t exist,” I said. “It’s an indulgence.”Writing is a job, and working writers cannot afford writer’s block. It’s a luxury. Pros know that inspiration won’t strike like lightning. We can’t wait for it to hit us. We have to write.
I wish I had a dollar for every day I didn’t feel like dragging my sorry carcass to the computer. I could retire.
But I write because it’s my job. Even on the worst days, I love being a writer.
Many former newspaper reporters become mystery writers, including Michael Connelly, Kris Montee (PJ Parrish), and me. We’re trained to respect deadlines. Writing is our work and we sit down and do it.Early in my newspaper career, I told my editor, “I’m blocked. I can’t write this story.”
“Write something,” he said, waving the blank layouts. “We have pages to fill. We’re a newspaper, not a high school theater program: We can’t leave blank spaces on the page with ‘COMPLIMENTS OF A FRIEND.’ ”
Some days, the words flow, gushing in fertile streams. I feel alive and electric. Other days the words trickle out like water in a rusty, clogged pipe.
But I still write.
What do I do when the words don’t come?
I remember what Daniel Keyes, who wrote Flowers for Algernon, said at a speech:
“When I feel blocked I start typing – anything,” he said. “It doesn’t have to make sense: ababababsjsjsjfjfjfhhshshshkaka.
“Then I start typing words. Any words. The first words that come to mind.
“Next I start writing sentences. Again, they don’t have to make sense. But I keep on typing and eventually they do make sense and I’ve started writing. I may throw out ninety percent of what I wrote that day.
“But I wrote.”
You can, too.
Win Killer Cuts, my 8th Dead-End Job mystery set at a high-end hair salon. Read about Helen Hawthorne’s wedding. www.elaineviets.com and click Contests.
A student in a 9th-grade class asked me that same question just this week, and I told her the same thing. I also set a timer for 5 minutes and write. I mean, anyone can write for 5 minutes. Like you said, it doesn’t have to make sense as long as you put words on paper…or screen.
Oops…don’t know what happened to the rest of my post. Often I’ll write something like–why can’t I write this scene? Do I need to kill somebody? Then, I go from there. I always end up writing well beyond the 5 minutes.
Good advice, Patricia. I’m stealing your timer tip.
As strange as this advice sounds, it really works. Even on me.
Glad to know, Mike.
Recently, I read “The War of Art,” by Steven Pressfield, who posits an impersonal but powerful force he calls Resistance.
Resistance, Pressfield writes, is that demon who whispers in my ear that I should run errands, clean closets, make phone calls, buy office supplies—ANYTHING but sit down and write. In the end, Pressfield agrees that we have to be tougher than Resistance, that we must marshal grit and determination and not allow ourselves to indulge in the “blocked” excuse.
Still, it helped me to acknowledge the reality of a seemingly overwhelming force that sometimes woos like a siren and other times steps on my neck with its cosmic jackboot, trying to keep me from my work.
My latest strategy is to sit down at my desk by 6am, as I’ve discovered that Resistance sleeps in til 7.
LOL. Delighted to meet a real Resistance fighter, Lynn. Thanks for weighing in.
I read to get me through writer’s block… or cook.
Reading helps inspire me, Traci, but if it’s a really good book, I don’t want to put it down. I’ve heard about people who find cooking a source of creativity. I envy you.
As Elaine says, it’s hard to take writers block seriously if you come from a newspaper background. When I was a ballet critic, I often had to write a review in 20 minutes or I didn’t make the first edition. (Get the house ad ready!). Hey, try writing a coherent analysis of the New York City Ballet in 20 minutes — that’ll cure you real fast of blockage!
One of the best things that gets my writer juices flowing is to hang out with other writers, especially at conferences. There is something in the camaraderie that always makes me eager to get back to work.
The company of your own kind can be inspiring, PJ. After a good whine and wine session, I’m ready to write. It’s also a matter of training — being a reviewer trained you to organize your thoughts and information and write on deadline.
Two years ago, I reached a point where I had rewritten my first novel so many times, I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) work on it anymore. For a diversion, I signed up for an online challenge to write to a daily prompt for the month of May.
Maybe that challenge worked for me because at the time, I was a first-time novelist and hadn’t yet developed enough writing discipline to plow through the novel on my own—30 of the 31 stories I wrote to those prompts ended up as scenes in my completed novel.
Congratulations, TL. You took the challenge, met it and trained yourself to write.
Good one, Joe. You always have the best quotes. But didn’t Mark Twain say — long before California — that writers needed to put glue on their chairs?
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.” ― Terry Pratchett
It’s very hard to take Writer’s Block seriously if you teach composition–timed composition–as I did for many years. But as I watched rows and rows of freshmen just sit and stare at their paper, I came up with a minute-by-minute guide, a set of simple actions to be taken for just so long. Eventually I called it THE FIFTY-MINUTE ESSAY and got a textbook publisher to produce it.
What a fascinating idea, Rebecca. Good for you for turning good advice into a book.
Writers block is a habit. Break a habit with a habit. I sit down, open the old Macbook, reread yesterday’s work, then write one sentence. Next thing I know I have a thousand words. Works every day.
Another good tip, Brian. And congrats for keeping on with those other sentences.
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I started a blog and when I’m blocked I write a blog post. It’s generally random musings about whatever has been in my head recently and that gets me going. I hasten to add that the blog has no followers so the quality of the writing is of little importance, it’s simply the act of writing that matters.
These writings come in handy now and again so in the end it’s not a wasted exercise.
I’m glad that method works for you, Reinette, but I don’t think it’s a good method for me.
I also enjoy reading the comments, but notice that a lot of people should stay on topic to try and add value to the original blog post. I would also encourage everyone to bookmark this page to your favorite service to help spread the word. I’ll use this information for my essay topics.