My Cure for Writer’s Block

By John Gilstrap

Perhaps the title of this post is a bit misleading.  Truth be told, I don’t believe in writer’s block.  There are days when the creativity feels like it won’t flow at all, and there are certainly days when I would prefer to do something other than tying my backside to the chair and hammering out words, but that’s what everybody feels about any job on some days.

“Writer’s block” is, I believe, too often an excuse to be wielded on those days when a writer would prefer to play hookie.  There’s nothing wrong with playing hookie, but whilst playing, it’s disingenuous to complain about not getting stuff done on your manuscript.  There truly is no substitute to a writer writing, even when the words don’t flow easily.

I think of creativity as a flow, and the writer as the pump.  When the pipes are filled and the pressure is even, creativity pours out of us, sometimes in such volume that we can’t handle it all.  Then stuff happens in our lives or in our surroundings that causes intellectual cavitation, and our pump loses prime.  All that flow reduces to a pool, and it’s hard work to get it going again.

Everybody has a proprietary secret sauce to re-prime their own pipes, but one that always works for me is to return to the basics: pen and paper.  I posted a video on the topic on my YouTube channel.  I don’t know why it works, but somehow, the tactile connection between my brain and the page, flowing through an old-fashioned fountain pen, never fails to set me straight.  For every book I write, I’d guess 20% of the prose starts as being written longhand.  Once the story is flowing again, I type up the handwritten pages and I’m off and running.

What about you?  Any tricks you want to share for getting past the story parts that don’t seem to want to work?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

15 thoughts on “My Cure for Writer’s Block

  1. Great tip, John.
    When I reach a point where the words won’t flow as they should, I take a walk. 99.9% of the time I just need to step away from the computer. Nature and wildlife are excellent sources of inspiration.

    Preplanning the mission (goal) of each scene obliterates writer’s block, IMO.

    • It definitely helps to know where you’re going in the story.

      As for taking walks or driving–and showering, for me–I think things shake loose when I stop thinking too hard.

  2. My thoughts on writer’s block summed up quite aptly by this author, who certainly got the job done:

    “There are so many wonderful stories to be written, and so much material to be used. When I hear people talking of writer’s block, I am amazed.” – Louis L’Amour

    If I don’t get my writing done, I own it. I’ve slacked off.

    As to those times when you come to a specific part of the story that doesn’t work, I just work around it for a while & write another section till I figure out the solution.

    • I have a problem leaving the troubled section without writing it through. It’s like having dessert before finishing dinner. But that’s my inner OCD showing.

  3. Great idea, John. One of the things I do (and I had to do it just a few days ago) is free write. While I opened a Word document on my computer, I took about half an hour to brainstorm on how to get through a particular section of my WIP. I asked myself questions, debated, discussed, and recussed (LOL). In the end, I found a workable solution to the problem.

    I do like the idea of a handwritten journal so to speak. You’re right in that with today’s writing programs, all the edits are lost. And who knows what we might glean from those scenes we cut or reworked? Perhaps even ideas for a new book or short story.

  4. I write in scenes so if I lose my mojo, I pull up something (or someone) else I want to add later. Also my best tip would be to read a chapter or two from a work you really admire – this really switches my writer brain on, so that when I do pull up a scene what I start with is already in the zone and gets me excited to keep going. I don’t care if it’s my fountain pen, a stub of a pencil or my laptop – whatever I’ve got works. Thanks for the post.

  5. Reading things I’ve written, other than the project that is causing me trouble, helps get my authorial liquids clear again.

  6. I wonder if writer’s block isn’t often a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good, or of a serious case of self-doubt, or of clutching before the big game.

    I don’t think that in these cases it would help to be scolded for “wanting to play hookie.”

    • No scolding intended, just a statement of the facts as I see them. We’re professionals, right? At least we bring professional ethics and work habits to what we do. Problems–whether engineering problems or storytelling problems–don’t solve themselves. If self-flagellation or navel-gazing or over-analysis move a writer off the X and get the story moving, then bravo. Those are that writer’s secret sauce.

      If, on the other hand, self-doubt and those other emotions are causing harm, I think it’s wise to try something else.

      As for playing hookie, I stand by the metaphor. (That is a metaphor, right?) Whether it’s to avoid a math test or to suffer through a difficult period creatively, what else can we call not showing up to do what we need to do?

  7. Pen and paper are always good. I’ve also found something as simple as reading through the previous scene is enough for me to get back into the flow of things.

  8. I heard the late Robert B. Parker speak about writer’s block. He said, “There’s no such thing. Writing is HARD. Get over it. You wouldn’t call a plumber to fix your toilet and accept that he couldn’t do it because he had “Plumber’s Block.”

  9. Even with my software background, I am a fan of handwritten note cards. Writing things (rather than typing them in a computer program) activates a different part of the brain, and I believe this helps stimulate creativity. So it doesn’t surprise me that writing things out can help clear the cobwebs, John. In fact, I remember reading that Stephen King wrote Dreamcatcher in longhand using a Waterman cartridge pen. Let me see if I can find the article.

    Yep, here it is: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nancyolson/2016/05/15/three-ways-that-writing-with-a-pen-positively-affects-your-brain/#5636bde25705

    I enjoy your YouTube channel. ♥

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