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Blue Square


Life lessons

on the craft 

Writer's Block

The good thing about blizzards is that they cover the mountains in deep snow. They also cover everything else in deep snow. When the blizzards come and I want to ski, I first have to dig my car out from the white lump it became overnight. Then I have to brave the treacherous roads. All this while shivering and trying not to freeze – and to start it all, I had to leave the comforts of my warm bed and house. It takes a certain will power to fight through the bad parts to get to the good. And once I’m on the mountain, snow is no longer a four-letter word and my fast-beating heart warms up my body. By the end of the day, sacrificing a warm bed and braving the cold are worth it.

Writing is no different. If you’ve been writing for even a short time, you’ve sat down to write and you've struggled. Either the starting story ideas weren’t sparking, or the words were not flowing, or you painted your character into a corner. There are millions of ways to struggle with writing. The beginning writer, not knowing what to do next, will say, “I’m suffering from writer’s block.”

This platitude is the easiest to clarify. Simply put: Writer’s Block does not exist.

Even when you’re struggling, even when confidence is low, even when writing is the last thing you want to do, you’re still never “Blocked”. Minus someone physically standing between you and your computer (or notepad... whatever you use), there is nothing blocking anyone from writing. You might call this Writer’s Lack of Motivation or Writer’s Cheap Excuse, but not Writer’s Block.

While I don’t believe in Writer’s Block, I do, however, believe in shitty writing (see Anne Lamott’s chapter in Bird by Bird for more – and better – inspiration and explanation). A Writer can always produce something. It might not be good. In fact, it’s likely very, very bad. But it’s still something. Writers’ Block is a platitude you’ll hear so much that it seems like an acceptable excuse. It’s not. There’s Writing (even shitty writing) and there’s Quitting. Writer’s Block is an excuse for a defeated goal – just as a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight and get in shape fizzles and dies in early March. Writer’s Block is the excuse bad writers make for not writing well. The secret behind this platitude is that even the best writers write poorly at first. The best writers simply stick to it and keep writing – and that’s when they write well.

You may not be working on publishable work. You may write something you’ll never share with even your favorite reader. No worries. That’s still a valued use of time. All writing is cumulative, and as long as your producing something, you’re not blocked.

So many of us will risk bodily harm in pursuit of sports – to put a ball across a line or shave time off a run. Yet we balk when confronted with sitting down to write? So many of us wake up early in the morning and force ourselves to a job we don’t particularly like. Yet we stop writing when we don’t feel like it? Make a list of your ordinary everyday activities, chores, routines and requirements that you don’t want to do. My guess is that you still do at least 60% of them. Not many people enjoy mowing their lawn – but everyone loves looking out on to a fresh green front yard.

I have finished stories, working for long hard weeks to finish, only to re-read it, realize it was bad and stick it in a folder unlikely to be re-opened. But because I did that, because I trained and practiced and allowed myself to write shitty, I’ve been able to write for hours straight when the inspiration does kick in, never thinking to myself, “I just can’t find the right word” or “I want to keep writing but I’m just feeling too tired.” The strength I built in my literary cross-training kept me going when it was game time.

Force yourself to put words on paper – even if the words are bad. "Practice makes perfect" is not an mantra that applies only to the sports field. I’ve never heard of Doctor’s Block or Runner’s Block or Accountant’s Block. Practice. Train. Strengthen. Just because it’s not perfect writing doesn’t mean it’s not perfect exercise. And the only block is your mindset.

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