Overcoming Writer's Block
For many writers the worst part of the writing experience is the very beginning, when they're sitting at the kitchen table staring at a blank sheet of paper or in front of that unblinking and perfectly empty computer monitor. "I have nothing to say," is the only thing that comes to mind. "I am XX years old and I have done nothing, discovered nothing, been nothing, and there are absolutely no thoughts in my head that anyone would ever want to read about." This is the Censor in your brain, your Self-Critic, and sometimes that Censor is bigger than you are. Who knows what causes the ugly Censor to be there a bad experience in third grade? something your mother said once during potty-training? it doesn't matter. The Censor is there for all of us, building and rebuilding this thing called Writer's Block, one of the Censor's many self-limiting toys. It might be some comfort to know that even professional writers suffer from Writer's Block from time to time. Some of the greatest writers in literature Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway were tormented by momentary lapses in their ability to produce text although you wouldn't think it possible if you've ever tried to pick up War and Peace with one hand.
American poet William Stafford offers this advice to poets who suffer from Writer's Block: "There is no such thing as writer's block for writers whose standards are low enough." This sounds terrible at first. "What? I'm supposed to write junk? I need a good grade! I'm better than that!" No, Stafford is not encouraging writers to produce garbage. He is suggesting, however, that it's easy to take yourself too seriously, to think you're going to write a poem or an essay that is going to be the greatest poem or essay ever written, that you're going to formulate the greatest, loveliest, most intelligent statement ever made. So you sit there, thinking how unworthy you are, cursing the day you were born, wondering why you ever went to college, hating the very act of writing that has you so stymied. A writer has to let that go, forget about judgment. Go ahead and write drivel at first, as long as you write. Out of your nonsense and ramblings, however, believe that something good will come, some idea will catch fire right there on the page, there will be sparks, patterns will emerge. Be willing to throw stuff out. It's all right. Do you think Shakespeare didn't litter his kitchen floor with balled-up pieces of paper? One nice thing about the word-processor is that you're not wasting paper and trees; you're just exercising the delete key. But this is no time to worry about the environment. Fill that wastebasket with paper and trust that something will come of all this scribbling. It will.
Carry with you a pocket-sized notebook in which you can scribble ideas for writing as they come to you. How often have you been stopped at a red-light and a great idea has come into your head? It's so wonderful that you know you'll remember it when you get home, but when you sit down at the table, pen in hand, all you remember is the fact that you had a good idea an hour ago. Part of the writing experience is learning that good ideas do not always come to us when we need them. We must learn to catch ideas as they come to us, fortuitously, even as we're about to fall asleep at night.
People who tell you that physical exercise is important for mental activity are telling the truth. If nothing's happening on the computer screen or paper, take a walk around the block. Hit the treadmill or tennis courts or drive to the gym. But take your notebook with you. Fresh blood will be flowing through your brain and jogging might just jog something loose in your head. It happens.
Another trick is to start in the middle of your writing project. Avoid that problem of getting started by starting on a part of the project that interests you more and then come back to the introductory matter later. This sounds a bit like starting to earn your second million dollars before you've earned your first, but it's really not a bad idea in any case, because sometimes it's easier to say where you're going after you know where you've been. After all, your readers will never know you wrote the introduction last (another joy of word-processing technology!). One final maneuver around the old Writer's Block: talk over your paper with a friend, or just blab away into a tape recorder (even better). Play the tape back and write down what you hear in clusters of ideas or freewrite about them.