(Un)Block and Tackle

womanandlettersthumbI don’t believe in writer’s block. When people say they are blocked, I think they are saying: “This is hard and I don’t want to do it.”

With the latter statement, I have no quarrel. The writing process can be so challenging and so frustrating that we want to do just about anything else. Alden Wood, former columnist for The Ragan Report, called this condition “typochondria,” saying it would drive you to sharpen all your pencils and afterwards pick lint off your carpet.

I like to play with my cats.

But this is just procrastination. Meanwhile, “writer’s block” has become an all-purpose excuse for not getting on with it. Dictionary makers even suggest it is some kind of mental illness. (It is not, by the way, represented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association.) Merriam-Webster defines writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” The Cambridge Dictionaries say that it is “the condition of being unable to create a piece of written work because something in your mind prevents you from doing it.” With apologies to the writers of dictionaries (and as readers of this blog know, I love dictionaries), these definitions only obscure the truth.

Writing is a struggle. It requires discipline and perseverance. You must be willing to continue despite numerous false starts and be ready to abandon prose you love if you find yourself down a blind alley. That’s why it is important to have a writing process that supports you, one that gives you what you need to tackle the work – even when the going gets tough.

  • Stick to a regular routine. With rare exceptions, I sit down at my computer at the same time Monday through Friday. I have an established work day, with time for lunch and exercise. And yes, time to play with my cats.
  • Dedicate concentrated periods of time to particular projects. I block time on my calendar – two hours to churn out a rough draft, for example. Sometimes it’s easier to keep going when you know you have a set time to stop.
  • Prime the pump. Create a list of questions you can answer to help you jumpstart the writing process. For example: What is this piece about? What it is trying to accomplish? What do we want readers to do in response?
  • Write and write and write. I keep typing even when I’m not sure what to say next. When I get stuck for a word, I type the two letters “bl” – my spellchecker is set to recognize it as “blah blah blah” – and just keep going. As novelist Margaret Atwood said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
  • Accept yourself. We all have our personal demons. When the work isn’t going well, I feel like I’m lost in a forest so dark and dense that I’ll never find my way out. I always have this fear at some stage in the process. By acknowledging it, I reduce its hold on me.

So I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” I do believe in the writing process – my writing process, that is. It keeps me on track until I find my groove. And then writing is … well, unadulterated joy.

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