People often ask me how I get past writer's block. Usually, I tell them that writer's block is nothing more than a writer's unwillingness to write.
That's what I said: unwillingness.
Oh, sure, I know. You want to write, you're eager to begin, you're desperate to create, but "writer's block" jumps up to stand squarely in the way of you and your creativity.
Bull cookies! Let me explain.
When I was a kid of fourteen, the glamor and allure of becoming a writer were overpowering. I had to write. Often, that meant staying up all night, when everyone else in the household was fast asleep. Writer's block? It was a killer. At times, I'd sit, trying to think of things to say, for hours and still come up empty. Or, I'd throw some rough ideas down on a piece of paper and go back to read them the next day. And, I'd crumple it up and throw it in the trash.
Writer's block existed for me, and I'm a testimonial to its very reality.
As I grew older, I took a position as an assistant editor at a national magazine based out of the Windy City. And, I answered a call for a stringer for a suburban Chicago newspaper chain, working evenings covering school-board and town council meetings. Really exciting, creative stuff.
But, you know what? I no longer struggled with writer's block. And, do you know why? Because I had a deadline. I'd have an assignment to attend a meeting, take notes, and do whatever interviews seemed appropriate. Then, I'd type up the story, drive on down to the newspaper's editorial offices, and deposit the thing in the managing editor's night slot.
The same thing was true in college, where a journalism instructor would assign us a story to research and write within thirty minutes. And, then, he'd collect and grade them. Again, no sign of writer's block.
The reason is that I knew I had to write, and I knew suddenly what writing "under deadline" meant. If I had failed to turn in my newspaper copy on time, I'd have lost my job. If I'd failed to turn my J-class story in on time, I would have received an "F," lowered my grade-point average, and risked my eligibility for entering the Creative Writing Program that I yearned for.
I soon realized that what made the difference was that, as a kid goofing around with writing, I had no editor or college instructor standing watch over me, ready to slap my knuckles with a ruler if I came up empty. There were no serious consequences as a downside to failing to write. So, my mind took the easy way out and "blocked" me from writing.
As an adult writing for a living, my brain understood that, either I churned out what was expected of me, or I'd suffer the consequences. My mind could no longer run interference for me. It forced me to put up or shut up.
I put up.
Now, in the years between freelancing at fourteen and punching a clock at nineteen, nothing more happened in my development than being subjected to the command to write under pain of penalty. It was either produce … or else.
Once a few years passed and I quit stringing for the newspaper and left my editing job, I went back to writing freelance full time. By then, I'd already amassed a book contract and several dozen magazine features to my credit, so I knew the ropes. Still, I had to keep reminding myself that I had to write if I wanted to support myself from full-time freelancing. And, that meant I had to keep reinventing those artificial, self-imposed deadlines.
So, I did.
Admittedly, all this worked out fine for me because I learned the secret of defeating an imaginary enemy that is no more fatal a disease than COVID-19 in the hands of a skilled and well-educated MD. But, what about you and the millions of others who still suffer from creative block because you don't have a deadline looming over you? Simple.
Hmm? you ask.
Get one, I say again.
Set up a deadline situation. Not as in, "I'm going to write a thousand words before the weekend is over or die trying." Your brain ain't gonna buy into that one. No, you need an actual deadline for which you suffer some actual negative consequences for failing to comply. Perhaps, you tell yourself you have to reach your goal or not watch the big game on TV that weekend. Or, you pledge to your significant other that you'll donate $100 to him or her if you fail to meet your deadline. Either one can work if your deadline is within an extremely (as in nearly impossibly) short period of time. You can't set up something three days in the future and expect your brain to play that game. Uh-uh. It knows how to get around that one. But, if you set up a goal of fifty words, for example, due within fifteen or twenty minutes or be forced to suffer your own consequences, you'll be amazed at how cooperative your subliminal cranium can be!
But, what, you ask (see, I know you pretty well already!), if you don't have a clue as to what to write?
That's simple. Look out the window, and write about the weather. Think back to your last family outing, and write about that. Peruse the day's headlines, and write that up. In short, it doesn't matter about what you write if your goal is to defeat your brain from interfering with your success; it only matters that you write.
Once you trick your brain into getting into your writer's mode, the rest will be easy. You'll find jumping from writing a weather report to continuing the short story or novel you started the other day is a walk in the park. Writing (allow me to remind you) is writing. Not everything your write is going to be a gem. But everything you don't write is going to be a dog.
You see, stagnation, or allowing your brain to take a holiday while you sit behind the keyboard sweating bullets, is death to a writer. By jumping in and forcing yourself to write anything, you're awakening your brain and forcing it into creative overdrive. And, the rest, as they say, is history.
Did it work for me when I returned from my salaried jobs to full-time freelancing again? Yes. Did it work for others I've known who found themselves in similar situations? Yes. Did it work for the several hundred Creative Writing Workshop college students I've taught over the years? Absolutely—to a one!
So, try it. What do you have to lose? Follow these two simple steps:
- Set up a realistic, short-term deadline.
- Write about anything just to get your brain on track again.
The results? Well, I'm pretty sure I know what they'll be. But, feel free to share them with me on my Website contact page. I'd be tickled to hear how things went for you.
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.com.