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The Bull of Writer’s Block

By Patrick Kirkland · April 28, 2011

“The night was… moist.”

Throw Momma From the Train, 1987

Writer’s Block.

I’m not sure that there’s anything more fearful. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that for most writers, death is preferable. Writer’s Block is the one thing that will send us hiding in the closet, clutching our blankets, and calling for mama. We want it to go away, now, and never come back.

For your sake, I hope you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, but something tells me you do. The feeling you get when you sit at the keys and can’t figure out what to say. When you’re in front of your notebook, your legal pad, your great American story, and you have no idea what to write. Seconds feel like minutes, minutes like hours. And how long do you end up sitting there? Days? Years? Decades? In that moment, for all you know, your career as a writer is over.

Some writers don’t believe in it, and I’ve heard many interviews where writers will scoff at even the thought they would get infected with such a thing. In my personal opinion, I’m not sure how you can’t believe in it. I want to say that Writer’s Block is a bunch of crap, but I’m not sure I can. There are more mornings than I care to think of that leave me wide-eyed in front of my computer screen, praying for a thought. Any thought, just to make the pain go away. If I had darts and any aim, I’d throw them at my reflection in the mirror. If I had a hoop over my trashcan and more courage, I’d dunk my tired old screenplays into the can. And if I was lazy with little to no self-respect, I’d turn on the TV and admit defeat. But alas, getting up from my desk would be betrayal. So I stay, staring at the screen, pen in my hand… “Onward,” I say to myself. And so it rages on…

The battle is long, and hard, and brutal, and for those deep in the middle of Writer’s Block, you end your writing sessions bruised and bloody. And like a soldier, you’ll go back tomorrow to fight another day, Ego ready to be defeated, once again, while the rest of us pray for you, hoping you’ll be okay. And that’s as good as it gets, right?

Give me a break.

It’s not that I don’t believe in Writer’s Block, Personally, I do. But it’s not some mythical beast or holy crusade that keeps us from writing. It’s us.

In The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield has another name for it: RESISTANCE. All capital letters. Because it’s that big a deal. It’s inside our heads, ready to keep us from doing what we’re meant to do. Why? Because that’s its job. Yours is to write, hence the battle.

All that time you spend tapping your pencil against the desk? You really don’t have to. The constant pressing of the delete key? That’s your Ego getting in the way, and it doesn’t need to be. And all that time on the Internet? I hate to say it, but you’re really just wasting your time. It may be RESISTANCE that’s working against you, but RESISTANCE is nothing but your head, your fear, and maybe, just maybe, your lack of preparation.

It may hurt to hear it, but the truth sometimes does. So whether you’re looking for that perfect first line, or trying to figure out what’s coming next, you should try a few things to get your head unblocked and move your writing… right along.

Turn Off Your TV

And your cell phone. And the internet. And anything else that’s a possible distraction from the writing. It may sound like common sense, but distractions are more distracting if they’re right in front of you. And contrary to Apple’s App Store, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on distraction free writing software. You know what Pages, Microsoft Word, and Final Draft all have? Full screen modes. Just a black screen with your pretty white page staring you in the face.

Don’t Fear the White Space.

Seriously, it’s just white space. On your screen. In the shape of paper. You know why it’s there? Because some coder in some office in some part of the world decided that it would be prettier if the software space was designed to look like a sheet of paper, rather than a black screen with green type. Believe it or not, that whiteness is NOT out to get you. It’s not there to kill your dreams or to prove that you’ll always be a cocktail waitress. It doesn’t know you. It really doesn’t care. It has no feelings.

Just Get from Point A to Point Z.

And you’re welcome to stop off at Points D, W, G, I, and M at any time you want. AND in no particular order. You know how they say the details matter? Here’s the reality: They don’t. Not in your first draft. Not really even in your second. All you’re trying to do is tell a complete story. You can start from wherever you want, however you want, even if the forty how-to write books told you differently. What matters is that you write, and that you finish. In reality, no one will see this draft but you, so you’ve got no one to impress. Except for yourself, of course, but if you’re anything like me, simply finishing is impressive enough.

Do Some Research.

But whatever you do, do NOT do it during your writing time. Before you know it, you’ll spend hours, days, and weeks in the name of research, and that’s not what your writing time is for. Your writing time is for words, and only words. Don’t even play with the idea of doing your research during your writing time. It’s too easy before it becomes the “washing dishes” time, or the “making breakfast” time, or the “go for a run” time. Writing time is for writing. But if, in fact, you’re stuck because you don’t have a clue what you’re writing about, AFTER hours, feel free to do some research, get the details you need, and get that scene written.

Lay Off… Yourself.

You know where all that heavy pressure comes from? The stuff that’s keeping you from writing? Yeah, yourself. True, you may be working for your editor or your agent or your theater troupe. You may have a deadline, or you may have a show going up, and you’re stuck on the final scene. You know what? That’s okay. Writing is hard enough without the added pressure of trying to achieve perfection in the middle of a time-crunch, and in reality, you’d never reach it anyway, and that's also okay. John Grisham’s “The Firm” has some of the most atrocious writing I’ve ever read, and it’s still an awesome book. And even if you didn’t like it, it sold over 7 million copies. That’s certainly not failure.

Stop Obsessing Over Dialogue.

Unless you’re writing a one-liner for an action flick or you’re a dialogue doctor for hire, don’t try so hard to find the perfect thing to say. Not every line of dialogue is going to be “I’ll be back.”

“Punch the Keys!”

Yes, it’s from Finding Forester, but it’s great advice. When all else fails, just write. Write something. Anything. It doesn’t even matter if it’s English. It doesn’t matter if it’s a grocery list or ramblings about your dreams or a letter to your mother. The point is to write, and write like you mean it. Writer’s Block is just that – a RESISTANCE that’s blocking you from writing. It’s your brain telling you that you’re not able to do it. It’s worrying yourself out of it. So stop worrying and start thinking yourself into it:

What’s the story you’re trying to tell?

What’s the theme?

What would your protagonist do right now?

What would your antagonist do right now?

What would YOU do right now?

What event, person, or thing would throw your Hero completely off his journey?
What event, person, or thing would help your Hero achieve his journey?

Does your Hero even have a journey? (If not, there’s your problem.)

And if your problem is a character’s name, then you’re thinking too much. There’s an incredibly successful play and film out there with characters named Jurors 1 through 12.

The thing about Writer’s Block is that it’s a scary title for a menial problem. That problem? You’re a writer, and you’re not writing. But there’s an easy fix: Start writing.