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Blocking Writer’s Block

Don’t give it the dignity it’s trying to rob you of.

You’re stuck. There is no word in the world that, as John Lennon put it, tells the truth and rhymes. You’re sure your song needs a bridge but what else is there to say? Or worse yet, you haven’t been inspired for weeks. Maybe you should have gone into accounting.

So you get angry with yourself. And scared. And insecure! If you were a real writer, material would be coming out of your ears, you say to yourself. If you were a real writer you’d be bursting with inspiration. But you’re empty. Will you ever get it back?

Smiling woman leaning on her elbow on the keys of a piano.
Me, waiting for “it” to come.

Listen, it happens to everyone. Trust me. Maybe some people won’t cop to it but it does. And it’s OK.

It’s just writer’s block — a temporary affliction. It’s hard to remember that, though, when you’re right smack in the middle of it. This isn’t the first time you’ve had it, right? Why is it so easy to forget that you survived it before?

It might cheer you to know that there are things you can do to relieve the frustration. But before you do any of them, stick with it … and write as much as you can. Journal (used here as a verb) or strum past the emptiness. Why? Because sometimes the magic line, melody or chord progression reveals itself five pages (or five measures) past the pain. And if that happens, don’t question it. Receive it as you would a gift. Open your arms to the heavens and just say “thank you.”

That said, if you’ve been at it for hours and you’re ready to pull your hair out …

Take a walk. Go for a drive. Do what you have to do to get away from your screen, your journal, your keyboard or your guitar. Go to the mall or the movies … but stay away from the fridge; no amount of emotional eating will free you up faster. Get a beer or a mani-pedi. My activity of choice is making soup. (Green pea and mint is my favorite.)

Stand up! Better yet, pace. The movement alone can stimulate thought and keep you from freezing up mentally. Go to the gym. Get your blood flowing. Hang upside down so it gets to your head! I do this for one minute after every work-out. It’s also therapeutic for back issues.

Or do the exact opposite: Take a nap. I’m serious. If we’re really-really-really-lucky, after hours of obsessing it’s possible to dream the answer. Then the trick is to wake up and document it ASAP. I’ve heard that we lose 90% of our dream recall within 10 minutes of waking up, and I believe it.

OK, so what if you’re in a writing session with collaborators and can’t head out or grab that nap? Either would be kind of rude, right? Well, then …

Excuse yourself for a toilet break, whether you need one or not. Get in there and shut the door. Sometimes when you’re alone and not feeling self-conscious about being on your game (which can happen, especially when you’re with other writers — people you understandably want to dazzle), a line or melody will come more naturally. At which point you can walk back into the room with the money.

If all these exercises fail, don’t panic. Take solace in the knowledge that creative shut-downs are actually quite constructive. They’re telling you that your unconscious needs to work on its own for a while without your help. The nerve! Yet isn’t it reassuring to know your brain is churning away even when you’re not actively in the driver’s seat? So why not let it?

In other words, Surrender!

Then don’t be surprised if, when you return to your work-in-progress, it all comes together without a hitch — a delayed result with no effort on your part. You already did the work.

So ignore writer’s block like the pesky fly on the wall that it is. Don’t give the debilitating power of writer’s block the dignity it wants to rob you of. Think of it as a staring contest and try not to be the first to laugh. Just keep staring. Eventually, you will win.

Photo courtesy of the author.


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