When a friend asked Samuel Taylor Coleridge why he didn’t simply snap out of his writer’s block, Coleridge replied: ‘You bid me rouse myself. Go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together, and that will cure him.’
Writers can be self-pitying, indulgent creatures. No more so than when the valves of inspiration feel clogged. How many times have you felt, with certainty, “well that’s it. I’ll never write a worthy sentence again.” The danger of perceiving inspiration as somewhat divine or fugitive is that we write (or stop writing) in anticipation of its vanishing. If you’ve been there — maybe you’re there now — award-winning writer Eliza Robertson offers some tips…
1. Identify the root of your block.
If you’re a parent, or working full-time, or both — your head may be so full of obligations to others that you can’t create a space commodious enough for a ‘state of writing.’ (In my experience, ‘states of writing’ require descents into deep, vulnerable spaces, not unlike sleeping. We need time to drop in.) Ask yourself, honestly, whether writing is a priority for you right now. Because it may not be. (And that doesn’t mean it can’t be re-prioritized in a few months, or next year when Greta Jr. starts daycare.) If you answered “no” to this question. Stop reading! Go take a bath. You probably need a break. If you answered yes: schedule in pockets of writing time. Write them into your Google calendar or iCal, like you would a dentist appointment.
2. Know that others may not respect your writing time as work.
If you answered “yes” to “is writing a priority?” — they should. Maybe plan a conversation about that some day. But in the meantime: change your language around it. If a friend invites you to a movie, don’t say: “Oh, well, I was going to fiddle with a short story.” Say: “Sorry, I’m working.” Even if you’re not getting paid for writing right now, it’s your work. (Note: even if you’re a published author, most of your ‘work hours’ will be unpaid.)
Okay, let’s say you’ve re-prioritized writing after a hiatus. You’ve quit your job, or retired, or your kids are in school — now you have all the time in the world. And the pressure of that time is paralyzing. You are Coleridge, and the world is bidding you rub your arms together. Material reality is not stopping you: you are stopping you. What’s that about?
- Are you thinking about what your partner / parent / child / editor / teacher / writing group will think? Stop it! We can’t write by proxy. We can’t write communally (unless you’re intentionally collaborating.) We certainly can’t write from fear. Tell yourself that no one has to see this draft. It’s true, first of all. No one has to see this draft. Mercifully, writing is not contemporaneous with its publishing. We don’t write “live.” If the cringe-y bits still make you cringe in a year, prune them. In a year. But you might need to write the cringe-y bits first to reach the good stuff.
- At the risk of sounding like a yoga teacher, we do hold tension in our body. You may be embodying — really, physically carrying — your writer’s block. Go for a walk. Stretch the kinks. Take that bath you declined in the beginning of this article. And here’s a big one: The French verb for inhale is inspirer. (The French verb for exhale is “expirer,” but we won’t overthink that.) Of course, these verbs comes from the Latin, inspirare, to breathe or blow into. The romance languages have been breathing inspiration for millennia, who are you to snub this advice because it sounds woo?
- Recognize good distractions from bad distractions. Good distractions occupy your body with fine motor skills to fool your mind into being receptive. They include: washing the dishes. Taking your dog for a walk. Having a shower. Bad distractions: your cell phone. Netflix. Twitter. Etc.
Ask yourself honestly: what are you reading?
- If you’ve become so superstitious about your writing (“I can only write after my second cup of coffee, when the house is empty, and I’m using this notebook and a green gel pen…”), use ritual for your benefit instead. Light incense or a candle. If you work with tarot or oracle cards: pull one. Set the mood.
- Say you’ve done the above, and you still feel blocked. You’ve progressed from Coleridge to Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “Who is more to be pitied? A writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?” Ask yourself honestly: what are you reading? Writing without reading is like training for a marathon without eating. And you should be diversifying your food groups. If you only read novels: read poetry. Read short stories. Read non-fiction. Read science. Read philosophy.
- So you’re doing all of the above, and you’re sitting at your desk, and you’re still reading this article instead of writing. This is what I do. Take a book off your shelf — one you admire. One your current work-in-progress aspires toward. The Platonic ideal of whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Open the book at random, or to a favourite passage. Re-write it. Literally type the words out. Wend through the tracks of this author’s thoughts, and let their voice seep into your muscle. At some point, close the book, but allow the spectre of its prose to carry you. It doesn’t matter if your writing sounds too similar right now. Now is not the time for editing. Now is the time for staggering through the wall of self-doubt. Don’t stop.