Ways I Cope with Writer’s Block
By Jeff Salter
I don’t think I’ve ever done the stereotypical bit where I just stare at a blank page / screen for long periods and can’t come up with any words. [And I hope I never do!]
But I have been through phases where I can’t seem to concentrate, or just don’t feel like putting in the effort required to think creatively (within the demanding structure of a novel). And, of course, I procrastinate. [I’m far too easily distracted by social media, email, and some of the time-consuming lolly-gagging that has – unfortunately (in recent years) – become part of my daily routine.]
But let me mention something that was similar to writer’s block — in the sense that SOMETHING was keeping me from returning to a fully-drafted novel to get it into publishable shape. That something was – and I was basically aware of this at the time – purely emotional.
My third novel – its first draft just completed as my loved and respected father-in-law was dying in the hospital – featured him as one of the prominent secondary characters. I’d been killing myself to complete a readable draft because I wanted him to read it… so he could see how he was depicted and how several of his relatives and friends had inspired other characters. But his soul departed this earth before I could complete my draft. That left me feeling frustrated and hurting — I had failed in my effort to share with him my tribute to the greatest generation (of which he was a part).
I think it was that grief and sense of failure that basically froze me for the next 14 months and kept me from returning to that draft and whipping it into shape. A 14-month dry spell!
Oh, I don’t mean I wasn’t writing anything, because I wrote some family history and had ‘starts’ on eight other novels (since beginning that third one). But I wasn’t working on the revisions to my third novel… which, I believed, had the most potential for publication.
So I began worrying again. You know, about that dark procrastinating cloud of not being able to finish something. Then, one Saturday, instead of doing what I had planned [visiting a local trade show]… I pulled out that third novel and determinedly began my re-writes. During the next three months, I completely overhauled it. [That manuscript was still far from “ready” however. It went through another complete overhaul before I slashed some 55,000 words and got it into a publishable length. It was released by Clean Reads in May 2013, just over five years after my F-I-L’s death, and about four years after I’d finally forced myself to dive back into it. NOTE: during those same four years, I also wrote five other novels and got two of them published!]
Blocked? Or just re-routed?
Now that I’ve detailed this example of my 14-month impasse – and the emotional reasons for it – let me get to the actual topic for this week: Ways that I cope with writers’ block.
Notice that I’ve titled this blog post, “Maneuvering Around Obstacles.” I worded it that way because there’s a difference between being BLOCKED (as in “halted”), and merely being forced to find an alternate route to your destination.
Though I’ve never possessed any of the computerized “map” gizmos – and hope I never will – I’ve been a passenger in vehicles which were being directed on the desired route by a determined automated voice. In one, which I believe was called Garmin, I remember it repeatedly stating, “Recalculating route,” or some-such. You could almost sense the frustration in that computer programs’ voice… that its initial directions were not being followed and the driver had exerted some independence or initiative.
Well, I took that brief detour with Garmin navigation simply to say that its programmed voice never said, “you are blocked and you cannot move forward.” Inevitably, it was programmed simply to find you a different route — take a detour (if necessary) but then get you headed back toward your original destination.
As writers, we don’t – at least not YET – have a program telling us, “in 1000 words, bring Character A back into the scene” or “in 50 words, make an immediate POV shift.” And if we did have such a program, I doubt many of us would use it. [Because many authors I know – myself included – tend to let their characters run fast and loose!]
How to cope
Bet you thought I’d never get back to the topic at hand. When things have been tenuous at my writing keyboard, I have resorted to things like these:
* working with my hands at something (assembling a chair, building shelves, mounting brackets somewhere, re-working the handle of a hunting knife, etc.). These breaks are good for multiple reasons: they tend to cleanse my writing palate and they check things off my household to-do list.
* exercise and/or communing with nature. Since Jan. 2005, I’ve gone to exercise approximately three times a week, usually for an hour or more each time. It’s not by choice, it’s by the express orders of my then-rheumatologist. But it’s surprising how many story threads, plot ideas, or character notes I can come up with while I’m pedaling a stationary bike for 40 minutes.
* nap / rest. I’ve had – since spring of 1974 – non-stop, chronic fatigue. I don’t think it had a name back then, but just imagine being totally exhausted all the time — from waking in the morning until sleeping at night, never feeling rested. Sometimes, at my keyboard, I realize that I’m simply too tired to concentrate. So I nap. Every day.
What about YOU? If you’re a writer, have you ever been blocked? Did you figure out why? How did you work your way out of it?
[JLS # 545]