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Unblocking Writer's Block

Writer’s block is a paradox. While there are thousands of words written on the subject—from how it feels blinking at a blindingly white empty page to advice on how to fight it (unsurprisingly, remedies include unhealthy doses of gin, whiskey, or slightly blander, patience)—just mentioning the problem can lead to….writer’s block.

Why do writers get it when mathematicians don’t get algebra block?

Just like art, music or poetry, writing is creative and linked to inspiration. Only when the Muse takes an occasional day off, it’s often unannounced. If you’re terribly unlucky, it jets off to Turkish resort for a longer stay, making you clueless about its return date. But mostly, it’s a temporary glitch and quickly forgotten.

Also, writing is a lengthy exercise in thinking—it’s a process, not a product. By mulling things over and exploring ideas on the page, we start learning what we think about a subject. New ideas are mostly rough, like diamonds that need dedicated polishing. This is why first drafts aren’t perfect or even shitty, as writer Anne Lamott would say. Some writers get stuck here and overly critical, making writing a gargantuan effort. The key is to let your writing be crappy. Start somewhere. Get things wrong before figuring out what works. Clarity emerges in later drafts because once we know what we think, it’s easier to say it.

Finally, there are few professions that require so much precision, honesty, and willingness to be scrutinized by public opinion (and often under intense deadline pressure). Writing and journalism are competitive fields where rejection is a staple, forcing writers to become thick-skinned. It’s a daily mental practice transforming criticism into constructive criticism. On bad days we might take that criticism personally, becoming self-critical and doubting our worth as a human being, let alone as a writer. A typical reaction is to start procrastinating, stop writing and get depressed. The vicious circle begins...

Some writers, like Geoff Dyer, swear they have never experienced writer’s block. Dyer imagines writer’s block is like constipation, a straining to unload unnecessary ideas or words that simply won’t budge. He says the closest he gets to experiencing it is not having anything to say about a subject. To me, that’s more or less the same thing because a lack of ideas means resistance is already building.

I much prefer how writer Mary Karr puts it: “[What does it sound like when you get stuck?] Fuck. Shit. Don’t. Fuck. You dumb bitch—who ever told you that you could write? That’s what it sounds like.” Ditto. I’ve been there.

The only advice I have about writer’s block (because it works for me) is give yourself permission to write badly. Feel the frustration and do it anyway, and repeat until it subsides. Novelist Peter de Vries put it perfectly, “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” It takes practice and perseverance to make those words flow.

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