Dealing with Writer’s Block

I confess.

I struggle with writer’s block at least for a week every month. It’s excruciating, infuriating, and frustrating all at the same time. I literally sit at my desk for hours at end, staring at an annoying blinking cursor whose only job is to taunt me. I write a sentence or two, get angry at the crappy structure of it, and then delete it. Progress, if any, is sloooowww.

Source: Mutt Comics

Several people have advised me on how to deal with writer’s block. Take a break away from the table. Walk the dogs. Find something to eat. Watch tv. Clean. Read. Breathe. Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of approaches, and to an extent, nearly all have failed to solve my writer’s block. One time during my undergrad, it was so bad, I didn’t sleep for 4 days, surviving on a steady dose of red bull.

See the thing is, I’m don’t consider myself to be a natural writer. English is not my first language and my hearing loss coupled with my language difficulties that resulted from it sometimes make it hard for me to match what’s in my brain with what I want on paper (or the screen). There are times when writing one simple sentence becomes the most painful thing I encounter throughout the day. I actually started this blog as a way to escape from the prison of my head and just force the words to come out. This blog became my way of dealing with occasional bursts of writer’s block. For the most part, it has worked more so than any other strategy.

I think my problem resides in expectations, especially when it comes to rewrites. I’m always grateful for the constructive criticism and advise I get from editors, but honestly, there are times they only give me a panic attack. Today I spent five hours (!) and only wrote 168 words. Only half a paragraph. This frustrated me to no end.

I also know I’m not the only one there afflicted with this syndrome. How have you dealt with it? What finally gets you motivated enough to write for days at a time? For me, there will be a random moment not associated with my writing whatsoever when I finally get an “eureaka” moment and stay trapped in my room writing, writing and writing.

Right now, I’m eagerly waiting for that moment.

4 thoughts on “Dealing with Writer’s Block

  1. Well, you’re certainly not alone; it’s an occupational hazard — but I suspect there’s a specific academic variety that isn’t often acknowledged and draws on a host of issues related to working with peers, navigating their expectations (realistic or otherwise), and effectively marrying-in to a body of work with your own work.

    We’ll have to wait for the mystics from on high for the solution to that problem.

    Still, I think there are about three distinctive camps (to my mind) that subscribe to a specific remedy:

    1. Good-Enough — this crowd suggest you simply do your best and move on. On a good day, they’re right because time is money and you need to produce, but on a bad day they’re actually selling mediocrity.

    This is a useful means of escaping minor crises but it’s probably not firm ground to build a career on.

    2. Write Through It — this crowd suggests you keep writing no matter what. Maybe what you produce isn’t entirely useful or even relevant to your current project(s) but it’s good for morale (ie: you can’t have writer’s block if you’re still writing).

    This is a useful remedy if you’re easily distracted by other projects (yes, I just suggested that procrastination can be productive!) …I usually fall in with this crowd myself.

    3. Walk Away and Return Later — this crowd has a lot in common with other anti -stress and -anxiety strategies in other professions and always gives you another chance to re-examine a problem, but it isn’t a good fit for deadlines or routines.

    This is also particularly conducive to creativity since certain ideas aren’t ready to be entirely formulated at first pass and need a second or even multiple successive returns to mature.

    Overall, it’s probably best to employ a combination of these or rotate through them, depending on the situation.

    Of course, there’s also the role of decisions (reluctance to make them, concern over having made the right one, etc.) and your own role as a reader to your own work — these two probably speak more directly to the “eureka” moment you described. And the only solution to that that I can think of is Zadie Smith’s example in Changing My Mind (2009) to, well, give yourself the freedom to change your mind.

  2. I’ve been beating my writer’s block (note: my problem is that I put off writing. A day staring at the cursor is better than a day pretending the deadline doesn’t exist) by forcing myself to write 3 pages every day. They’re not great pages by any means, but they’re starting to turn into a paper. I’m motivated because there’s a graph on the fridge that tells me how many total pages I should have after each day for the next two weeks. This works for me.

    I wish I had thought of it before my second year of grad school, though.

  3. Thanks AJ and Ellie!

    @AJ: I also find myself falling into the second category more so than the others. There are times I just open up my laptop and start typing away whatever comes into my head–I call this process “vomiting–in the hopes that somewhere in the tangle mess of ideas in my mind, I will get a thesis. There are variations that do work, but when I’m *really* stuck, this is the best method for me to force myself out of the writer’s block and start writing. Even if it’s really, really crappy.

    @Ellie, I really like your fridge-motivation-graph. It’s a great idea. Having a visual reminder of your progress can be the greatest motivation tool: it’s there, you can’t hide from it, and often, it taunts you when you fail to accomplish the tasks. Plus, I imagine that there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you check off that box or color another bar on the graph, or plot another line…My PhD board serves that for me, but only in terms for my dissertation. When I’m faced with shorter papers (i.e. like this conference presentation I’m struggling with), I like to divide up tasks according to the structure of the paper–Saturday. write introduction. Sunday, start Part I,…etc., etc.

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