Writer’s Block: Cut the Story from Your Story

Posted: November 1, 2010 in General Writing Tips, The Writer's Psyche

Afraid to write deeply? Join the crowd.

Deciding to unleash everything you’ve got onto the page can feel like a high-risk endeavor. Performers have it comparatively easy. As they sing or act or dance, performers can sense the audience reaction in the moment. If the performance sucks, the performer finds out immediately and has a chance to correct course. If the performance soars, the performer senses that from the audience right now, and can use that support to achieve even more.

A writer, in contrast, writes her heart out, alone, and must create page after page without feedback, daring to believe that somewhere in the remote future someone will like her writing.

Thus, many of us writers sometimes feel an absurd tension about writing. We have a frightened aversion to the thing we love to do. Forget nuclear power: there is no fuel more powerful for getting things done than a writer trying not to write. If they put a Writer Procrastination pump at gas stations, we could end our dependence on foreign oil. (And psychotherapists would be the new oil sheiks.)

How do you push past the fear and get to work? I was considering this while watching the finale of Project Runway, which culminates in finalists presenting their clothing at a major fashion show in New York. Each season, the ending two episodes repeatedly show the three finalists staring red-eyed into the Confession Cam and sobbing, “It’s just so much pressure! But winning is my dream! Everything is at stake!”

I mean, seriously: what creative person can do their best while holding in mind “Everything is at stake”? They’d do better work if they reminded themselves, “It’s just fabric. It’s just sewing. It’s not life and death, it’s just a fashion show.” They certainly would feel better.

Any time you’re writing, you have two narratives in play. The primary narrative is the writing itself, the part you enjoy and that you accomplish with ever-growing skill.

The secondary narrative occurs in the part of your mind that darts around like a frenzied border collie. It tells you that what you’re writing today is your last chance to prove you’re not a loser. It says your family will never understand what you wrote. It insists the prudes in your life had no idea you harbor such dark imaginings.

Writer’s block means you’ve loaded the moment with an over-the-top narrative of how everything is at stake. Cut the secondary narrative off, and you can focus on the primary narrative.

How? Call this technique what you will: Getting over yourself. Coming to your senses. Finding your center. Reaching inner peace. Prayer. Mental discipline.  The point is to quit loading the writing with a bunch of mental yammering that has nothing to do with the task at hand.

Though the self-judging narrative seems powerful, none of it is real. Your perception of the past is not real. Your projection of the future is not real. What is real — what you actually have to work with — is this moment, this day, this hour. Your sitting and thinking and typing is real. Your imaginary argument with your critics is not. Which means, you can stop it. Just enjoy your craft today without linking it to what is, in the end, irrelevant, brutal self-condemnation.

You’ve heard the maxim that no one can serve two masters. Become a slave of the article or chapter or scene you are writing now. Focus on getting this one short assignment right today. Empowered by your attention, the piece will grow strong enough to chase your imaginary ghouls away. Let today’s passage be your master, and you will master today’s passage.

  1. Jacob Ross says:

    When I have writers block I like to approach the story from another characters view point that might be happening in the scene, even if it is just the surrounding environment. Most times it will never make it into the rough draft but it opens the mind and I start to notice little eureka moments that do make it in. If I try to force out a sentence or a paragraph it is usually horrible and it feels forced. I also like to ask a lot of questions from the point of view of the other characters, it then starts to open up new dialogue.

    An example, I would use is a man walking through an alleyway. There is so much happening in just that little bit of information that can fill up a couple of sentences and make the scene interesting. If you can’t figure out how to continue the story of the man walking through an alleyway than it is time to look at it differently. I like to put myself in the mindset of the environment if that is the only character around and start asking questions like what do the buildings look like, what kind of history do the buildings show, in the environment can you smell or hear something, etc.

    This freestyle thinking takes my mind away from what I maybe trying to force and getting me thinking in another way. This is what I do when I have writers block, I usually do this away from the glowing screening. I might not even write for the rest of the day but than bam my subconscious during the day was processing my freestyle thinking an then that eureka moment happens. I usually like to wait till the next day to write it down, that way I can give it time to brew.

    Writing is something that should be enjoyed and embraced but with any other activity you hit walls it is just the fact of life. When those moments come the best thing you can do is recognize them and not try to fight it. I really enjoyed your post and looking forward to reading more of them.

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