[Originally published June 16, 2003.]
Writer’s block. It’s the writer’s worst nightmare, or so I’m told anyway. Like most writers of short, list-based, how-to-write articles, I’ve only written short, list-based, how-to-write articles that rely on recycled bromides and long-standing conventional wisdom. This means I can skip all of the frustrating (and, above all, unprofitable) work of actually crafting an original piece of writing. So, I wouldn’t know anything about writer’s block.
That said, let’s look at the three most common writers block scenarios along with some handy tips for “breaking through the block.”
Can’t Get Out of the Starting Gate
Symptoms of the Block: You know that you have the next Great American Novel burbling inside of you, one so brilliant that it would make Philip Roth trade his pen for a box of fingerpaints, but you just can’t seem to get anything on the page.
Likely Cause of the Block: You are lazy.
Throughout your life, have your parents, teachers, bosses, or significant others called you a shiftless good-for-nothing who will never amount to anything? Was your last shower more than three days ago? Do you earn less than $20,000 a year? If so, you’re most likely lazy.
Look around you. Are there candy wrappers, empty cola cans, old pizza boxes, and half-finished bags of Funyons? If yes, you’re probably fat as well.
Additionally, do you often wake up with unexplained bruises and smelling like the bottom of an ashtray? I’m afraid that you’re probably also a drunk.
Breaking Through the Block: Fortunately for you, fat and drunk are practically two prerequisites for writing success. The difference between Ernest Hemingway and you is that he used his limited hours of coherency to write classic American fiction, while you spend your time touching yourself and ogling the showcase models on The Price is Right.
So, get your hands off the goodies and onto the keyboard, and you’ll be on your way to lasting fame and a violent death by your own hand, just what every writer wishes for!
Spinning Your Wheels
Symptoms of the Block: You may write for hours and everything seems to be running smoothly at the time, but when you go back later to review your work you become dissatisfied and delete everything, leaving you back at a very frustrating square one.
Likely Cause of the Block: You are untalented and have nothing to say.
This is perhaps the most common cause of writer’s block, but also the toughest one to self-diagnose as most people are delusional about their abilities as writers.
Breaking Through the Block: Lucky for you, talent and having something to say are perhaps the least important factors when it comes to success in today’s publishing marketplace.
First, stop reading what you write, dummy! You’ve heard the old saying that “writers write,” well, add this one to your arsenal: “Only suckers re-write.” Ask yourself, which one you want more: Nabokov’s prose style or Dean Koontz’s bank balance? I rest my case.
If you’re into non-fiction, there’s an even easier route to success: what I like to call, “the Kearns Goodwin,” in which you simply re-type someone else’s book that’s already been published. Quality is guaranteed. Just make sure your advance is big enough to pay off any pesky litigation.
All Used Up
Symptoms of the Block: At one point, you used to have a lot of success writing, maybe even published a novel or two, but now, getting things to flow is tougher than getting Hillary Clinton to divorce you.
Likely Cause of the Block: You are spent, tapped out, finito, don’t even think about it, done.
It’s important to realize that eventually, it happens to everyone. The problem is, while the words have gone away, the mortgage, the alimony for the multiple wives, and your Taiwanese hooker habit haven’t. So, what to do?
Suggestion one: Have someone else write your book for you.
If you are Tom Clancy, James Patterson, or Rudolph Giuliani you’ve already made this work to great success and weeks on the bestseller lists. If you’re not already rich and famous (and let’s face it, you aren’t), you might try…
Suggestion two: Turn your computer keyboard upside down.
This is a modern variation of a classic, but little known method. With the publication of Ulysses, James Joyce believed he’d written the definitive statement on the English novel. Unfortunately, he now had to top himself. After years of frustration, in a fit, Joyce switched the positions of all of the keys on his trusty Smith Corona and began transcribing the recipes in the original Betty Crocker cookbook. The resulting nonsense was Finnegan’s Wake, a book often purchased, but seldom read, a smart author’s home run.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with techniques of your own. Desperation is the mother of invention, and if you think you have a future as a writer, you’re nothing if not desperate.
As always, good luck, and good writing!