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Blocking the Block

8540188997_65e3cc20d6_zWhen we last left our heroes (i.e. all of you at WU) we were discussing writer’s block [1], whether it is real, whether it’s just an excuse, whether it’s caused by fear or sloth or perhaps an ill-crafted story.

Today, fearless ones, we are going to explore the two roads we might take when writer’s block descends like the Joker over the Gotham of our stories. Consider this post a bit of a Choose Your Own Adventure.

Choice One: In spite of that terrible feeling of blockage, you keep writing. Keep your tush in your chair. Keep your hands on the keyboard. Keep at it. Keep calm. Keep tinkering. Keep your eye on the goal. Keep up with the Kardashians (no, don’t do that).

Choice Two: When writer’s block attacks your psyche, you can take a break. Take a walk. Take out a book of poetry and read it aloud. Take a bath or a breath or a vacation, even if that vacation is a trip to the grocery store with your elderly neighbor who can no longer drive to get groceries.

Which adventure–keep going or take a break–do you choose? I don’t know, and I don’t know because there is no single right path. That said, in order to make a smart and thoughtful choice, it’s important to consider not Which path do I choose? but What got me stuck in the first place? The answer to this question will help you choose wisely. 

Writer’s block can strike for many reasons, and we need to use our x-ray vision to determine whether the block is an Issue of Story or an Issue of Fear; all writer’s block is a result of one or the other. An especially nasty case might be the presence of both evils. Shazam! Zap! Holy block, Batman!

Let’s look then at Story Issues and Fear Issues and how they relate to you, Superwriter, and your Choose Your Own Adventure. But before we do that, let me share an indisputable fact: obsessing and worrying about writer’s block only makes the block more blocky. It’s like being in a period of insomnia and worrying about whether tonight you’ll be able to fall asleep. Or being constipated and worrying about when on earth you are going to poop again. After all, writer’s block is literary constipation. Worry and dismay only worsens the block.

Instead, we must consider the root of the block. Perhaps when we can’t sleep, we need to address the stress that is causing the insomnia. Or eliminate that 4:00 p.m. triple Americano. Perhaps when we can’t poop, we need more fiber. Being stuck isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s our subconscious or our body alerting us to a problem we might not recognize on our own. In that way, writer’s block can be seen as one of those Caution! Danger Ahead! signs. Those are generally helpful signs. We don’t need to fear writer’s block; we need to understand why it has created a security breach in the Batcave.

Since there’s always a reason for the blockage, let’s examine how we determine whether we are blocked by Fear Issues or Story Issues.

First, Story Issues:

If … you are feeling bored, uninspired, ho hum about where you are in your story; if you are humming along and suddenly come to a screeching halt because you cannot figure out what should happen next; if you realize you have fallen in love with sentences and paragraphs that, while pretty, do nothing to ratchet up conflict and generate tension, then …

turn to page 16 of the Choose Your Own Adventure and give your story a full physical, including lab work and stress tests. Possibly a CT scan and a battery of allergy tests. Why? You are stuck because there’s a story issue. This means you get to keep mending the holes in your story. Call a writing partner and chat about your plot. Write your outline on a big piece of butcher paper and identify pockets of scenelessness. Accept the fact that the early drafts of all stories are crummy. And with each revision, your story will improve. Not even Ann Patchett can avoid killing the butterfly [2] of the story in her head. Trust the process. Keep writing, keep plotting, keep revising.

When you persevere and focus on the story, rather than the block, you will make progress. Even slow progress, while arduous and humbling, is better than standing still and stuck in the middle of a broken story. Even having to return to the drawing board, starting fresh, adding thousands of unusable words to a file titled WIPjunkyard.docx, is progress. Fixing a broken story isn’t easy, but we don’t write because it’s easy; we write because we can’t not write.

On the other hand:

If … you are hearing that horrible inner voice that generates doubt, uncertainty, insecurity and self-criticism; if you are certain that people will laugh at you and your story; if you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to other writers—and always coming up short; Or, if you have gotten too close to your story and have lost sight of the heart of it; if you are too weary to create even one simple sentence; if you no longer have any idea what you are writing, then …

turn to page 23 in your Choose Your Own Adventure, where you will be instructed to address the fear behind these mean voices and/or you will take a break, get some distance, let the wine breathe. We cannot write well if our brains and our bods are not well. Getting well may require a chat or a walk with a close and trusted friend, cheerleader or therapist. Sometimes it requires a nap or a vacay or a bubble bath. Sometimes it requires getting a puppy because puppies will think you are unceasingly wonderful. Try reading segments of your favorite novels and examine how those stories are sewn together. Keep a dream journal (as proof that your mind is able to create fantastic, fictional worlds). Or do something else creative: knit, paint, make bread. My sister, a poet, musician and farmer, calls this “going to the well.” Sometimes our creativity is like uncooked Top Ramen or instant oatmeal and we need to Just Add Hot Water. We need to make sure we keep our writer’s soul hydrated. A desiccated writer is not a pretty sight.

Whether you decide to turn to page 16 or page 23 in your writing adventure, whether you need a break or you need to keep hammering away at the story, it’s important to acknowledge the presence of blockage. After you acknowledge this villain, name it and determine its origin. Writer’s block thrives on fear; when you acknowledge, name and deconstruct it–Pow! Whammo! Splat!–you relieve it of its power. Even the nastiest case of writer’s block has a version of Kryptonite.

Your turn, please! When you experience literary constipation, do you find it more powerful to take a break or do you give your story a full physical, complete with labs and scans, and refuse to leave your post until you have identified the cause of the malady? How have you been surprised by the apparent root of a case of writer’s block? How have you kicked it to the curb? Favorite Superhero? Most desirable superpower? 

Photo compliments of Flickr’s Micah Elizabeth Scott [3].

About Sarah Callender [4]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.