Friday, March 18, 2011

Strategies for Dealing With Writer's Block

One of the ways I pace myself in my writing day is to pace. I get up, move around the house, make a desultory attempt at some housework, take the dog around the block. If I'm really worked up about how a story isn't coming together, I've written myself into the black hole of all black holes, then I may dive into a cleaning project with a vengeance. Part of what's going in is I'm so frustrated, I need a constructive outlet for all that energy, but I suspect that most of the time, I simply need some corner of the universe where I actually can create order, since the Work In Progress has temporary abdicated that role. (My sister, a visual artist, does this too--you can tell when her work isn't going well because her house is spotless.)

As it usually happens, just when I've got my sleeves rolled up, literally or metaphorically, the creative logjam un-jams and then I'm presented with a dilemma--do I drop what I'm doing and rush off to the computer (or at least a notepad and pen)? Or do I finish the d@#$%^ed task while I have some momentum? There's no right answer. I do different things at different times. Most of the time, I can't tell if the idea that hits me is The Exactly Right Idea or if it's only an opening sally and if I stay with what I'm doing (vacuuming, scrubbing bathrooms, sweeping the endless piles of oak leaves and acorns, weeding the garden, whatever) that More Will Be Revealed.

I used to believe quite fervently that there were such things as The Exactly Right Idea or The Ultimate Best Piece of Prose. I don't any more. I've had too many instances where I haven't written down that idea or have lost that piece of writing (usually through my own idiocy in not backing things up properly/promptly, but from other causes as well), raged and stormed and grieved, and then came up with something even better. Whatever it was to begin with was only a draft, a preliminary to the main event. So in that sense, it doesn't matter what I do when I feel stuck and how long I do it for. The important thing is that it be an activity that gets my mind working in a different way, preferably one that does not demand all my mental faculties. Working on taxes won't do it, but washing dishes will.

This reminds me of how I used to write when my children were small. I'd use scraps of time, odds and ends, like the dishwashing I mentioned above, or the brief time before I fell asleep, to "pre-write" the next scene so that it would be so vivid in my mind that when I actually got 10 or 15 minutes to sit down at the typewriter (this was before I had a computer), I'd be primed to write like mad. I used to joke that I couldn't afford writer's block, I had so little time. Now I understand that I was using this same "un-sticking" technique before I was actually stuck.

What works for you?

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