If you’ve ever banged face-first into a serious bout of writer’s block, you’re not alone! Every writer from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Mark Twain has encountered the terror of the blank page from time to time. A few – like Twain – have offered some advice.
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”—Mark Twain
Today’s top writers, too, know the agony of a blank screen, but like Twain and others, they’ve developed strategies to keep the words coming. Here are some of their best tips on getting over being stuck.
- No. 1 New York Times best-selling author of 10 thrillers, as well as nonfiction, advice, and children’s books
- Eisner award-winning author of Justice League of America
- Host of Brad Meltzer’s Lost History and Brad Meltzer’s Decoded
What is writer’s block?
A made-up word so we feel important. Like lawyers saying res ipsa loquitur.
Do best-selling authors encounter creative blocks, too?
Every writer gets stuck. That’s just part of the job. The phone only rings when you get in the shower. So when I’m stuck, I go in the shower: I take a walk, or a drive, or call a friend.
The best advice I ever got was from a fellow writer who said: “It’s OK to admit it’s hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it.” Getting stuck is part of the job. Like hair in your shoes for barbers. Just accept it and keep going, keep going, keep going.
Do deadlines help?
Not for me. I do much better on my own. Deadlines always slow me down. But again, do what works for you. That’s the only rule for writing.
What strategies do you have for overcoming a creative block?
Talking it out [with someone] is always helpful, even if you talk about something totally off-topic. Other than that, I do what every writer does: I bang my head against the wall.
- Author of 24 books, including a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller, a historical novel based on the life of her grandmother, a co-authored book with Steve Almond, four books of poetry, and numerous award-winning novels for younger readers
- Associate professor at Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts
- Holds the William H.P. Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross
You’re quite prolific –18 published books over the last 12 years alone!
How do you keep up that pace?
It’s crucial that you realize that you have a creative process. You aren’t writing at the whim of the muse. Demystify your own process. Get to know that process, intimately, and work with it instead of against it. In other words, when you get a good idea, lift your head. Where are you? What time of day is it? What are you doing? Is someone with you, collaborating, or are you alone? Is this moment – and others like it when good ideas come to you – reproducible in some aspect?
Not that writing and the creative process aren’t mystifying. They often are. But the more you know your process, the more you can create opportunities for the more mystifying elements to take root.
What was your own worst “I’m totally blocked!” moment? How did you
Well, I stopped writing literary novels after my third novel was published. I had a specific form of writer’s block, and the next literary novel, The Seventh Book of Wonders, took 18 years to write. But I kept writing other kinds of novels, across audiences and genres. I freed myself in other ways.
Overall, when it comes to the demands of life and writing, instead of thinking of all things I’m responsible for as blipping radar on a massive screen in my head, I compartmentalize and bring thousands of dots – individual emails, marketing meetings, each student I teach, each editor I work with, each of my four kids, all of my current projects – [into] a kind of box. I’m inside the box and it has pull-down screens.
One screen is my position at Holy Cross, where I teach undergraduates; one is my position at Florida State University, where I teach graduate-level screenwriters; one holds all current projects; and one is personal (including college tuition, my parents’ upcoming visit, dentists…). In my mind, the screens are retractable. This is key. I pull each one down and examine the blipping dots on each screen. Then I push that screen up in my mind and it disappears.
Once I’ve attended all those screens – and retracted them – my mind is my own. I cordon off time then. It’s mine. Elbows out, I protect it. I write.
What do you tell students who claim to be the victim of writer’s block?
Read what first made you fall in love with writing.
Play. Find ways to lower the bar and just mess with writing, instead of thinking of yourself as a writer.
Use a pen name for the initial phase of writing – even if later you choose to use your own name. What would you write if you didn’t think it had to define you? (There is no real way to fully define yourself.)
There’s no such thing as perfect. Writing is a collaboration with a stranger – the reader. Perfect is a myth, a paralyzing one.
Learn to use criticism, rejection, jealousy as rocket fuel that propels you to the desk. (Easier said than done.)
Deadlines are the benefit of the classroom. Writer’s block is a luxury you can’t afford. Once on their own, it’s best for them to create accountability with other writers, arbitrary deadlines to keep each other on task.
- Author of 12 books, including Against Football, Candyfreak, and My Life in Heavy Metal
- Published 150+ stories in magazines such as Tin House, Zoetrope, and Playboy
What actually happens when writer’s block strikes?
I think writer’s block is really a writer succumbing to self-doubt, getting hung up [on] a fatalistic view. I visit this place a lot.
What’s the solution?
There is no “solution.” Or rather, every writer finds her own way out. My own solution has been to set the bar as low as possible – to simply get yourself to the keyboard and try to get some words down. That’s all you can do. Show up and try. Devote as much attention as you can to the work, and try to ignore the noise in your head about whether you’re good enough [or] will ever get published – that whole narcissistic loop. It’s attention directed at the wrong drama.
Any other tips?
I’d also counsel patience and self-forgiveness – to the extent possible. When I put too much pressure on myself, the results are almost always forced and self-conscious. When I can get to a point where I’m experiencing more of a sense of play and improvisation, that’s a good sign.
But this is one of the occupational hazards of creative work. Sometimes the muse is there. Sometimes it isn’t. All you can do is get yourself into the maker’s chair and sustain your attention. The rest is out of your control.
Linda Wasmer Andrews
- Author/coauthor of 14 books, including six books on adolescent mental health
- Published 3,000+ articles in the fields of health, medicine, mental health, psychology, and the mind/body connection
More than 3,000 published articles? Wow. What’s your secret?
I appreciate the days when I’m feeling in the zone, but I don’t wait for them. I also write on the days when it feels like I’m running through waist-deep mud. It’s much easier to revise an uninspired manuscript than to start from scratch with a blank screen.
What’s your definition of writer’s block?
It’s the reverse of what I’ve just described. The writer waits until the stars align and the brain’s neurons fire in perfect synchrony. That isn’t going to happen every day, so writing becomes an activity that only happens sometimes, and then occasionally, and then rarely, and then perhaps never.
Got any useful strategies for getting unstuck?
Here’s what I tell myself: My best effort on any given day is good enough to feel satisfied with myself, even if the writing I produce is not always good enough to turn in to an editor.
Here’s the reality: Uncritical self-acceptance is hard, and I don’t always achieve it. But when I do, I’m less likely to feel creatively constipated.
If I find my brain seizing up at the keyboard, one thing that gets me unstuck quickly is taking a hot shower. I’m not certain exactly why this gets the ideas flowing, although I suspect that surrendering to relaxation (rather than wrestling with my brain) is part of the answer. Also, I think there’s an element of contrariness at work; just knowing that I can’t conveniently jot down an idea makes me want to do it!
What was your worst block? What helped you past it?
I’ve been writing professionally for 34 years, and I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I thought of myself as having writer’s block. If I can just sit down and write something, I see myself as a productive writer, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Author of 100+ fiction and nonfiction books for kids and adults
- Published more than 2,500 articles
In your mind, what’s happening when the words stop flowing?
A block happens when a writer isn’t quite sure where to go next. It’s as if they’re standing at a crossroads. Go right? Left? Turn back? My advice isn’t new: “Freewriting.” Get off the computer. Sit in a different room, tablet and pencil/pen in hand. Write down what you see (hear, smell, etc.) without paying attention to mechanics, and how those senses make you feel. Still stuck? Move to another room and think of something that’s happening in the news, then write your heartfelt opinion on that topic. So now that you’re in “writing mode,” think about The Work. Take your notes to another location and try to incorporate as many of them into it as possible. (Few, if any, will end up in the project, but at least your brain is now honed in on the article/story/book.) Most of my students have reported they’re back on track after the first exercise.
How do you stay so prolific?
Spending the advance check is always a super motivator!
What’s the No. 1 thing aspiring writers should know or understand about becoming prolific?
Set a goal and a timeline: “By year-end (five years from now; before I die), I will have ____ articles, books, or short stories in print.” Tell your mother-in-law, sibling, anyone who has pooh-poohed your writing dreams that you’ve set this goal. Memorize that “Uh-huh, sure, riiiiight . . .” expression. Next, do some homework: Who’s buying the type of stuff you write? Polish your proposal packages and send them out to all of those editors. And while you’re waiting to hear back from them, send out some more stuff. Because if there is a secret to getting published – it’s tenacity!
Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books, and he runs the Ringling College of Art + Design creative writing program.
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