When The Muse Raises The Brick Wall

A cousin suggested this post when I first started blogging. How do you handle the brick wall that is writer’s block? And I put off writing about it, thinking, What if writing about it would cause it? Well, hopefully I haven’t jinxed myself with this post.

So far, I haven’t suffered a full-blown case with my works-in-progress. At times I feel like I’m pulling the ideas from a sea of molasses, but they do come through. Maybe my characters and I need to work on widening those tunnels between their universes and mine. They might be getting clogged up with cut scenes or dropped dialogue tags and extraneous descriptors.

However, for some time I’ve been catching glimpses of that wall from the corner of my eye with the blog. Some of you have undoubtedly figured that out already from previous posts. I don’t think it’s hard to read between the lines on some of them.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott handles the topic well. And I really like her idea that writer’s block can come about because we become so familiar with our work that it starts to sound cliché or trite. I know that happens to me. And then I wonder if my ideas are any good. And I find myself starting at the computer screen or a hard copy and not writing. Fortunately, I’ve always gotten going again with the books.

You can find all kinds of advice out there about how to get past it. Take a walk. Clean the house (maybe that one’s desperation). Put the story away for a week. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Write something else (hey, a blog post!). Write one sentence—then try a second. Work from a prompt. Lamott suggests writing 300 words of anything—even if it’s how much you hate writing at the moment.

All of that reminds me of people’s suggestions when we have the hiccups. Hold your breath and count to ten. Drink soda while holding your nose. Eat a spoonful of sugar. Get someone to scare you. . . . How many of these remedies work for you? Maybe only one. And what works for you may not help your spouse or friends. But one is all it takes, right?

I think getting past writer’s block is similar. Each of us has to find our own way out of it. What works for me may not work for you because the underlying cause could be different. Maybe it’s realizing our current endeavor isn’t working and needs to be rethought. Or maybe we’ve written ourselves into a corner and don’t know how to escape.

But it may also mean we need a break from the writing. We can’t run non-stop. People who work 100-hour weeks may do it for years. But it takes a toll, whether they realize it or not. If you’ve come to writing later in life, remember that the time spent writing used to be spent on something else. The brain and body might be missing the former activities.

Some writers are afraid to take a break, fearing inspiration will leave them. But I think the opposite is true. Just as a vacation can reinvigorate us when we’re back on the job, a writing break can help the brain and Muse recharge.

One of the things on my “to do” list is to find interviews with my favorite writers about their experiences with writer’s block. Then, when it hits, I’ll reread them as I face that wall. Knowing that they deal with it, too, is reassuring. And then a brisk walk in the park sounds like a good idea.

How about you? Have you dealt with writer’s block? If so, what helped you get through it?

PS. If you don’t yet follow The Write Transition, I’ll give a shameless plug here for Carrie’s Thursday post. Her posts are always great fun, but this one does touch close to home for me. 🙂

33 thoughts on “When The Muse Raises The Brick Wall

  1. When I have writers block I just don’t write. Inspiration will come eventually, but I find that most of my blogs are complaining about something and if it’s not something important and inspiring to me, at that moment, then I just devolve into bitching. Lord knows I don’t need to be MORE negative.. I also write down every thought that occurs to me about interesting topics, in a book and on my iphone, and when I’m stuck I skim through them. If one tickles my brain then I’m off! 🙂 Write one sentence…then the next, works well. As does forcing yourself to write 300 words. Eventually genius burns, Jo.

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    • Yep, I think there are times we just have to put down the pen or step away from the computer. When we force ourselves to write (or do anything), we usually don’t do it well. And when writing (or practicing an instrument, for example) isn’t what puts the bread on the table, we really can afford to take some time off and recharge.

      It’s easy to get caught in negativity. There’s so much of it in the world—and so much in the world that should cause feelings of horror and disbelief. My writing is a respite from that—a place where I can get away from it all for a while. And I hope readers (of the blog and ultimately the books) will find a nice break in my writing, too.

      Those are great suggestions for finding inspiration and ideas when we’re stumped.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  2. I agree that different people have to deal with writer’s block in their own way. Find a remedy. I find that when I’m tired and want to write I tell myself that if I can do it now, I can do it any time. Or, I read the first chapter of my favourite book. Reading the words of a masterful author and allow their words to warm up the soul always inspires me to write.
    The worst thing to do is grab a How to Write book and start searching for help. You’ll probably end up jumping through chapters and thinking too much about the different aspects of creating a novel – and then it’s time to go to bed, said Zebedee.

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    • Oh, I agree—don’t pick up that “How to Write” book! We’re probably feeling demoralized enough. And that would probably just make it worse. Re-reading a favorite book is always good, even when we’re not facing the wall—especially if you’ve got one that inspired you to start writing.

      Hard as it can be, just remembering that “this, too, shall pass,” applies to writer’s block as much as anything is helpful.

      Thanks for the comment and follow!

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  3. I’m not sure how other writers go about writing as whatever I’m doing my day has to include a good walk (and ideally a run/ bike ride too), regular food and lots of water and mint tea (which means lots of trips to the toilet which are little breaks away from the screen!). I also know that I’m productive in the morning but not really the afternoon so I’m better off giving myself a good morning session on a writing day rather than expecting to write all day (although obviously this isn’t currently practical with a cute bottom-wiggling baby crawling around the house looking for trouble!).

    For me having a healthy lifestyle and balancing writing with other commitments is what keeps my mind fresh and active and allows me to be productive when I do write. I did recently hit on a bit of a block with a work-in-progress but that was because there was a fundamental issue with the novel so I didn’t allow it to weigh me down but have been brutal in scrapping it and starting it from scratch – the block in this case was my underlying awareness that the book wasn’t working.

    Gosh, I sound annoyingly perky, don’t I! Basically for me I think writing should be enjoyed or there’s no point doing it and I’d rather fit it into an active, happy life even if it does mean a lower word count at the end of the week.

    Oh yes I read Carrie’s post the other day – really made me chuckle (as her posts so often do!)

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    • I see a lot of overlap in our approaches to the day, minus the baby and tea! Daily exercise is a must for me, and I drink lots of water, too. And it does make for lots of breaks 🙂 I also try to eat well. The time spent exercising really helps me in so many ways with the rest of life, not just writing.

      I totally agree that writing should be fun, especially when it’s not our bread and butter. If we impose unrealistic word counts on ourselves, we’re more likely to end up with worse than writer’s block—we’ll burn out on writing. I don’t have a problem with a daily word count—so nobody sic Stephen King on me—but it has to be reasonable. And it’s okay to push ourselves from time to time. But we can’t realistically expect to go full speed ahead indefinitely. We will crash and burn!

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  4. I am always happy to have a plug–for my blog that is. So, thank you!

    I really haven’t suffered from writer’s block either. I suspect that’s because I’m relatively new to the game. True, I’ve been writing fiction for over 10 years, but at first it was very sporadic given life demands, and I guess I never pounded away long enough to reach that brick wall. As for my new WIP, I’m still outlining, so no block yet. Here’s keeping my fingers crossed…

    Great post as always 🙂

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    • Anytime for the blog plug! Gosh, it’s gotten you 2 views today based on my site stats. Of course, I think a lot of people who read my blog already read yours, too. 🙂

      I’m just crossing my fingers that I haven’t jinxed myself with this post!

      And, seriously, I really like the idea of a blogger’s party on the beach with blog-named drinks. That’s the kind of blog dream we should all be having! LOL!

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    • Jeannie, you most definitely write! Your poems are writing. Your flash fictions are writing. Your blog posts are writing. You … are … a … writer.

      Now by saying that, I am not trying to curse you with writer’s block! But even though I know you were kidding around with your comment, I don’t want you to ever seriously think you are not a writer!

      Everyone should remember that being published doesn’t make you a writer. Being published only makes you a published writer.

      So while I’m not yet published (in fiction, at least), I’m still a writer. 🙂

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      • Really, I was kidding around! Not to worry 🙂

        I gave myself permission to be a writer a long time ago, published (barely) or not. And you did to. I think one is more likely to get blocks when one has other responsibilities to deal with (work comes to mind, or children!) and you can’t stay in the flow. It’s much harder to write that way, I think, but is also a testimony to perseverance!! We keep on in spite of it–that’s what we do!

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        • The writers who inspire me most are exactly those who do it while juggling a full life of work and family. You know they’re dedicated to the craft when they find a few minutes here, an hour there, to do what they love.

          But it’s also darn hard for me to focus on writing just now when spring is in full bloom! 🙂

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  5. Pick up a good book by a weird author and read any part of it, or all of it, or just a few sentences that catch your eye. A book is like a paining. You don’t have to absorb the whole thing at once. Come back and visit it or just steal a glance. You would be surprised at how the book has changed since the last time you perused it.
    Ideas will start to flow and they will not be under your control.

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    • This is a bit of a tangent to your reading suggestion. But I bet a lot of people who go back to a book months or years after they first read it will react to it differently. We may get more out of it. Or we may wonder why the heck we liked it the first time. Or vice versa, we like it after rereading it. As our lives move forward, our perspectives often change.

      But back to your point—that’s a good thing to try, too! Mixing things up is often a good way to shake us out of a rut.

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      • I have a short story based on your theme of revisiting a book. I hope to post it sometime in the near future. I have so many things I want to post. Several short stories, essays, etc. Did I ask you if you read Jorge Luis Borges. He is an inspiration to me. He gets my brain jumping through hoops. His stories are short. However, he confuses fiction with non-fiction constantly AND ON PURPOSE.

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        • I’m afraid I’ve never been able to get into Borges. He’s just too different for me. My tastes have always run more mainstream sci-fi. I’ve done a little better with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but even there I’ve probably missed a lot.

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    • I’ve noticed a definite trend in blogs I follow recently—people are having a hard time keeping on top of their own, and an even harder time keeping up with the ones they follow. And there’s a recurrent thread of “I’m not writing as much or as well as I should be.” Part of it may be good old spring fever. I keep talking about it, but how can I not when the flowers are blooming, the trees are leafing out, and a green dust of pollen lies on the cars?!

      It’s okay for adults to take some time to play and recharge! Now, if you’ll excuse me while I go do just that…. 🙂

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  6. I guess that is why I write more factual blog posts than creative ones. It is easier to write something I have researched on. The words simply flow. But I guess I am only running away from my dream of becoming a novelist by doing that. 🙂

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    • I’ve spent years writing about facts—archaeological field and lab data, historic records research…. The words flow way too easily in jargon-filled passively constructed sentences. LOL!

      In 2009, the Muse must’ve decided she’d waited long enough.

      A lot of people who start writing creatively as adults wish they’d started sooner. But I think we all start when the time is right for us. The time before then isn’t wasted. Whether we realize it or not, we’re gathering information and ideas for our creative work.

      Hang out with creative bloggers long enough, and you’ll soon be doing more creative posts and starting that novel! 🙂

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  7. Zombies work for me with writer’s block…and standing on one foot and plugging my nose and drinking water helps with hiccups (EVERY TIME; I have no hope of ever breaking the record for hiccups and being on Ripley’s Believe it or Not…or whatever it is). I agree with you that each writer must find their own way through writer’s block (but I’ll stake my life on standing on one foot etc to get rid of hiccups…haha)

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    • My writer friend LOVES zombies. When WB hits, I’ll have to try writing about some interaction between her and her characters—that just might work. In fact, that’s just made me think it could be a fun short story…. Hmm…. Thanks, Char, I think you just gave me a fun idea for a fun break!

      As for hiccups, alas, nothing works twice in a row for me! One time holding my breath will do it. But the next, it might be holding my nose while drinking water.

      Let’s hope none of us ever spends much time facing the Wall!

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      • Amen! And I’d love to read your zombie short story if you do it. Those give me a lot of laughs. I read that with hiccups, it’s all about regaining balance (hmmm?). Hold right leg up, left arm out–hold water with right hand and drink. It works for everyone in my family.

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        • I’ll have to try that next time I get the hiccups.

          And the short is already written. It’s just a fun little piece, but I think it’s got a nice twist. Stay tuned for Tuesday!

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  8. Wonderful, insightful post, JM. I love the comparison to hiccups (although for me I have to swallow three times while holding my breath. Not as easy as it sounds!)

    Anyway, I totally agree with you about how to handle writer’s block. Everyone needs to find her own way out of the sea of molasses (luv that image) just like we all have to find our own way to write a book.

    I do think a lot of it comes down to choices and where we, as authors, decide to take our story. If we make the wrong choice, then we can easily step right into that sea of molasses you talked about. If we don’t fully understand our characters’ motivations then it would make sense that we get stuck over what to write next.

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    • Thanks, Kate! At times when I was writing “Death Out of Time,” I wasn’t sure if that sea of molasses was the characters being difficult or their resistance to my writing of their story. (It went from sci-fi to mystery back to sci-fi if you didn’t see some of my earliest posts.) Since we kept making progress, I decided it was just the way we’d work together. 🙂

      I really wanted to let new writers know (and to remind seasoned writers) that there’s no “one cure fits all” for WB. And it was a way to force me to confront it in regards to the blog. I’m still wondering what to write about for the next post. But I’m not panicking about it anymore. 🙂

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  9. great post. i’m so with you on that. breaks can be a GOOD thing. and sometimes i have to checkout. i even try to have a couple of ‘backup’ posts for days when i need this, so i can post, but maybe not write on that day. doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it was needed and the writing is always better the day after the break. and i love anne lamott. can’t wait to read her new book about her kid having a kid… great stuff, jm, as always.

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    • Lamott’s approach is so gentle—but solid and sly, too. I love the somewhat neurotic humor in Bird by Bird—maybe because I can relate to it!

      When I started blogging, I built up a nice bank of posts. Somehow, I used up all the completed ones! I really need to pull some together for the days when I draw a complete blank. But I’ve got one for tomorrow, and it’s pure fun. 🙂

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