Six Writers on How They Tackle Writer’s Block

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Rumaan Alam
Writer’s block is a fiction. That’s not to say I always feel like writing, or that I have some big idea percolating. I don’t know if you can force out good sentences or great ideas, but that doesn’t mean you cannot write. You can always write garbage; goodness knows, I write plenty of that. Sure, there are days I don’t feel like looking at my computer or picking up a pencil. Such days, I read; reading is inextricably linked with writing, so you can grade yourself on a curve and say that counts. And there are days I can’t even read—I have a day job, I have a family, I have a life, like anyone. But you never stop thinking, and thinking is a part of writing too. I’ll probably develop a case now that I’m saying this on the record but writer’s block is a delicious myth and nothing more.

Leslie Jamison
Back in my youth, I tackled writers’ block in the time-honored ways: binge-drinking and massive amounts of baking. I did so much baking during my MFA days, in fact (largely chocolate chip potato chip cookies, banana cream pies, and Jell-O shots, which is baking, right?) that I actually developed a word for it: procrastibaking. These days I smile fondly when I meet a fellow procrastibaker in the wild: a student who *always* has baked goods to share. Actually, what do I know? Maybe they are hitting every deadline *and* baking up a storm.

These days, I tend to procrastinate in more slyly self-thwarting ways: by taking on even more assignments and projects to distract me from the ones I’m having trouble finishing. I wouldn’t recommend this method. The math doesn’t add up!

Joseph O’Neill
Some writers are highly, almost compulsively industrious. They feel uneasy, guilty, even unwell, if they have not have written, even for a day. I’m the opposite. I begin to feel uneasy, guilty, even unwell, after I’ve spent a few minutes writing. So writer’s block, for me, isn’t an aberration—the act of writing is aberrant. And also, in some way, unwholesome. The whole business of introspection and language-management, of so-called insight and storytelling, of finding elevated verbal counterparts for elevated thoughts and ideas, is very often nauseating. So my default setting is not to write, and I don’t feel too bad about it because so many great books have been written that are in dire want of readers, and it would be basically superfluous to generate another mass of text in which some notional human’s experience has been cooked up for the millionth time, however artfully.

Or at least that’s how I think when I’m not writing, or writing very little, which is most of the time. Then one morning I feel differently, usually because I’m physically displaced from my regular surroundings and doings, and I have the time and space to wander free from the things that usually dominate my consciousness—family, teaching, catastrophic world affairs, sports. A detail, usually comic in nature, comes to mind, and by a somewhat automatic process finds its way onto a page: suddenly one is sitting down, typing stuff. As you can see, I don’t strongly identify with this person who produces “my” writing. That person is the writer. I would be the block.

George Saunders
I like David Foster Wallace’s notion that writer’s block is always a function of the writer having set a too-high bar for herself. You know: you type a line, it fails to meet the “masterpiece standard,” you delete it in shame, type another line, delete it—soon the hours have flown by and you are a failure sitting in front of a blank screen. The antidote, for me, has been getting comfortable with my own revision process—seeing those bad first lines as just a starting place. If you know the path you’ll take from bad to better to good, you don’t get so dismayed by the initial mess.

So: writing is of you, but it’s not YOU. There’s this eternal struggle between two viewpoints: 1) good writing is divine and comes in one felt swoop, vs: 2) good writing evolves, through revision, and is not a process of sudden, inspired, irrevocable statement but of incremental/iterative exploration. I prefer and endorse the second viewpoint and actually find it really exciting, this notion that we find out what we think by trying (ineptly at first) to write it. And this happens via the repetitive application of our taste in thousands of accretive micro-decisions.

Qian Julie Wang
New York City is the closest thing I have to a muse. Whenever I face writer’s block, I turn to the city for inspiration—by walking, running, or yes, taking the subway through it. My favorite is running across the Brooklyn Bridge, then along Broadway up to Columbus Circle and back. Whether I’m running, walking, or taking the train, what I love most is observing the interaction and conversation between the people all around me. Humans are fascinating, and none are more fascinating than New Yorkers. We are so different, yet very much the same. Writer’s block rarely survives such an outing—indeed I often start writing on the subway ride home—because the human behavior around me often inspires a new idea, character development, or plot point.

Ruth Ozeki
I keep a process journal. It’s a Word document on my computer that I’ve been adding to since 1996, when I wrote my first novel. My process journal is a place where I can hang out, experiment, and write informally about writing. It’s like a friend, someone I can talk to about any aspect of my writing, who shares my interests and tastes in fiction, who is unfailingly supportive, who never gets bored listening to me talk about my writing obsession, and who is committed to standing by me for the rest of my writing life.

I talk to my process journal and ask it questions. Somehow, the act of formulating and asking questions seems to generate answers, and when they come, I write them down. I give myself assignments and deadlines. I make lists and analyze narrative problems I’m trying to solve. I make To Do lists of things I need to research. I make notes about whatever I’m reading or watching and jot down things I want to use or steal. I track my progress, log the number of hours or words or pages I’ve written. I brag, complain, whine, worry, catalogue my biggest fears and smallest triumphs.

I find it very useful to write in my process journal when I first sit down at my computer. Then, when I finish writing for the day, I’ll often make notes about what I’ve written, with questions that I want to continue to think about, and a To Do list for the next day. When I sit down to write the next morning, I open my journal and see where I’ve left off and where I need to start. This way I rarely get stuck facing a blank page with no idea where to go. (Well, actually that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I do get stuck, but when I do, I tell my journal about my stuckness, and that usually helps me get past it.) It often surprises me how wise my journal is—so much smarter than I am.

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