By Katie Brenneman
Writer’s block affects us all.
It comes out of nowhere, and can completely scupper your plans to create productive creative writing.
Even the late, great Joan Didion suffered from writer’s block — she overcame it by putting her work in the freezer.
But most of us won’t relish the idea of cramming our laptops between the frozen peas and ice cream.
Instead, the best way to overcome writer’s block is to search for inspiration. Here are a few of the best sources to get you back into the writerly flow.
Every author who is worth their salt is a voracious reader. That’s because reading is a kind of apprenticeship that takes time and dedication. If you read enough, you will be able to find a sentence or a phrase that inspires you and gets you back into the swing of things. This is common knowledge amongst published authors, who understand that reading isn’t just a flimsy way to justify time away from the keyboard — it is an integral part of the writing process.
Take, for example, Sally Rooney. Rooney is the winner of the Booker Prize and is possibly the best-reviewed contemporary author of the past 5 years. However, when she sat down to write her most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where are You?, she faced so much writer’s block that she felt like “she had never done it before”.
To overcome this, Rooney dedicated herself to writing. The New York Times reports that Rooney “was possibly the most disciplined person [amongst her fellowship class]”, and spent countless hours reading and learning everything from “contemporary Marxist scholarship to basic internet culture.”
The same dedication to reading is evident in writers across multiple generations. Hemingway was notable for his unwavering dedication to reading books, and Virginia Woolf made her debut as an author by publishing reviews on books before she even turned 18.
As a writer who is struggling with writer’s block, return to the pages that inspired you to get into writing in the first place, and you will undoubtedly find the inspiration you need to set pen to paper.
Let’s assume you’ve read so much that your eyes are sore and you simply do not have the energy to turn another page. In this case, you can still outsource inspiration from new media sources like YouTube videos, podcasts, and music.
The best way to use new media is to find speakers or authors who have a similar interest to you. Say, for example, you’re writing an article about AI and machine learning, but you can’t quite catch the right tone to sound authoritative and this is causing your writer’s block. Well, you can quickly search the web to find experts who talk about the subject. This might draw you to a YouTube video like Wired’s interview of Hillary Mason.
You can use the new media content you find to capture the appropriate tone and language that your audience will expect, and can use these insights to get over writer’s block. As you listen to the ideas presented by speakers and experts, you will find yourself being drawn back to your blank page with plenty of fresh, authoritative ideas.
Tweak Your Environment
Some writers can pick up their pen and start writing wherever they are. The rest of us less-fortunate souls need a space that is conducive to the mental labor of writing. This is something echoed by David Lynch, who compares a writer to a carpenter — just as a carpenter needs a well-made woodshop, so, too, do writers need a space that is dedicated to the craft of writing.
Ideally, you’d be able to follow in the footsteps of writers like Hemingway and Anthoney Doerr who can rent offices to work in. But, for most writers, this isn’t possible. Instead, you should focus on decluttering the room you work in by opting for furniture that helps you file away distractions like work documents or devices that can break you out of the writing process.
It sounds odd, but writers almost universally agree that the best way to overcome writer’s block is to just start writing. Before you scroll past this seemingly useless advice, consider the words of Annie Lamott — famous for her incredible output and the book Bird by Bird.
In Bird By Bird, Lamott advocates for an approach to writing that takes the pressure off your shoulders, and allows you to write “sh*tty first drafts”. These first drafts should be little more than brain dumps, intended to get you closer to publishable work.
If you’re halfway through a piece and don’t fancy the idea of writing a bad first draft, you can step away from your project and just start writing anything. These journal-style free writes can be as closely related to your actual project as you like. Again, the goal isn’t to write publishable work, but rather to get you limbered up and start working towards “the good stuff.”
You know how the best ideas always come to you when you’re outside or in the car . . . well you can use that! Taking a walk isn’t just good for your mental and physical health, it can provide a spring of ideas and allow you to clear your head.
You will want to make sure you stay safe around roads and hydrated when walking, as a trip to ER won’t do your writer’s block any favors. Dehydration may also be the root cause of your writer’s block, as a lack of fluid intake can cause fatigue and lightheadedness (by-the-by: a thermos of herbal tea with honey is a great way to up your electrolyte and water intake).
Writer’s block is tough, but it isn’t permanent. You have the tools and willpower to overcome it, and will find that the time you spend reading, journaling, walking, and researching will make you a better author in the long run.
Katie Brenneman is a passionate writer