Monday Motivation: Writer’s block – and how to manage it
Some wear it as a badge of honour because it seems to affirm their identity as writers. For others it is a curse that keeps them from fulfilling the mandate they feel is part of their DNA. And yet others shrug and claim never to have encountered it at all.
The problem is, writer’s block.
You’ve had this wonderful idea for a story that’s been buzzing around in your head for years. You’ve taken reams of notes. You’ve explored the idea – to rapturous applause – with your friends and your partner. You’ve worked out where the story will begin and where it will end.
But then… oh, you realise you need to do a little more research on what actually goes on in morgues (Your hero, after all, is a forensic pathologist.) Perhaps you need to read that latest Kathy Reich, or some of the early Patricia Cornwall.
Well, that takes a few weeks, but it’s all part of your preparation right?
And then you’ve done that, and you’re ready.
Except there’s a problem with your protagonist’s back story. You wonder whether a more significantly traumatic incident shouldn’t have occurred in her teens. Mmm. Need to think about that.
So you set the project aside to ponder. But this is all part of your preparation, right?
At a certain point – maybe weeks, maybe months, maybe even years – on, you acknowledge ruefully that you’ve been procrastinating.
You are, in short, a victim of writer’s block.
I listened to a useful programme on the BBC recently in which a panel of three discussed motivation and procrastination and I realised, although their prime focus was exercise and athletes – one of the members of the panel was Louise Minchin, a member of the UK triathletes team – that what they were saying was equally applicable to writers.
Because chronic procrastination is, in fact, what lies behind writer’s block. It’s what Douglas Adams suffered from. Remember what he said about it? “I just love the sound of deadlines whooshing past.”
So what that panel – consisting of the triathlete and two psychologists – had to say, is of interest to writers. Dr Fuschia Sirois, who’s studied procrastination for years, said that research points to the fact that “procrastination is just poor mood management”.
Which is to say, staring at the screen engenders in you all manner of fears: fear of failure, fear of demonstrating your ineptitude, fear of producing something unworthy of you… And so you “manage” this mood by setting the task aside.
Of course, you rationalise your decision. You persuade yourself that you need to do a little more research; or that you’re just off form at the moment and will be back in gear in a week or two; or that you’re exhausted and will be in much better shape later…
“We tend,” says Sirois, “to think of our future self as being much more capable than we feel now.”
Setting the task aside brings momentary relief. But it’s an unhealthy situation, and before long you start to berate yourself. Which is precisely the worst thing you can do. You’re now piling guilt and remorse on top of all those fears.
No wonder Adams took rueful solace in celebrating those deadlines whooshing past.
So what can you do about it? Improve your mood management, of course. Instead of castigating yourself for not writing, apply a little compassion and forgiveness. Instead of trying to force yourself to write, employ a couple of simple strategies, like these:
Make it easier to write. Buy yourself a writing programme like Scrivener. Create a comfortable and intimate space for writing with ready access to tea, coffee or your favourite beverages. (William Styron favoured a glass of whiskey first thing in the morning, but I’m not advocating that.)
If you’re exhausted at the end of the day, then don’t try to write then. Set your alarm a little earlier in the morning and write while the dew is on the grass.
Don’t give yourself unreal targets. In fact, don’t give yourself targets at all: so many words a day, so many chapters a month. Remind yourself that you started writing because you loved it. Try to recapture that blithe assurance. Have fun. (“The gold standard motivation is doing things for fun,” said Ian Taylor, the sports psychologist on the panel, “for the love of it.”)
Look for the positive not so much in the prospect of the bestseller that’ll result from your work, but from the process of writing it. Remind yourself that writing gives you fresh insights into your own psychology. Remember the joy that crafting a fine sentence can give you. Focus on the positives.
And write happily,
P.S. Our next free webinar deals with writer’s block and how to manage it. So join us for an hour between six and seven in the evening (South African time – between five and six UK time) on August 13 for an in-depth discussion of the problem and its solutions.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Beware the narrator who knows too much‘
Online Creative Writing Course: Join today!
Cape Town Creative Saturday: 3 August
Venice Writing retreat: 28 August to 4 September and/or 5 to 12 September.