Hanna: Writer’s Block and How to Knock It

It’s 12:48am. The dim glow of your stringed Christmas lights is the only sign of brightness. You hear a car drive down the street. It’s the first you’ve heard in hours. You focus on it, wondering. Where is it going? Why so late? Who is inside?

You realize your mind has drifted again and you jolt back to your computer. A Word Document with one scrawny paragraph stares back. The pulsing cursor flashes on and off, on and off, as if to say, “Yeah? Whaddaya got for me, hm?” Apparently, the answer is nothing.

We call this “Writer’s Block.” We hate Writer’s Block. As a college student, little can be more frustrating than an inability to pump out what seems to be, in a given moment, the most important project in all the land. Over my three and a half years as a Film and TV student, Writer’s Block and I have been acquainted many times. We’re buds, in an annoying sibling sort of way, with Writer’s Block always butting in and looming over my every move right when I wish it wouldn’t. Luckily, through pestering my professors and fellow aspiring creators, I’ve learned a few good ways to beat the beast.

1) The butt-in-chair technique

This technique is unfortunately more difficult when you are in a time crunch, a state in which most students tend to be. Nevertheless, it was suggested to me freshman year by Professor Chelsey Philpot, and when trying to knock something out, it tends to work.

I often grow fearful of stories when they turn into living organisms. Most recently I have been writing a pilot for a course, appropriately titled “Writing the Pilot,” and after completing three fourths of my draft, I stopped. The Celtx writing software tab stayed open but untouched on my computer. The characters poked at my brain, whispering, “Finish our story! Finish our story!” and I’d cover them through suddenly remembering that, “OMG, I need to get a head start on reading due next Thursday!” The story begged for an ending, but I would not go near it.

It had turned into a terrifying monster. Not only did it have a life of its own, but I just couldn’t face it. I had heard about writers meeting this obstacle: pushing out a piece like it was a child of their own and then watching it grow into a completely different species, out of their control. Here I was, faced with a normal yet horrifying form of Writer’s Block (I must admit, it did make me feel like a real troubled writer, biting my fountain pen as I sat with a pipe and a sweater vest in Maine) but I avoided the confrontation at all costs.

Finally, I accepted that the story must go on. I was in the unique position of receiving a time-sensitive grade for my work, and thus I had to pull it together.

I remembered the butt-in-chair technique: find a spot, sit in a chair, and don’t you dare get up until it’s done. Sounds cruel, doesn’t it? Don’t get up for a run to Starbucks. Don’t get up to answer the phone. “Can’t I go to the bathroom?” No, of course not! Ok, maybe, but only in dire circumstances and if you promise to brainstorm your next line of dialogue the whole time.

In sitting and forcing focus, the story reached its end, but this technique took more willpower than I’d care to admit. Still, at times of fear, remember that the story will flesh out in its entirety. Sometimes all it needs is a push from you.

2. Try free-writing. 

This can be applied two ways. If you are working on a project you simply cannot crack, this may help to get ideas flowing. Spend about fifteen minutes writing whatever comes to mind. Don’t worry about punctuation. Don’t worry about whether or not you make sense. Just get that pen gliding or those fingers taping. Write as quickly as you think. What you write may have no relation to your project; sometimes jumping to another creative outlet helps the original. On the other hand, you may jot down the problems you are having with your project and write every idea in your head, both the bad and, hopefully, the eventual good.

Free-writing can also be used as a preventative strategy against the Writer’s Block plague. By writing freely for a little every day, you begin to get more comfortable when you are working on something specific. For me, I don’t restrict myself to one type of free-writing. I try poetry, journaling, stories, and whatever else comes to mind. The most important part is that I only write for me. I’m not weighed down by the pressure of impressing a professor, getting published, or making my friends say, “Wow, you might amount to something!” I write to write, and as good old Malcolm Gladwell told us, you need 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert! Free-writing gets you closer to that, by about fifteen minutes a day.

3. Exercise

Whenever I am cranky my mother tells me to go for a run. It drives me nuts. Sorry if this suggestion does the same for you.

Sometimes you find yourself staring at the screen, distraction-free, focus centered, but nothing comes out. Every idea, every word, feels mechanic. You question why you’re even in this class or this business in the first place. Where did all your ideas go?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know they may blossom again after your blood gets flowing. Take the twenty minutes you would otherwise spend staring at your screen to go on a walk, a jog, or a bike ride. I’m a sucker for this whimsical female-centric workout website , full of fast but fun exercise videos led by two bombshell beauties whose abs will remind you why you’re a writer and not a fitness instructor (if you are both, I salute you).  Just do something to get your energy up and your mind clear, then bring yourself right back to your chair (maybe shower first) and refer to Tip #1.

4. Reread. 

If the problem is simply that the story seems to hit a dead end, head back up to page one. Especially with dialogue, I find that reading through everything out loud reignites the flow. I always end up reaching the point at which I left and saying another line that fits perfectly after the last. When you look at your work like a whole conversation, or a whole package, or a whole whatever it is that you’re writing, it actually gets easier to see its path.

In addition, this will often help you find other problems, or (gasp!) solutions. Whenever a scene or section is stumped, reflecting on the structure of the scene along with technical elements of writing may help you fix what you initially saw as a huge, looming obstacle.

When you don’t see a road in front of you, look back. I should put that on a bumper sticker.

5. Self Control

Once my boyfriend asked me, “Do you have self control?”

“Ex-cuse me?” I shot him a vicious glare. How could he ask such a rude and patronizing question? What had I done to deserve any hint of an accusation that I did not? Did he really have so little respect for me that he would unabashedly suggest that I-

“I mean the app! Oh my god, no, I meant the app called ‘SelfControl!’”

Crisis averted.

Ever since I have depended on the SelfControl app to keep me from my usual social-media-internet-black-hole tendencies. When you download the app, you write a list of all the websites you find distracting. Be honest with this list. Don’t try to tell yourself that you absolutely need Pinterest for your Graphic Design class.

Once activated, the app disables the sites you listed for the amount of time you set. Paper due tomorrow at 11am? I set SelfControl until 11:15. It is a great way to keep distractions away and keep your focus on the work.

My professor, Kam Miller, recently reminded me that our generation is psychologically triggered by the ding of a Facebook notification. It’s not our fault. It’s how we’re wired. The only control we have is to distance ourselves from those distractions when necessary. Try to do that. It makes a bigger difference fighting Writer’s Block than you might think.

6. Go to bed. 

Yeah, when it hits that hour, you’re not going to be happy with anything you manage to get down. It may not even come out in English.  Exhaustion will stunt your mind and it is important to know when to throw in the towel. That being said, there are two additional benefits to this aside from keeping yourself from morphing into a zombie.

Firstly, you’ll most likely fall asleep thinking about the project. Our subconscious minds are always solving problems, and it might just do so as you’re dreaming of the masterpiece you hope to complete. When you wake up, you may have a new outlook on the work that offers some pleasant surprises.

The second benefit is that you may have to wake up earlier than you planned to get it done on time. If you’re writing at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning, you will be shocked at the way your mind starts working. When you first wake up, your brain remains in the mode during which you dream, lending a hand to your creative juices and sometimes helping you get passed what you couldn’t do a day before. If you’re anything like me, that early hour seems daunting, but it is often the environment you need to get stuff going. Plus, you get a pretty sunrise! Writers love describing sunrises! Do that.

Well, my fellow writer, in whatever capacity you identify with that title, my thoughts are with you. Stick your butt in a chair if you’re scared to finish a project and turn off all distractions. If the juices still don’t flow, look back over the work, take fifteen minutes to free-write, go for a run or go the heck to sleep. Most importantly, remember that writing is a way to channel yourself, and that can never be anything but positive. Value your being and your mind enough to treat it to the joy of creation – that mindset makes the challenges all the more worth it.

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