To a writer the world is full of possible stories. One conversation could spark an idea for a novel. Or a dream could give us the entire plot of a short story. We don’t need to go far when our minds are alive with thought. It’s when nothing is going on in our heads we run into difficulty.

When one of us announces a search for inspiration, what he or she actually means is, “I have writer’s block and I’m not admitting it”.

Oscar Wilde didn’t believe the concept to be unique to writers, just, “All writing is difficult”. Terry Brooks swears it doesn’t exist so long as you have a strong enough outline. But what if it is the outline giving you trouble? The blank mind exists. The fault lies in believing it is a singular thing, when the freeze can usually be attributed to three possibilities:

1) Procrastination
2) Burnout
3)Truly being “stuck”.

Lets handle them in such an order.

Bum in chair syndrome
There is a legend about Mark Twain suggesting he only wrote when financially desperate. And he needed to lock himself in a room for two weeks with something stiff to drink to actually finish something. Not a technique I would advise, but one I can sympathize with.

It’s a basic concept, you are not going to get very far if you don’t actually sit down and do it. But writers are famous for struggling with an obsession we don’t actually like. Well we do. Sort of. When it works. But when it doesn’t, the blank mind can be excruciating.

Of the theories I’ve heard as to why writers have a mild (or sometimes strong) aversion to writing, the one I believe to be most compelling is because writing is extremely hard. A minor fact non scribblers often don’t quite understand.

Anyone can string a sentence together. Not just anyone can make it worth reading. The permanency of words is terrifying, the lure of perfection impossible to resist, and the near monk-like meditative concentration required to create is exhausting. At it’s worst, writing sucks.

Sometimes all we need is a ritual or touch of mental deception to get us going; a cup of tea and a promise you can stop in an hour if nothing is happening. It works for a great deal of writers. Unfortunately I am not among them.

My usual reason for sitting in front of the computer is because I become unbearable to live with if I am not writing. But my mood is worse when my mind is failing to produce, worse still when I’m failing to produce and my attempt is interrupted. I need the ultimate solution. I’m getting to that.

This has gotten boring.”
Truly burnout is your brain’s way of screaming it needs to do something else, anything. So long as it’s not the project you are working on.

Writers do not live romantic lives in Tuscan villas. We dig through the dirt and chaos of the world to produce something meaningful. It’s a struggle and it’s stressful. Sometimes we really do need a break.

Once you can tell the difference between procrastination and being overworked and decided the problem is the latter, put your book away and do something else, even if it’s simply writing a side project. Our minds must be fresh and clear, exhaustion is a hinderance not a sign of productivity.

Doh! I knew that
The blank page can torment a writer with unreachable potential if we simply can’t produce anything original. There is adventure in telling a story, but there is drudgery also.

Following Anne Lamott’s advice to just let your ideas spill onto the page is a great and relatively fun way to begin a project. It’s exhilarating to spit out hundreds of pages of scene sketches, snippets of dialogue, and rough chapters. “Shitty first draft here I come!”

But at some point it will need to start to make sense. Back to the outline. Back to nurturing a story arc and rich characters with a tendency to tell you off. Back to being very deliberate about what you write and when. And sometimes that can get boring.

Boredom is an anathema to art, but sadly it is possible for the fire in your mind to fizzle when you need it most. Sometimes it’s caused by burnout. (See above.) Most times it’s caused by nagging plot holes which will plague your subconscious until you do something about it.

Simply put. You can not continue until you have solved your problem. And not doing anything but bang your head against your wall leaves long hours for procrastination and exhaustion to sneak in. Snooze.

Writer’s Block is excruciatingly dull to experience. But it can be useful. Your brain is communicating with you. Somewhere inside you is the knowledge you hit a fork and went the wrong way. If you look at the problem slightly sideways it is actually a positive state to have reached. You know what you have is not good enough. It’s what’s to do about it which is the problem.

Obviously if you knew which part wasn’t working you would find a way to fix it. But the complicated process of reasoning out the mystery of a story is not so clear. Writing comes from within, and sometimes our subconscious is our worst enemy, guarding the gates of an idea until you finally extract from it the plot point you are looking for. Just how are we to combat such a devious enemy?

How do you tease ideas from your inner self so your waking mind has half a chance of putting it into words?


Do something else.

I’m not kidding.

Research something, learn something, engage your mind in something different. Watch a movie with a similar theme, or a fight scene you want to analyze. Explore a documentary about the time period your novel is set in. Write a short story about what your characters talked about at breakfast. Read a book. Read a book on writing. Read the news. Study something unrelated but interesting. As long as your mind is active the potential for inspiration is there.

The world really is full of possibilities.

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