by Annette Lyon
I know of writers who claim there is no such thing as writer's block. In a sense, that's true. No matter what the situation, you can sit down, put your hands on the keyboard, and plunk out some words.
But will they be any good?
I've also heard people say that claiming you have writer's block is akin to a plumber saying he's got plumber's block.
To me, that comparison is ridiculous, because a plumber doesn't have to come up with a fresh, new way of fixing a pipe every time. He's got the exact same wrenches and other tools, and a pretty clear-cut list of leaks, clogs, and other issues he'll likely need to fix on any given day.
He doesn't need to find a unique voice, a fresh metaphor, a brand new way to plot a wrench, for Pete's sake. For that matter, if he's good at what he does, he can probably do most of his work without giving it too much thought. He might enjoy a periodic challenge because it's a change in his daily routine.
On the flip side, writers must come up with something new and different each time we sit down. Using the same proverbial wrench every day would be boring or, worse, cliche.
Sure, we can force ourselves to show up at the keyboard, but frankly, sometimes, showing up isn't the best thing to do. Sometimes our creative side needs a break to figure out where we've gone wrong, where to head next, what our character is trying to accomplish, where the plot has gone off into a ditch, what's missing.
And that means walking away from the keyboard.
Paraphrasing an interview I recently read with Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler's Wife), writers can often solve problems by coming at them sideways, while working on something else creative. She paints and lets her mind drift. She doesn't force herself to think about her characters or story, but sometimes her mind goes there, and her characters decide to come slip into her mind, showing up with their own answers.
I've found the same thing happening when I let go and stop trying to chase the answers down. The more I try to force the story or the characters to face me head-on, they more they elude me just as I'm about to grab hold of them.
But if let them roam free and I do something else with my mind, letting them come to me, I find that eventually, they will.
For me, sometimes that means setting up my sewing machine and tackling the giant pile of mending my children's clothing. Other times it might be cleaning out a closet or pulling out my knitting needles for a new project.
Maybe I'll go on a walk several days in a row to let my brain think all the messy thoughts it wants to and eventually "unkink" and drift.
Often I find answers while driving, but only if I'm alone in the car and I turn off the radio and drive in silence.
In the summers, weeding a garden or mowing a lawn can do the same thing. Or scrubbing a kitchen floor. In the winter, try shoveling snow.
Do the dishes. Hand-washing is particularly effective for overcoming blocks. So is folding laundry.
I know that it's a pain in some ways that so many of these techniques are chores. (Darn it.) But the reality is that they work. You accomplish something without using a lot of mental energy.
That's the key, because you trick your mind: it knows it's getting something valuable done, yet it's not under pressure to be productive by itself, to be "on" and creative.
Therefore, as you work, your mind gives itself permission to play . . . and a tiny part of it drifts (sometimes you aren't even aware that your mind is working) . . . and then it becomes creative (again, you may not even know it) . . . and then WHAM! the answers come.
Sometimes all it takes is a couple of hours of a different activity. Sometimes it's a few days or even a week or two. But it works.
I'm always amazed when the answers show up. They're clear. They're vivid. They sparkle. And they're always something so much better than I could have come up with on my own by forcing my behind to stay in the chair and by pounding out my word count goal for the day.
That's not to say that writing goals don't have their place; they're very effective, and I use them regularly when drafting. But when occasional blocks smack you in the face, pause and take stock.
If you think it's time, step away from the manuscript. Don't feel guilty about doing so.
Wait for the answers to come while you darn a sock or bake a cake.
(If it's chocolate, save some for me.)