I’ve noticed that I’ve been spending a lot of time blocked on various projects, whether drafting, editing, or outlining. I either am unable to continue moving forward or I find myself progressing at a snail’s pace, each beat feeling like wrenching out a tiger’s molar. While this is almost surely in part due to my ongoing recovery from a month-long bout with gastroenteritis (just ask, I will absolutely tell you all about the frequency, consistency, and color of my bowel movements), it’s also in part due to the world going to hell in a handbasket around us and good old-fashioned writer’s block.
Because I generally like tigers (and would prefer that they not eat me), and because I also generally like progress, I’ve had to hash out a few different ways of wrangling with that thwarted momentum. I figured I may as well share what I’ve found.
For reference, the first two methods are probably not best for those on a tight deadline, though they may be viable as brief, desperate recourses in such circumstances. The third may be worthwhile to writers to writers, deadline or no. The last three (which will be covered in a future post, because I’m a monster) are certainly better suited to writers who need to have their shit done fuckin’ yesterday, or sooner.
So, without further ado…
I’ve come across articles and essays that assert that there is no such thing as writer’s block. That it’s an excuse employed by writers that are too lazy or who are not dedicated enough to push forward through the rough patches. These articles/essays typically state that anyone who suffers from writer’s block is a sort of fair-weather friend to their writing—they stick around when things are going well, when the words are spilling from the pen as pronounced by their muse, trippingly on the tongue. Once the words grind to a halt, writers who bemoan this fictitous “writer’s block” are just flaccid wimps who are unable to push through the hard times when inspiration isn’t flowing like milk and honey.
I think the people who write these articles are idiots—well-meaning idiots, but idiots regardless. I believe writer’s block exists for a reason; the writer in your subconscious is always smarter than you are, and writer’s block is how that weird little ego-imp tells you that you done fucked something up, or maybe just that you’ve run out of creative juices for this particular project. It happens, and then you need to recharge.
If you done fucked up, sometimes it’s not immediately apparent what you done fucked up. So, if time permits, one of the best things to do is to get some distance. It’s hard to get a bird’s-eye view of what went wrong when you’re in the trenches wrestling that paragraph-Hun who refuses to die no matter how many times you bayonet him in the face (probably because they’re an undead steam-powered abomination).
If the alternative is a lack of creative juice, you need to refuel. Watch some TV, read some books, go to a movie, play some video games, ruin a cabbage-monger’s life in a tabletop RPG.
The most important thing is that, while you’re away, you still need to be cranking on that project in the back of your brain. You need to prod your subconscious every once in a while to see if it has anything helpful to offer. Disengaging isn’t going to miraculously fix what ails your project—you do still have to work at it.
And one good way to free up your subconscious and engage your conscious brain is to
Try Something New
I’m at a dead stop with my current novel draft, and I have some vague idea why, but it’s not fully formed yet. So, to occupy my time in the spirit of the first suggestion I offered, I stepped away and started soaking up media.
In particular, I began rewatching the Game Grumps playthrough of Bloodborne for I think the fourth time? I don’t know, I have a problem.
Anyway, I’ve always been enchanted by Bloodborne, even though I would never actually being able to play it in real life because I SUCK at video games. It’s the surreal but poetic violence, the cosmic horror reveal late in the game, the running themes of blood and secrets and dreams and childbirth and tragedy, it’s all so fucking haunting.
And I realized that I wanted to write something like it. The initial conception was something like my Weird stories (quick reminder that, if you haven’t picked it up, Love and Other Impossible Things, the first installation of the Weird, is still totally on Amazon and you can view/buy it with that link I just gave you and if you have Kindle Unlimited you can read it for free), where the pieces would manifest as short collections that each gave a glimpse into a larger, more bizarre world.
The problem was how I would make it distinct from the Weird. I didn’t want it to just be the Weird but with more blood and violence and darkness. I wanted it to be its own beast. I considered using my Rory’s Story Cubes (which I’ve discussed previously), but that particular brand of strange inspiration is uniquely suited to the Weird. That increased the risk of overlap.
Which is when I decided to revisit something that I’ve been interested in for a long time: tarot. A good tarot deck is fully illustrated in the spirit of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck from the early twentieth century, even the pip (number) cards. Which means a whole smorgasbord of imagery to choose from PLUS the established interpretations of the cards to play with.
The two decks I own, themed around dragons and goddesses respectively, wouldn’t quite do the trick for this venture. So, as a stopgap, I downloaded a tarot app that used the RWS deck and got to work.
Using the cards pictured above as a starting point, with their imagery and corresponding meanings, I cranked out a 4k-word short tentatively titled “The Starry Lake” over a weekend. It turned out to be so much fun that I purchased a physical RWS deck and fully intend to use it to map out further forays into that story’s universe.
So, even as I’ve been at a standstill with my current novel draft, I’ve still been forging forward creating new stuff that’s in a completely different vein. And that’s good, too. Writers are like sharks, except instead of swimming they gotta keep writing to stay alive. Take the forward momentum wherever you can find it.
Last, but not least, the world is a great big threepenny shitshow right now. You gotta have compassion for those suffering from natural disasters, you gotta be angry over the abject fuckery being pulled on the reg by the current US administration. But all of that can cinch off your creative channels, like a kind of emotional tubal ligation.
Sometimes, if you are able to (and I know that it’s an indicator of a certain level of privilege to be able to do this—some folks simply can’t afford to not pay attention, and I respect that), the best thing to do is unplug. Let your brain cleanse itself of the world-garbage. Know that the best thing you can do for the universe as a writer is to just do your thing (a subject handled much more eloquently by Michael J. Martinez in his guest post on Chonk Wurndig’s blog).
Once you’ve unplugged, putting words to paper or word processor will almost always help relieve the stress, anxiety, and heartache of the outside world.
Next week I’ll offer up some other jams I’ve learned which might be more helpful for folks who need immediate solutions to their blockage. Why is that going to be the second post in this series? Because I’m the literal worst at planning, that’s why. There’s a reason my outlines are twenty to fifty pages long nowadays. If I don’t think about it before I start writing, shit gets entirely out of control.
So how about you guys? Anybody have any methods they use to push past the doldrums of wordsmithing? What do you do when you get stuck? Let me know in the comments!