By Magdalena Ball
You’ve got writer’s block? So did I, for more than five years. I had plenty of grand ideas about what I wanted to write —the literary masterpieces which would stun the critics, the lofty poetry. With idols and role models like Joyce, Woolf, Yeats and Faulker, it isn’t surprising that my meager efforts seemed hopelessly trite and mundane. We live in a world of instant gratification, but quality takes time, hard work and many drafts. No one simply brings forth genius in automatic and effortless writing.
The cure for my block was a simple one, and perhaps obvious too, but it took me a lot of lost writing time to work it out. Germination? The gaining of maturity and perspective? Nonsense — just lost time. The one and only way to beat writer’s block is to write. It doesn’t much matter what it is. Writing a full length novel is perhaps the hardest, most structurally and emotionally challenging type of writing you can do, so if you are having trouble starting, try something quicker and easier to get your work moving, and don’t worry if it isn’t an epic full of depth and pith. That will come, but only with lots of rework. In the meantime, here are a few ideas to get you through the block:
- Read the newspaper and pick a real life story that captures your imagination. Turn it into a fictional one.
- Keep a dream journal. The very process of translating those vague bits of imagery that make up a dream is the stuff of fiction writing. Pick any dream theme that interests you and turn it into a full blown story.
- Pick a period of your life — any period. The year when you stopped believing in fairies, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, your first love (and breakup), the loss of a pet, childbirth — anything powerful, and write it out. Have fun and change the ending to suit your story better — improve the characters, make that boyfriend suffer as you leave him instead of the other way around. This is not only cathartic, it can make for very good writing as you recall those deep sensory impressions — the ring of truth will increase your impact.
- Pick an era or historical subject that interests you and research it like mad. Then write up a biography, historical paper or fictionalized story based on the original. Some of the best examples of fictionalized stories based on real characters include Atwood’s Alias Grace or Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. There are plenty of untapped famous characters whose lives make for excellent material.
- Write a pastiche of your favorite author. Try stream of consciousness, a sonnet, a short drama — anything you fancy. Use it as a springboard for whatever theme you want to explore. Try varying the form — do a sonnet and then turn it into flash fiction.
- Change tack. If you’re blocked on your normal style of fiction, try writing in a different genre. Give horror, romance, science fiction, flash fiction, a children’s story (if you have children, try targeting their age group — you will have a good understanding of what will and won’t work) or fantasy a try. While this type of writing may not be your cup of tea, it can be quite liberating to write to a formula and you may produce something quite unusual by working across your normal genre.
- Try nonfiction. Write a book review, a piece on your last holiday, advice for saving money, for raising a child, for throwing a birthday party, gardening, make up a recipe — anything! There are plenty of markets for this kind of work and it can be rejuvenating to produce a finished piece.
- Join a writing group. This is not for everyone, but if you are a socially inclined person, the pressure of having to produce something combined with the stimulation of being able to obtain criticism and support immediately could be just the sort of thing you need. There is probably a local group in your area which would involve meeting up in a specific location with other like minded writers, and many of these are supported by a wider network. The camaraderie, assignments, local submission information and support is worth the trouble to get to one of these groups. You could also join or set up an online group.
- Take an on-line course. This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.
- Buy a book filled with inspiration.There are many on the market. One of my favorites is Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days, which gives you a mini-assignment for every day of the year and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Any writing book will provide inspiration, though. Another favorite, which is a ‘must have’ for any writer is your local Writer’s Marketplace. This has different names in different countries, but it is an invaluable list of markets, and very thorough. Just reading the book will inspire you to produce material for submission. Just read through its pages and stick a Post-it note on any of the markets you are interested in. Then write for them! One acceptance will generally pay for the cost of the book, so it is a very worthwhile investment. In the US you can try the Writers Market published by Writer’s Digest Books. For other countries, just do a search at your favorite search engine on “Writer’s Market” + the country you live in and you should get a decent list of publications. The most current edition is also usually available at your local library if you want to just browse and say, choose a market a month to target.
- The secret is that writing begets writing. Your first efforts may well be trite, but the more you write the better you will get and the easier the words will flow. Don’t ever use “lack of time” or “lack of inspiration” as an excuse. Inspiration comes out of the writing process — not before it, and time is an illusion. No one ever has time. Make time. You don’t need much as long as you are consistent and regular. Commit to writing something, anything, every day. If you wrote a page a day, you’d have a fat novel by the end of a year, a full length short story every month, or 2 articles a week. Few authors produce more than this. Even a half hour a day is worth committing to. Don’t make the mistake I did. Write through the insecurity, the uncertainty and self-doubt and your block will most certainly disappear. Don’t expect immediate perfection, either. Ulysses took James Joyce 10 years to write. If you visit the archives containing his handwritten drafts, you’ll see that the first jottings were nothing like the finished product. The main thing is to keep writing. Your own masterpiece is just around the corner.
Magdalena Ball is Editor of The Compulsive Reader and is the author of The Literary Lunch: Recipes for a Hungry Mind, and The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications. Magdalena Ball also has a website, and blogs.