Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Defeating the Blank Faced Monster


Writer’s block – surely a writer’s worst nightmare.

The blank piece of paper or the white, spotless screen stares back at you, your fingers are poised, you stare and the white expanse mocks you as your mind is as blank as the screen. Too often I find myself researching a topic meticulously, mulling over the issues and teasing out its implications while constantly putting off the actual writing process. The blank page seems to create its own inertia. And sometimes the ideas just freeze.

Is there any writer that hasn't experienced this? At least once?

My most vivid memory of writer’s block was in the middle of Old Testament exam at Bible College. It had been a stressful night with little sleep due to an unexpected midnight clash with someone close and dear to me. Not now, I thought, I have an exam tomorrow. During perusal time, I marked the questions I thought I had prepared the best, jotting down some ideas and then on the first question I wrote too much – I knew I was spending too much time, but I kept on writing twice as long as I should. When I came to the second question my mind went blank though I knew the answer well. No matter how much I bludgeoned, pleaded with it, my brain could come up with nothing, zero, zip. The page stared back at me smugly and I began to panic. I sent up a quick arrow prayer, took some deep breaths and swept that question aside and went on to the next. Suddenly the ideas began to flow again and the white emptiness was filled with my increasingly crazy handwriting.

Writer’s block – I confess that up until 4 hours ago that was not what I was going to write about. From the time I wrote Saints, Seekers and Sleepers in December last year, I fully intended to write a follow on piece. I have done some research, made some notes, mulled over ideas. I had a good idea and basic outline of what I wanted to write – but travel, family commitments, study deadlines etc has made this a busy couple of months. Last week I submitted my 3000 word major assignment (On Slaying Education Dragons) for the unit I’m studying (phew) which left the weekly post due on Tuesday and this blog, due today. I finished the post on Monday with time to spare, ready to tackle the blog on Tuesday – only to wake up with a grade 8 migraine which was still pounding my head and nauseating me this morning. The pain has begun to subside this evening but my brain could not, would not think. As I tried to pull my thoughts together, I prayed– Lord, please give me the words to type, the ideas to explore – as I metaphorically speaking stared at a mind numbing blank page. Writer’s Block. 

Why not write on Writer’s block?

So, God willing, I will write my follow-on piece – but maybe in April when, hopefully, my mind is less in a migrainous hang-over and in the meantime I have a few thoughts on what do when writer’s block or its ugly twin, procrastination (aided and abetted by Facebook) rears its sardonic head and stares you in the face. And I would love to hear of your strategies too of how you deal with this blank faced monster.

Here are some of the strategies I find helpful:
  • Taking time to pray, giving the idea or concept to God, asking for inspiration and direction.
  • Writing an outline with main topics and sub points and breaking down the task into smaller units – concentrating on a smaller achievable goal one step at a time.
  •  Starting to write without worrying too much what comes out or about getting a perfect introductory sentence or about being precisely on topic.  I can go back and review, fine tune and trim later but I can’t edit a blank page.
  • It may help me to stretch, take a break, relax, and go for a walk or to play some upbeat music. 
  • Do a short warm up writing exercise or (with my novels or longer pieces) reread what I have already written.
  • If one section is giving me writers block, I can move to another section and come back to the one giving trouble later. (Hint – that’s what I’m doing at the moment.)
  • Having a dedicated space to write in – I often write best when I get away from the house – with all the chores staring at me – and find a spot in cafe or library.
  •  Writing regularly and often.
  •  Nip the negative self-talk in the bud – and believe that I can do it.


So here we are – with a page nicely filled. Just as with my Old Testament exam – I didn’t get the best mark I’ve ever earned, but I more than passed. And this may not be the most brilliant of posts but I have a hunch it is one that will resonate with many of you. With some divine nudging and a little inspiration the writing paralysis is overcome and Writer’s Block slinks away defeated.

What about you – what works best for you?

Jeanette O'Hagan
Lives in Brisbane with her family, writes fantasy, blogs and other things.


18 comments:

  1. When this thing (writer's block) hits me, I just shut down everything and start all over again the next day :-)

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    1. Taking a break certainly can work especially when deadlines aren't looming. Thanks for your comment Haddock :)

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  2. Wonderful post. Your list covers most of my own techniques. Most of the time, a little break with my tarot cards can get me out of the slump I call writer's block. But if I'm really, really down and out a little nap can recharge my battery and get me back in the game.

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    1. Thanks Cher - I like your idea of taking a power nap. That can definitely be a great recharger.

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  3. Your first point is definitely a key one for me, Jeanette. When I pray, I can then know God and I are on the same 'page' in what I am writing, and that's a huge help. But your last point re dealing with that negative self-talk is so important, too, and closely related to the first, I believe. I also find that just writing and not being too concerned first off what comes out is a good idea. But well done, Jeanette, in getting this post out there in the midst of everything!

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    1. Thanks Jo-Anne. I so agree, being on the "same page" with God can make all the difference. Going ahead with what I had planned for the last couple of months, though a great idea, just didn't feel "right" and I knew I couldn't do it justice last night - yet after I prayed, this new topic flowed naturally. And instead of the "self-talk" of "I just can't think, my mind is mush", the ideas began to flow.

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  4. Well done Jenny for finding so many strategies for Writer's block. I have to say that so far I haven't faced writer's block since I have an opposite problem where I have so many things and books I want to write but never sufficient time for it all.

    But no doubt Writer's block will hit me one fine day - and then I know where to look for inspiration. Bless you for stocking my Writer's larder. :)
    Anusha

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  5. Glad to lay down some supplies for the future Anusha :) And great that you haven't yet faced this particular problem.
    Jenny

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  6. I love what you said about not being able to edit a blank page, Jenny.
    I find what works for me is simply writing out my story...even if I don't know where my characters will take me. So, I'm a real "pantser". Of course this means lots of rewriting, but that's fine, A writer has to do that anyway. I research along the way and that often means I need to change the plot a bit, since my idea of history is not always how things really were.

    And praying constantly is the key. We want to write what pleases the Lord, besides our publisher!

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    1. That's so true Rita - rewriting and editing are so much part of being a writer but part of it is knowing when to write and when to edit. I have a tendency to keep re-editing the same bit over and over in the middle of the writing process so am learning to let that go a bit, just write and do the editing later. I like to plan ahead a bit but then, just like you, my characters take me to places I hadn't considered before so it's a bit of both. And I agree, praying is vital.

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  7. Hi Jenny,
    I think I use most of the same strategies you suggest too! But the blank page has remarkably less fear to it than it used to. I actually like blank pages!
    If I find myself stuck then I just write anyway, knowing that what I write will probably be terrible, but tomorrow I am likely to be in a different head space so I can read what was written (or not) and try again. No thinking/writing on a subject seems to be wasted, even if the actual words are not used.

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    1. Hi Penny,
      Yes, I really think that is the key - to write anyway, not worrying about how good it is. The more you write, the more you learn about writing and as you say, even if you don't use the material, that time was not wasted.
      I often find that once I get started I get myself into the right frame of mind and it does start to flow.
      What a great thought that the blank page is an opportunity - I think it was for me on Wednesday. I didn't end up writing what I had planned. I wrote something completely different instead, something I wouldn't have written if I hadn't felt blocked. The other idea is still there, it just gets more time to peculate and mature.
      So with God's grace - it's a win-win situation.
      Jenny

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  8. My self-published book is the result of a writer's block. I was writing another potential novel, and got a little stuck about where to go in the story, so I started Rosewood. I actually thought the original novel would be better than the one I have now published.
    I know if I not on the internet I will write more. But I do spend time online to connect with other writers who in turn help my writing skills.
    MEL

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    1. Melanie - that is fantastic. Just as Penny was saying - the blank page became an opportunity to do something different and in your case something better.
      I know what you mean about wasting time on the internet - Facebook is a fun way to connect with people and learn about things but it is and can be a big time waster for me too. I need to work on the balance.
      All the best with your writing projects.
      Jenny

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  9. Hi Jenny - Great post. Prayer is so important. I also find that when I don't know what to write about, using good old writing prompts helps. For example, four of us from our Quirky Quills group got together at my place recently. One of the women had brought two black rag dolls with her as she felt God saying that it might prompt some writing. So I added to that and suggested the rest of us find something in my house to add to a still life. We ended up with the two rag dolls, a book entitled "Movies of the Thirties", a coffee cup with camels on the front and filled with teaspoons, and a watercolour painting of a courtyard and barn door. What a disconnected collection! But I set the timer for 15 mins and everyone had to just write something based on those objects. When we read out our pieces later, it was amazing what people came up with - two gripping stories about prejudice, a couple of moving poems on social justice issues, and a humorous piece on Peter Jackson's revisioning of Gone With the Wind with hobbits. Okay I confess that last one was mine - I'm always the loopy one. So I would highly recommend that kind of activity to get the creative juices flowing. You might be surprised what comes out!

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  10. Hi Nola
    Exercises like that are a lot of fun and, as you say, you never know what will come out. In my current course we given a scenario (sitting at you computer when you feel a cold wind on the back on your neck) & then told to write down the first three words that came in our head and write a story based on that. It was a lot of fun.
    Jenny

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  11. I am glad prayer was at the top as I really feel the inspirational source should be God’s leading (being Christ followers and all) and to be honest nothing else works for me.

    I like your points Jenny. I learned a while back through painting and the 'blank canvas syndrome' that sometime we just need to make a start and see what eventuates. If it feels forced I prefer to come back another time.

    Unfortunately sometimes the inspiration hits me in the middle of the night but whatever the time, it’s all fun when it flows!

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  12. Hi Kayleen
    So easy to leave prayer to the last resort but I agree that it should always be our first resort.
    I've done some painting and love the way that the work takes on a life of it's own. It becomes a process of discovery (how every much pre-planning one may have done). Rewriting is so much easier than trying to change or correct a painting (especially water colours) - I think there is the same sense of discovery with writing.
    It's wonderful to have that process in tune with the Spirit.

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