Saturday, May 9, 2009

Blocking the Block: What To Do When Your Mind Shuts Down

"They inched their way toward the edge of the cliff--Ellen moving forward, while Richard was stumbling backward, keeping his eyes fixed on the knife in Ellen's hand..."

"Susan could hear the footsteps on the stairs. No one should be in the building at this hour, she thought. What will I do if it's the serial killer? There's no unlocked offices on this floor..."

"Terry could feel the car skipping and jerking. He knew he shouldn't have taken the mountain road, but that route was so much shorter than going through town. There had been rumors of strange sightings up here, but that was all just hype to sell newspapers, wasn't it?"

Wow. Nice and tense yet? When you reach points like this in a story, it's a pivotal moment for sure. No telling which dark path the tale will take you down from that point forward. Fun? You bet. Let's finish it. Wait. What? Who is Ellen again? Why was Susan there to begin with? Terry didn't live in the town on the other side of the mountain, did he? Oh no! Let me go back to the beginning and re-read and maybe I can...


Okay, it's happened. You didn't think it ever would since it never had before, but odds are, sooner or later, you'd get 'the block'; two really nasty words to a writer. No matter how hard you try, you cannot create even one more paragraph in your story, not one more sentence, not even one more word. The plotline seems chaotic, the characters appear flat, and suddenly, the whole story begins to sag. This can't be possible. But trust me, it happens to us all. Now, you can do one of two things when it does occur. You can sit and feel sorry for yourself, become delusional, and lament the pitfalls of being a creative genius or you can remain in the real world, face it head-on and accept it as part of the creative process. Only then will you be able to leave the state of 'stun' and find yourself capable of moving foward with your project. How is that accomplished? Let's look at some potentially healing solutions.

1. One possible fix is what some writers I know use, and that is doing word puzzles. It doesn't much matter what form, just anything that involves making you think about words. For instance, crosswords are a popular choice, but again, any type of word puzzle will do. It keeps your mind focused on the words themselves vs. trying to string them together, and sometimes helps to clear the way back to creating a scene.

2. Another remedy, which I personally use, is reading. You don't necessarily have to read something of the same genre as that which you are writing either. If you are writing a horror short, read a light comedic novel. If you are writing a suspense flash, try reading a non-fiction article on global warming. Well, maybe not global warming... My point is, even if you are writing a murder mystery and you take time out to read a murder mystery, so be it; just take the time to sit and read. Don't think about your project while you're doing it--just read and enjoy.

3. One other activity that can end up being quite a lot of fun is what I like to call creating a 'story feed'. You can engage in this with writers you know or with total strangers. There are many online writers' groups, forums, etc., where you could start one. All you do is decide on the rule. For instance, each adds one sentence, then waits for two others to add theirs before you can add another. You could begin with that, then later change it to each adds a paragraph, but still waits for two others to add theirs before you can go back in. I have participated in these, and you would be amazed at what interesting stuff comes out of that. You can select a target genre at the onset, or you can leave that wide open and let it go where it will. Frankly, it's more enjoyable to let the story develop a mind of its own.

4. Another helpful tool is writing challenges, like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriNo). Most of us are familiar with that nightmare; I mean, delightful activity. It occurs during the month of November each year and each participant commits to writing a 50,000+ word novel during that month. No one reads your finished product; their computer only counts your words, so you could just put any old thing in there, let it validate your count, and get your winner's certificate But, cheating accomplishes nothing and you are only cheating youself out of benefiting from the experience. The benefit you get from a writing challenge like this is the fact that there is a deadline. Unless you are a professional, and make your living writing for a specific publication, you really don't have any deadlines. For some, without a specific date goal for completion, the mind tends to wander off course and we let it go. No big deal, but then we get frustrated and wonder why we have all those unfinished stories laying around. If you're one of those who functions better under time constraints, try one of the writing challenges to increase your self discipline, or simply 'pretend' one of the well-known zines can't go to press until your story arrives in their hands. Whatever floats your creative boat...

5. Lastly, and this I strongly recommend against, although some of my friends swear by it, just stay away from the writing/reading thing. Don't even write any letters to friends or relatives. Don't even attempt a shopping list. Reading and writing, in particular, are off limits. You set a deadline on this abstinence, mind you; it doesn't go on indefinitely, but you abide by it. When the deadline expires, you sit down and write. Write a word, write a line, write a 50,000 word piece, but write. Erase it all the next day if it's garbage, but write. If writing 'under the gun' (so to speak) works for you, then, by all means, give it a try. I've never tried this because I'm not sure I could scare myself enough not to cheat, but that's just me.

Whatever method works for you when the block comes, go at it 200%. Don't let this naturally occurring writers' curse bring your work to a permanent halt. The most important thing is to keep writing, keep creating, keep crafting. Don't leave Ellen, Richard, Susan and Terry hanging. They need you. And someday, your mind might even thank you for it too.


  1. When I get stuck while writing (whether it is a review or a story or anything else) I usually try and do some non-writing creative activity. I always have a guitar or bass nearby to strum on - usually a few minutes of that keeps the creativity flowing but gives enough distance to think of a solution or path to try next. Lately I've been enjoying baking or cooking while I try and work out problems.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Cullen. Engaging in non-writing activities can be a real creative boost. It sounds odd, but it does work. Playing guitar or bass sounds like a wonderful way to relax and get the creative juices flowing. Although, the cooking and baking are great too. I also enjoy those. I work out chapters and end up with something wonderful to eat besides!