Beat the block. Image: Andreas Tille
Like many of my friends, I found myself unable to write immediately following the election.
I don’t often suffer from block, but I’m familiar with that running-in-a-nightmare feeling. The vein of gold dries up and the good stuff stops coming, and you have to get out the pickaxe and really dig for it. It sucks.
I learned early to ignore my circumstances. I wrote most of one of my early novels by keeping a pad and pencil in my apron while I worked on my feet at Home Depot. I don’t allow myself to get precious about my desk, my chair, my cup of tea. This has proved a distinct advantage, but it also changes the way I view block. I don’t think good writing has to be born under perfect circumstances. To the contrary: I believe that waiting for or spending time arranging perfect circumstances will probably fuck up your process. You have to write A. when you have time and B. when you have the idea. A writer’s life is mostly a struggle between those two things.
This is one of the most common questions I get when people ask me about How to Be a Writer. When I stop feeling like a god who creates and then eats worlds in a cocaine frenzy of selfish glory and start feeling like a pigeon who pecks out meaningless little dits and dots about nothing while dreaming of bread, this is what I do. I advise you to try one or all of these.
- Get the fuck out of your house. Get out of your neighborhood. Stop looking at the same window and the same cat, stop eating at the same places and taking the same route home. Go to a museum (many of them are free or have free days and hours). Go to a store where you don’t need anything. One of my favorite places to go is Urban Ore, a thrift and salvage store in Berkeley. I like watching a lizard crawl through a 40 year old toilet and seeing old yearbooks with the eyes of pretty girls cut out with a razor. It suggests stories to me. I used to do it at the dollar store, when I lived somewhere much less cool. If you don’t have much money, you can do this anywhere at all, as long as it isn’t a normal haunt for you. GET OUT of your head. See something new.
- This works for the other senses, as well. Listen to a type of music you don’t normally seek out. Eat food you have never tried before. Subject yourself (safely) to a sensation from your story; go pet the sandpaper grit samples at a hardware store or stick your hands in the dry bean bin at the grocery. This can be as simple and as strange as rubbing an ice cube under your eyes or trying a new tea. Shock yourself. (Not with electricity. Come on, guys.)
- Go to the movies. Not to see the new Marvel film or something you’ve planned to watch, but to see something foreign. Something you know will be terrible. Something you think your antagonist might like. If you hate it, rewrite it. If you didn’t understand it, analyze why. Do this work AFTER the film. Do it with a friend (this is my husband’s favorite kind of date). While you’re in the theater, let yourself be submerged. Again, if cost is a problem, rent or find a dollar theater or check out that bay of pirates you’re always hearing about.
- This is a classic exercise, but it never really gets old: choose an object. It can be a teaspoon or the CN Tower in Toronto. With a 100 word limit, describe it. Describe it from the point of view of a man whose only son has just died. Describe it as a refugee from another planet, seeing it for the first time. Describe it from the point of view of your main character. The well inside you isn’t dry; the pump’s just seized up. Prime it with shit like this.
- Consider the idea that you are not actually blocked. Examine your life to find out if you are exhausted, unappreciated, in a bad relationship, in a terrible job, or otherwise stuck in a shitty place. None of these things should stop you from writing, but even acknowledging that these conditions exist can help you view your art in the proper light. If writing is the way you are choosing to express yourself, then express the pain of whatever life you are living. Sometimes there is something stuck in the chute, keeping anything else from getting out. Write it out. Stab it with your pen.
- Consume better material. As a writer, you should always be reading and that should not be news to you. If you’re reading the same sources every day, the same authors and columnists, the same type of books, then smash the mold. You only read high fantasy? Today you buy your first romance novel. You have enough pulp sci-fi to build a fort out of paperbacks? Time to look up who won last year’s Pulitzer for poetry. Find movies that feel like drugs. Jodorowsky. Fellini. Kurasawa. Find something creepy, surreal, unsettling. Watch something you believe will move you. I often recommend the podcast “Welcome to Night Vale.” I don’t always love it, but it does consistently bring me some strange.
- Walk the fuck away. Not every project gets finished. If you can’t make progress on this, you may make progress on something else. Go find what that is. Many great writers believe that you should finish everything you start, and they have good reasons for that. I don’t believe you always need to finish. This is not me giving you permission to never finish anything. Only some things.
- Wildcard: there is something you need to do. Something you dream about, but dare not. Something you pretend you’ve forgotten, but you haven’t. Some song unsung, some wine untasted, some person unkissed or untold-off. You might not even be able to say it out loud, but you might need to do it. You know this one better than I do. Get it out of your system so you can write.