The Writing Process

How to Overcome Writer’s Block

old-fashioned school teacher

I imagine my inner critic as a stern school teacher who wears prim cardigans and too-serious loafers.  In her crisp button down shirt and impeccably coiffed hair, she is the paragon of perfectionism.  Our inner school teacher is convinced there’s a right way to do things: introductions should have a hook followed by background and main idea; topic sentences should start with the same, stock transition words.

Nit picky and critical, she is quick to point out any perceived flaw.  “Your sentences are choppy!”  “Your story doesn’t follow a traditional arc!”  “You’re so dim-witted you don’t even know the difference between a semi-colon and a comma!”  Rather than nurture our imagination, she stifles our creativity, scribbling out our original ideas in the humorless, disparaging ink of her red pen.  Our school teacher loathes the idiosyncratic, the wacky, the off-the-wall, the weird.  She only awards “As” to papers that follow the rules and demonstrate a command of proper grammar.  If we’re bold enough to break away from convention, she’ll send us to the corner with a dunce cap or spank us with a ruler.

In his spirit-stirring Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, executive director of National Novel Writing Month Grant Faulkner argues this voice speaks in the language of “but wait.”  “But wait, you need a transition,” she’ll insist.  “But wait, that sounds stupid.”  “But wait” is a dam that chokes the flow of creativity.  “But wait” interrupts our momentum.  “But wait” keeps us dissatisfied at our desks, obsessively-compulsively polishing a single sentence instead of moving on to the next paragraph.  “But wait” makes us wad up page after page and toss them in the trash.  “But wait” crushes our confidence and robs us of the exultation of the process.

Whenever Faulkner can’t escape the inhibiting cautiousness of “but wait,” he tries to make out the spontaneous, not-so-serious voice of “yes and.”  “Yes and” is a rule-of-thumb in improvisational comedy: the idea is that when performing a scene, actors should accept anything their fellow performers say (“yes”) and then expand on their line of thinking (“and”).  For example, if one actor says, ” I love hiking here in Arizona”, the other actor wouldn’t dispute the suggestion (“No, we’re in Maine!) — they’d accept and build upon it (“Yes, me too, but we must watch out for snakes.”)  There is an energy and excitement to these impromptu performances.  Improv is often more entertaining than scripted television because the stories go off in silly, unexpected directions.  

If you’re struggling with writer’s block, Faulkner invites you to tap into the power of improv and host a write-athon.  The goal?  To write as fast as possible for a set amount of time.  Your write-athon can be a short sprint— 5 or 10 minutes— or a whole hour.  The only rule?  Keep your hand moving.  Don’t stop, even to go to the bathroom.  Don’t worry about the quality of your work.  Don’t hesitate.  Don’t pause to rewrite a sentence or check your spelling.  Just give yourself permission to play on the page.  Say “yes” to every idea— no matter how kooky or zany.  Let your sentences rollick and romp, somersault and skip.  Or as Faulkner says, “drench your page with ink.”

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