Hello and Happy Hallowe’en! My favourite time of the year has rolled around again, where all of my outfits will have at least one picture of Jack Skellington on them (who am I kidding? My outfits are like that all year round), where stabbing pumpkins is a fun family activity rather than a worrying suggestion of violent, psychopathic tendencies, and where going out in public dressed as a pseudo-Victorian dandy runs slightly less risk of you getting your head kicked in, even in Belfast. Not far around the corner from Hallowe’en, of course, lurks something even more terrifying than killer clowns or zombie cheerleaders: National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s usually called. It’s a fairly self-explanatory challenge, i.e. start, write, and finish a novel within the month of November, and due to a combination of academic/professional commitments and lame excuses, I’ve never yet managed to complete it myself, but in the spirit of the occasion I have been inspired, rather ironically, to write this short piece addressing the greatest bane of an author’s life: Writer’s Block.
The physical and mental inability to write creatively is a soul-destroying feeling, and one that’s been afflicting me considerably over the past few weeks, most likely because I’ve happened to have a string of free weekends which were the perfect opportunity to sit down to a proper scribbling session, so naturally as soon as I put a pen to paper during that time, or clumsily manicured hands to the keyboard to be more visually accurate, the all-too-familiar headache of my muse taking a nose dive out of the window would kick in and the day would consequently be spent stewing irritably into a book, cursing the author for having had such fantastic ideas and not waiting until it was too late to write them down and build on them. Over the years, however, I’ve found that a surprisingly effective way of lifting writer’s block, or at least making it a little bit more bearable, is to face it head on and write about the damned thing itself, and to that end I’ve produced a small handful of poems and the beginnings of a noir-style short story highlighting the feeling and effects of a creative slump, and these in turn have helped to stimulate broader ideas for other projects… sometimes. While reading around in preparation for this article, in fact, I happened to come across this wonderful quote by Charles Bukowski: “writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” While it’s certainly disappointing to be reminded that this meta-literary approach to overcoming the block isn’t an original idea on my part, it’s equally reassuring coming across quotes from prominent wordsmiths, including Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou and Gabriel García Márquez, describing so perfectly the frustration of beginning to write when you may not be feeling particularly inspired, particularly when reading their novels can so easily give you the impression that they’ve never been crippled by an inability to develop an idea, or to find the perfect words, or to pull off an epic plot twist without going through several episodes of self-doubt and mood swings.
So, without further ado, I present to you my Top Ten preferred remedies and counter-measures for writer’s block, with a few pictures thrown in for additional moral support. This is by no means a definitive list, and I can by no means guarantee that the suggestions I’m putting forward are the Holy Grail of maintaining or boosting creative energy, but they are the methods that I have personally found to be the most effective, and I hope that any fellow writers who stumble across this may also take some inspiration from them.
What can you do when the words feel constantly out of reach? Fear not, I have a few ideas
Caffeine is Key:
If you’re the kind of person who is able to function without the aid of caffeine, consider yourself incredibly lucky. Even though it no longer does anything even remotely resembling keeping me awake, I’m addicted to the placebo effect of downing 3-5 teas and/or coffees in a day, regardless of how small my to-do list may be. Indeed, any articles that I’ve read on the subject of writer’s block, usually in a fit of panic and desperation, and seeking reassurance from more experienced authors, having a steady supply of your preferred caffeinated drink on hand is one of the most frequently appearing pieces of advice that I’ve ever come across. My personal preference is coffee, and did once manage to churn out the framework for a 2,000-word Spanish essay in about twenty minutes after downing three espressos in one sitting (Note: I do NOT recommend doing this on a regular basis, unless you enjoy the feel of your limbs twitching uncontrollably) before my caffeine immunity eventually kicked in. If I’m writing at home, I’ll fix myself a small cafetière which gives me a good 2-3 cups’ worth, or if I’m venturing out I’m partial to a double-shot latte, but of course it’s all a matter of personal taste, and tea works just as well. Energy drinks, on the other hand, I would advise avoiding, but that’s just because they give me palpitations and I think they taste disgusting.
Keep a Clear Head
A bit of an obvious one, you may think, but hear me out. The phrase “write drunk, edit sober” is commonly and erroneously associated with Ernest Hemingway, but contemporary accounts have de-bunked the myth that Hemingway worked under the influence of alcohol; indeed, it’s said that when he was immersed in his writing, he didn’t touch a drop! In the interests of science (because if you say that anything has been done for science, then it wasn’t just a stupid waste of time… right?), I have made the occasional attempt at writing by the so-called “Hemingway Method”, and my conclusion from said attempts is that anyone who has managed to turn out a good story after a few drinks is made of tougher stuff than me. In the light of writing sessions ruined by one too many gin and tonics, I’m more mystified than ever before at the writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who managed to turn out stories after taking absinthe, given that the last time I drank it I could barely even string a single sentence together. Whether I’m just not choosing the right kind of booze for the job, I’m resigned to a vow of sobriety whenever the mood to write takes me, and the clear-headed approach isn’t exclusive to staying sober; any kind of anxiety, preoccupation or distraction can kill creativity in an instant, so where possible, take some time beforehand to meditate, go for a walk, do some light exercise, clear up any niggling chores or do anything that will help you get into a relaxed frame of mind and allow you to devote the maximum amount of attention to your project.
Distracting or motivating background noises are completely subjective to each writer, and for me music is just about the only kind of sound that I can work through comfortably, if for no other reason than that it drowns out the more annoying sounds that are prone to come up in my immediate environment, particularly if I’m working in a public space. My writing playlists are generally created depending on my mood and what piece I’m intending to work on: if I want to write a poem full of rich, dark imagery, I favour symphonic metal, with Imaginaerum by Nightwish being a firm favourite; soft jazz tracks make a pleasant accompaniment for a noir novella; avant-garde short stories flow easily with the aid of a Bowie album or two, and on the rare occasions when I’m feeling motivated to work on the two or three ideas I’ve noted for future novels, anything I first discovered between 2005 and 2007 works wonders for my mood.
Take a Flexible Approach
If there’s any lesson I’ve learned over the years of trying and failing to get started on certain projects, it’s that it’s better to write a little than not at all, to write something terrible that can be tidied up later than to get flustered over not getting it just right on the first draft, and that there’s no point whatsoever in getting hung up on not being able to work on a specific piece when you want to. Today, for example, I had grand plans to re-draft a poem that I’ve been struggling with over the last few months. Having found that I’m still not in the right place creatively for the poem to take the exact shape that I’d like it to, I found an older project that needs re-structuring, and once this article is finished that’s what I’ll be using to pass the evening, because that’s just how I party on a Saturday night. Naturally, it’s a pain not being able to work on the piece that I’m keenest to finish, but after weeks of beating my head against the old mental walls, it’s an enormous relief to have other ideas to work on in the meantime. In times like this, I like to remind myself of a Neil Gaiman biography I read just over a year ago, in which he discusses his twenty-three-year journey in writing and publishing The Graveyard Book. While it goes without saying that I would like to have at least one book published before I hit thirty, as I creep closer towards that milestone and I learn more about my own literary role models, I find it that little bit easier to accept that this may not be as achievable as my younger self hoped.
Establishing Your Workspace
Having a pleasant space to work in may not always be possible when you want it to be, but it really can make all the difference. When I was living in Scotland, for instance, I loved taking my notes with me on train rides between St Andrews and Edinburgh, because the length of the journey and the views it offered were always wonderfully motivating, especially in the autumn when the trees and the coastline and the small towns with their quaint old houses and churches had a melancholy beauty to them. Nowadays, since the majority of my desk space is taken up by stacks of books and a scattering of candles, I tend to do most of my writing in quiet coffee shops, with Ground Coffee in the Belfast branch of Waterstones being a current favourite for their chai lattes and cake. One big advantage of getting out of the house to write, I’ve often found, is that although it offers the temptation to be distracted by people-watching or a high-street sale, the distractions of home are far more detrimental to productivity on the whole, as it’s only too easy to get caught up in housework or even just a Netflix binge. When you go out, on the other hand, there’s a greater sense of purpose, and the opportunities for inspiration in your new surroundings is greater than staring at the same four walls all day. If you do have the luxury of living alone or just having a preferred spot at home in which to work, a handful of personal touches, such as old photographs or a string of fairy lights, are a wonderful way of making your writing workspace feel like your own little sanctuary.
In a similar vein to getting out of the house to write, travelling further afield is not only great for broadening your cultural horizons, but it lets you escape from the everyday distractions by giving you new surroundings to work in, and what better way to keep the writing energy flowing than by keeping a travel diary to document what you see, hear, eat and visit? You never know when a novel plot can be vastly improved by moving the setting from London to Copenhagen, after all. Moreover, if you do happen to have an interest in setting your project in an unfamiliar part of the world, you’ll get a much better feel for the layout and history of a city or region by exploring it first-hand than any length of time browsing through Google Maps, although if money’s tight that can be a perfectly useful substitute.
Research is Writing Too
I’m a stickler for details in any of my written work, as I want people who read my stories to see the places and the characters just as I see them, or as much as that can be managed, and as such I spend a great deal of time researching places and mythologies that may be of use as reference material or possible settings for my sci-fi/fantasy stories. With historical works, I like to use authentic terms of etiquette, currency and any other elements that can help to immerse the reader in that world and time, painting the most vivid picture that words can achieve. What’s more, in the interests of avoiding inconsistencies, such as characters’ names changing halfway through a story – an error that Conan Doyle was in the habit of committing in his Sherlock Holmes cases – I keep detailed notes of all major characters’ appearances, mannerisms and interests written down and filed away for future reference, which not only saves a great deal of stress but gives me the satisfying feeling of writing without really writing when the block is in effect. That’s not to say that research is a superficial or insignificant aspect of the writing process, of course; for the forgetful types like myself it can mean the difference between a concise and engaging piece of work and a complete nervous breakdown amid a pile of scrunched up pages.
In those horrible moments when the writer’s block is an extreme case and you just can’t think of a single thing to work on, a helpful remedy is often to procrastinate productively, as simply doing nothing leads to a wasted day and ultimately a deeper sense of frustration, I normally find. Whatever other way you find to pass the time is entirely up to you: having a relaxing bath; going for a drink with friends; going for a country walk, or finding a new recipe to experiment with are all excellent ways to pass the time and improve your morale, and in any of these instances I can also recommend keeping a notebook on you so that if inspiration does happen to strike out of the blue, you can scribble it down so that you don’t forget it while you’re caught up in other activities.
Reading Breaks to the Rescue
If you’re struggling to write, the next best thing that you can do is read instead, and as widely as possible, going on the advice of writers such as George R.R. Martin. The idea is that to become a good writer, you must be an equally good reader, and avoid restricting yourself to a handful of genres or authors so as not to develop too much of a comfort zone, and in turn develop a narrow and unoriginal writing style. Even if you’re convinced that certain genres just aren’t for you, it takes just one new book or writer to open up a whole new world of learning and understanding that can vastly improve your own writing. To give a personal example, I was averse to non-fiction as a whole in my younger years, but have recently built up a collection of science books and biographies that have proven to be of great value to me, mainly in terms of giving me scientific terms and principles that I hope to put to use in future sci-fi projects. Additionally, I’ve become a recent convert to detective fiction in the form of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, which have been a valuable lesson suspense and intrigue.
Eyes on the Prize
This is a method that I’ve carried over from my exam revision days, wherein I’d set myself a certain number of hours each day for studying, and if I kept to that target I could reward myself in some way, like going out for coffee, or an hour’s leisure reading. When I have time to set aside for writing, the targets go along the lines of hitting a certain word count, with a thousand being the general minimum for stories and the targets for poems depending greatly on the form and the content, with rewards taking the form of a new book, a cheap necklace or a cheeky glass of wine if I don’t have to get up for work the next day. On the whole, I’m happy to forego rewards for finishing a piece of writing, as the satisfaction of closure is the biggest reward possible, to resort to an old cliché, but for those days when the words just don’t come quite as easily, there’s no harm in a little extra incentive.
There you have it, ten tips and tricks for coping with the dreaded writer’s block. To anyone taking part in NaNoWriMo, I wish you the very best of luck and happy scribbles!