I’ve heard writers say they don’t believe in writer’s block. Either these people are extraordinary ideas-machines who twist and wriggle and slither out of every conceivable plot trap with ease or they are lying (or bad writers). I’ve heard writers say writer’s block is a symptom of an unhappy muse, that the elusive and spiritual side-kick who blesses you with his or her wisdom through whispers that appear on the page is somehow longing for lovin’, and you need to pay up, baby. I don’t believe this, either. Unless you’re suffering some compelling neurological disorder causing you to experience auditory or visual hallucinations, most writers know deep down that any phantom they have leaning over their shoulder facilitating their work is entirely self-generated. No, writer’s block exists alright, and it’s no one’s fault but your own. Let’s see if I can give you some strategies to break through it.
Any sort of biological blockage, whether it’s mental or physical, does well with a good dose of stimulant. When you’re plumbing isn’t working; you reach for the Metamucil. It’s the same with writer’s block: if you’re stuck for ideas, it’s because you’re not getting enough creative nutrition. Watch films in your genre. Read books. Talk to people about your story, and see what kind of questions they ask. Eavesdrop on people on the bus to hear their fears, desires, what makes them laugh. Plug people for their experiences. I talk to cops whenever I can, and because they usually don’t talk much I always make sure I’m straight up before they dry up. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen? The best case you’ve ever worked on? Have you ever been injured? What happened to the last dead person you saw?
Can I play with your gun?
They never let me play with their gun. But maybe one day I’ll get lucky. I got a ride-around once just for asking for it. We made two arrests. It was great.
The best tales are out there, written in lives too mundane to make the page – instances that have no heroic journey or moral but that might, gathered together and strung along by you, make a good story. Collect people, places, things. Journal them or simply store them in tiny drawers with labels in your mind. Be a watcher. A listener. A student of everything. As I sit writing this in a cafe in Maroubra, an old couple sit near me, waiting for their tea, silently watching the sun dance between the moving cars outside, the lanky Indian waiter strolling around, filling little canisters on the tables with sugar packets. They’re not suited to what I’m writing now, these two, but they might be one time when I’m struggling to fill a cafe with people: I’ll remember her jutting sheep teeth and maud sunglasses hung with string, his pancake ears and cheap loafers. I’ll remember the things they say to each other, her fear of burning herself on the teapot as she pours, shaking, his grumbling one-sentence answers.
Collect enough people, and someone will always rescue your work.
If a new scene or a new character or the setting generation caused by colourful bystanders isn’t going to solve your problem, it might be a directional thing. You might simply have lost your way. Good writers will tell you with sorrow-heavy hearts about characters they had to kill and scenes they had to scrap and research they collated that led to nothing because no matter the love and joy and thrill you get from writing these things, sometimes they are simply too self-indulgent to be of interest to the reader. Whenever I find myself coming up against a wall, I delete the last three pages, no matter who came into the book at that time or what new roads my characters had trodden or what twists and turns the plot revealed. Because no matter how enjoyable these pages had been to write, they led me to a wall. Have faith that your new direction will be better than the glorious dead end you left behind you: It was a majestic sandpit ready to swallow your work. Those people you created and loved will come again when it’s their time, when they belong.
My final strategy for easing writer’s block, one that’s particularly helpful for timid writers, is to banish the depressing wasteland that lies beneath the blinking cursor physically and metaphorically, because the moment you begin to think about how much you haven’t written, the journey toward the end of the book, essay, article, whatever, is too far for most people, and that’s why most people aren’t writers. Scroll the page up so that you’re not looking at all that blankess, and train yourself to take small, delicious bites when you can’t write for long. A word a day, a sentence, a string of dialogue: even if you delete it tomorrow it will be something. I’ve had some sensationally bad ideas in my time. Some naive, angry, grotesque, contrived, narratively ridiculous creative wankfests. But one thing I never did was let the fear of going the wrong way, putting down an embarrassing piece, ‘wasting my time’, delay or cancel my start.
You must start. Make yourself start.
Put your fingers to the keys and type, and force yourself to stay away from the delete key. Tape a thumbtack to it, upside down, if you have to. You may begin badly. You may fire out of the gates, through the air, and into dumpster full of food scraps. You might spend a year on a thing, two years, ten, only to find out it’s literary spew. But no writing is ever wasted, no matter how bad it is. You purge the bad stuff to make way for the good. Decide to be unafraid. Nobody ever wrote anything good without taking to it with a blade a few times, and no one ever wrote anything that everybody loved. There are people out there who hate Shakespeare.
No, serious. There are.