What is Your Cure for Writer’s Block?

By Emilie Munson

Bill McKibben

Schumann Distinguished Scholar

It’s never been a huge problem for me. I grew up writing for newspapers, and that tends to cure you of perfectionism: you know that half the job is to get it done on time. I think sometimes you have to say: I’m going to write as well as I can right now, and when I wake up I’m going to go over it again to make sure it’s good. Making sure the first time through can be a little daunting.

Marion Wells

Associate Professor of English and American Literatures

When I hit a roadblock in writing I have a few techniques:

1. Make a cup of tea. This can take a while, done properly and gives the mind a chance to mull things over.

2. Just start writing – even if the structure and organization of the piece as a whole are still elusive, writing a “core” piece of it can be very helpful

3. Leave the writing alone and think about teaching instead! Using a different part of the brain can help unlock the issues causing the block.

Christopher Klyza

Stafford Professor of Public Policy, Political Science and Environmental Studies

My writing in the years since I’ve been at Middlebury (I arrived in 1990) has primarily been aimed at an academic audience. I’ve written and edited several books as well as articles, book reviews and book chapters. In general, I don’t get writer’s block. But I do sometimes have a hard time getting started on a new project. When that is the case I make myself start writing — it could be something from the middle of the paper (such as a case study) or a description of the theoretical framework I will use rather than the introduction. I also don’t worry so much about the quality of the writing, knowing that I will go back and revise it. At the end of the day, having 4-5 pages of text often primes the writing pump for future productivity. I also tend to think about the overall project better when I have done some writing.

Kathryn Kramer

Visiting Assistant Professor of English and American Literatures

Have a baby.  There’s nothing like knowing you have only two hours of child care to focus the attention. (A descriptive, not a prescriptive, remedy.)

There are many devices and prompts, like imagining that the world is coming to an end in twenty minutes and what you write will be the sole remaining record, or writing without ever using the letter e, for example.  But as it’s generally construed, writer’s block (which Gilbert Sorrentino calls inspiration’s “idiot brother”) has probably most to do with not wanting to write what you think you want to write, like a term paper or a letter of recommendation.  There’s some dishonesty, either of intent or execution.  So it’s interesting to figure out what that’s about.

Michael Sheridan

Associate Professor of Anthropology at Middlebury College

I think that the key to overcoming writer’s block is to start writing and let yourself write junk. Now that you’ve gotten started, you can keep going and later go back and either fix or delete the junk.  The other trick I often use is that I make myself explain whatever it is that I’m supposed to be writing about in ordinary non-specialist language, as if I was giving an overview of what I’m trying to write about to a patient, sympathetic and wholly ignorant friend. That sketch becomes the first paragraph (which may be junk, and that’s OK). The second strategy for curing writer’s block is to make your writing something that you need to do for other people, not just for yourself or the text itself. For example, I often propose a paper for an academic conference on a topic that I haven’t written about yet, and then the conference becomes both a deadline and group of people depending on me to deliver. Finally, chocolate never fails to motivate me.  One page done means I can have one piece, no exceptions.

Julia Alvarez

Writer-in-Residence

When the writer William Stafford was asked the same question, he replied that he never suffered from writer’s block, all he had to do was lower his standards.  I don’t think he really meant that he would settle for schlock, just that part of the block is that the writer is getting in the way of the writing by worrying too much about performance, and measuring up. At that point, just forget about achievement and write to limber up, write as finger exercises, write in a journal, write a letter. (Whoever does that anymore? I do!)  The point is to keep up the agility, the flexibility, the practice of the craft. Writing, all creativity, I think, should have an element of play, self-forgetfulness, fun.

On the other hand, times when I’m forcing it, I realize that the balance is off.  I need to get out, get involved in the things I care deeply about, issues in my community and beyond. We are writers in a context, storytellers in a tribe. To quote another great, Charlie Parker, the jazz musician, said, “If you don’t live it, it ain’t going to come out of your horn.”

So there are a few prescriptions for writer’s block, courtesy of Dr. Alvarez, via Drs Stafford and Parker:  Keep Doing the Writing but forget about the performance/measurement, and when all else fails: go out there and get involved in life itself – fall in love, plant a garden, save a forest, work in a soup kitchen, teach kids to make balloon animals and then take them over to the local assisted living facility.

Christopher Shaw

Visiting Lecturer, English and American Literatures; Associate Director, Program in Environmental Journalism

“Work every day without fear or expectation.” (Somebody said that.) Always show up at the desk or notebook, or, god help us, computer screen. In fact, if you are stuck I suggest returning to the basic and essential physical act of making words on paper with a pen – or maybe a piece of burned charcoal from a fire. Don’t judge, at least for a while. Keep going. Put it aside. Then go back and see what you have, if a structure or a point seem to be emerging that you can begin building on. Some days it works and some days it doesn’t. Don’t judge. Go back and work again.

It’s different for school work and creative work, of course. Deadlines are useful even without an assignment. Desperation often breaks the log jam.

Stop fighting, stop judging, stop comparing yourself to the great. The writing NEVER turns out the way it gleams and beckons in your mind. In the draft stage you need to accept being terrible. As an editor, I have worked with some of the best full-time deadline writers and I can tell you their first stabs are gobbledygook. But you need to start. Don’t wait.

Timothy Billings

Professor of English and American Literatures

I asked that question of William Stafford once when he came to give a reading at Pomona College many years ago when I was an undergraduate there, and his immediate answer was: ‘Lower your standards and keep writing.’  What I love about that advice is that it recognizes that “writer’s block” is nothing but your internal editor harrying you, saying that what you are about to write is not good enough – and that what you most need to do is to trust yourself. The downside is that Stafford’s many wonderful books contain not a few mediocre poems written no doubt when he would otherwise have had writer’s block.  And yet without those poems – which many people have enjoyed, I’m sure, even if they didn’t do much for me – he might never have written the truly extraordinary poems that knock my socks off.  Stafford certainly wrote more books than I ever will.  For a certain kind of person, I think that’s still probably the best advice there is, but I’m just not that kind of person.  What works best for me is to stand up and start talking. Whenever I find myself paralyzed because my sentences are becoming tangled and intractable, I stand up and start talking to myself. I pace back and forth and gesture with my hands (probably looking a bit loony, to be honest) exactly as though I were explaining the issues to an interested group of fellow scholars or students. Somehow the language comes to me that way because if I imagine an audience sitting in front of me I can’t just stand there – I’ve got to say something – and the exercise gives me focus.  I then lean over my desk and type in what I have just said, sentence by sentence, and keep pacing. (It helps to be a good talker, but one becomes that by writing.)  So my alternative advice is: when the words on the page feel intractable, return to your voice; when the ideas in your head feel tangled, remember your audience.

Vendela Vida

Keynote Speaker (April) and Class of ’93

If a scene’s not working or giving you trouble, it can help to think about how you’d approach it if you were telling the story in a different medium. That is, if you can’t figure out how a scene works in prose from, how would you write the scene if it was a film, or a play? I find this technique can help me a lot when I’m stuck.

Another remedy: try writing first thing when you get up in the morning. Before e-mail, before anything. If you write right away, before your doubts or second thoughts awaken, you can keep them at bay.

 

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