by Anya Chabria, Emily Cho, Jodie Meng, Jennifer Wang, and Maggie Eames
Even the best writers end up staring at the blank white page and blinking cursor. Our editors at Polyphony Lit offer their solutions.
There is no writer who has not encountered writer’s block. It’s the bane of many, and it’s an inescapable phenomena that’s caused generations of writers to sit down before their work and stare at a blank page. The cursor and blankness taunts the unfortunate writer.
To say that there’s one cause for writer’s block would be like saying there is one way to catch a cold; there is no one way. There are common ones, for sure. Perhaps you’re not used to writing, or you rely on rare, fleeting flashes of inspiration. Maybe you’ve been writing exclusively about a single topic that you’re comfortable with, and at a certain point, you hit the wall and there’s nothing more about the topic that you want to explore. Though there are many ways of preventing writer’s block, when it comes, it comes. Sometimes, the first step to fixing it is admitting it.
You can take the typical advice—take a walk, exercise, grab a snack—or you can start by identifying the root of your problem. What is it inside you that’s preventing it all from coming out onto the page? Here’s a tip: contrary to your gut feelings, nothing really is preventing you from writing. Type this: “I ate cheese.” See? You wrote something. It’s your launch-pad. Of course, from there it’s not always smooth sailing. But now you’ve got something. Try to see where it goes. Sometimes, a writer’s self-critic gets in the way of the creating ideas, so you’ve got to turn off the editing side of your brain. Even if ideas seem crazy or nonsensical, jot them down without hesitation. You can filter the ideas later, but if you always strive for perfection, you may never end up writing your first draft.
And here’s a tip: usually the best ideas are the ones that are spontaneous. No matter how crazy, those are usually the thoughts that have built up in your head, topics that you’ve always wanted to bring to life but haven’t necessarily been comfortable with their existences. Give it a shot.
Another method is to really look at your piece. There are those that say the best thing to do when one has hit a wall in writing is to leave it be. That’s one way to do it, but another way is to really investigate your piece without writing anything. Just read. Identify the working parts. Let’s say your character is a peasant in the beginning, and your character is the queen’s knight in the end. Tell yourself how he got from Point A to Point B. Tell yourself the major events that happen in the story. Does he fall in love? Does he uncover secrets? Ask yourself the following: Where is a new scene in the scope of the entire story? Is it what should happen next? You can try working backwards from this point. What happened that caused the protagonist to get here?
If you think about individual scenes and how they connect, you’ll find it easier to write. (If the stakes are raised just right, and if the story becomes more and more suspenseful, you might just find that you are excited to sit down and write the next scene!) It’s working out those minor details in your head that can get the creative juice flowing; if you’re only thinking about the main pillars of your piece, you’re not going to have much to work with. It’s the same for other forms of writing, such as analytical writings, op-eds, essays, and even poetry. Whatever you’re writing, you’ve got to have a plan. It’s usually when you’ve got a single spark of inspiration without backup that you get stuck somewhere along the process.
In order to build the healthy habits of a writer, you must also force yourself to write daily. Tell yourself to write 100 words everyday. The content of your piece does not matter as long as you write that tiny number of words. You might find yourself writing more than 100 words if you get into the flow of writing, but greater productivity always comes after practice and repetition.
Lastly, reading. It’s strange, because, in a way, reading is just another form of writing. As you read, you’re creating your own stories, attaching these thoughts to the words that an author or poet has already written. Think about it like this: the finished product that you’re reading, whether it be a novel, chapbook, essay, newsletter, whatever, has gone through its own distinct odyssey. Very rarely does a literary masterpiece simply flow from the tip of a writer’s fingers and become a final draft. I repeat: very rarely. I hope that gives you a level of comfort. At times, simply reading a published piece and letting yourself forget your own obstacles helps further oil your brain and sense of imagination. I find that once I’ve read something spectacular, I’ve got more of a drive to continue with my own writing, and to strive to get to that place the published author is.
There’s naturally plenty of angry sentiments when it comes to writer’s block. It plagues many. But try to flip the concept on its own head. It doesn’t necessarily need to be that terrible. Try making writing itself a habit; be the master of the sword. Don’t depend solely on those lonely moments of inspiration that fly past you like a comet one night; those are small miracles we should be thankful for, but not balance our entire writing careers on. Say something. Write something; start from there. Of course, building onto it and constructing a whole piece is the hard part, but you’ve at least made a dent. That blanched void of a computer screen is no longer blank; it’s inhabited by more than just a blinking cursor. You’ve got something. Hopefully it’s enough comfort to take on the challenge of writing again.
Anya Chabria is the Social Media Strategist for Voices in addition to her role as an editor at Polyphony Lit.
Emily "Emmy" Cho is a blogger for Voices and an Executive Editor at Polyphony.
Jodie Meng is a blogger for Voices and a Genre Editor at Polyphony.
Jennifer Wang is a blogger for Voices and a First Reader at Polyphony.
Maggie Eames is the Community Engagement Manager for Voices and an Executive Editor for Polyphony.