“This isn’t going anywhere! Burn the fucking manuscript!” Writer’s block is often depicted in film with tortured, unshaven and chain-smoking novelists slamming fists on desks and tossing crumpled manuscripts into waste baskets. The disgruntled paper-throwing novelist is right about one thing: writer’s block is a pain in the ass.
Picture this: a climber reaches a slippery stretch of smooth rock. The rockface is flat; there is nothing to grab onto. Or so it seems. With the right movement and technique, the climber finds a way through the dead-end. Fiction writing is no different.
Muscle & Sinew
I’ve reached what feels like a dead-end. Perhaps it’s a good time to temporarily move onto a different part of the story. Stories, like bodies, are composed of many interconnected parts. What’s the use of forcing another set of biceps curls on strained muscle? Am I that grunting, sweaty guy at the gym who thinks he’s getting a good workout, but is just injuring himself? Better to whip those glutes into shape instead. Stuck on a chapter? Put it aside and edit a previous scene. Maybe the dialogue needs ironing out. It may be a good time to delve deeper into the subject at hand and do some research. Am I absolutely sure that the Third Reich invaded Poland in 1492? It might be the right moment to put the manuscript aside and return to the half-completed poem about the stunning Tim Horton’s clerk or the short story written from the perspective of a basset hound.
I’ve typed 500 words and erased 487 of them. The temptation to edit while writing can hinder the creative process. Luckily, an archaic device known as a “pen” is readily available. “Paper” is the other requirement. Forget pencils, stay clear of erasers. Allot an amount of time and write without stopping, without reading what’s written, not until the time is up. It doesn’t matter if the writing stinks. It probably will stink, but even in the biggest of stinkiest turds, the solid bits linger somewhere on the page.
One good reason the story may have hit a wall is because there is no destination to work towards. Although plenty of writers write by the seat of their pants, many plan ahead. Both have their pitfalls and perks. When I find myself staring at the wall, I go back to the drawing board and follow the arc of the story and characters. Does it make sense? Does it feel right? Try writing an alternate version of a chapter or scene and see if the new possibilities take the story further along to some kind of eventual resolution.
If I’m going to dive into my own universe, it might as well be a summersault from the Olympic diving board. Writing a historical fiction piece about the Ming Dynasty? Listen to some traditional Chinese folk music. Dust off the phonograph. What were the kids wearing back then? Do they have palm trees over there? The pastoral scene I’ve been looking to capture might be illustrated in black ink, a scroll painting hanging in a Beijing gallery.
Brain in a Jar
Frustration starts to kick in and I feel like setting my desk ablaze. I can burn down the apartment building and spend some time behind bars, or just take some time off and do something non-writing related. If you are reading this, you probably aren’t a brain in a jar hooked up to a word processor. For better or worse, human beings have bodies. Sweat. Blood must flow. Return to the manuscript later.
Enough with the Metaphors
Storytelling reflects something about the experience of being human and that something depends on the author’s perspective, of course, among other things, some of which the author has no control over. Whether one reads for entertainment, solace or insight, life experience provides meat to bite into or for vegans, maple-glazed tofu on a bed of locally-grown baby spinach. The point here is that for an author to have something to offer, they must absorb that something, that experience and knowledge before serving it up. This lack of experience might be the smooth and imposing rockface holding the manuscript back.