The Write Way: Writer’s Paralysis? How to Get Moving Again
I can count on two questions from any Q & A session. The first? Where do I get my ideas? The second is whether I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block.
I’ll confess I used to snicker whenever I answered this one. “Not me, thanks. If I’m stuck I just keep working until I’m not stuck anymore.”
Simple, and as far as it goes, true. But that answer also discounts the severity of the problem that some of my most talented colleagues have experienced. Writer’s block (I prefer calling it writer’s paralysis) is very real. Were it not, Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee, not to mention a host of other geniuses, would have turned out small libraries of novels instead of one single blockbuster.
I suspect the causes of writer’s paralysis are many. Too much success, too little success, too knowledgeable of pitfalls, too little confidence manifested by listening to the “editor” and not the “creator” inside us, or listening to people who shouldn’t give advice. For most writers the ideas are still there, but we become so frightened, we send them packing well before we’ve given them a chance. The idea has to be bigger, better, more original, more saleable. We toss the proverbial baby out with the bath water and not surprisingly, there’s nobody left to bathe.
If you’ve been following along here, you know I’m hard at work on a novel that introduces a series. Recently I told you about creating the world’s longest bio for my major character, and finally forcing myself to stop so I could begin outlining.
That’s when the paralysis set in.
I always outline–you can read an earlier post about that here. Using my long synopsis, it should have been simple. But every time I tried to “make it work,” I felt clammy and unable to move–which is why “paralysis” seems to sum up the condition. Finally, after days of staring at a blank screen and notepad, I realized I needed to forget the outline and begin the first chapter.
More clammy, unable-to-move-my-fingers moments.
I’m writing now, I’m pleased to say. But not before some highly anxious weeks. So let me share what I’ve learned. Will these points solve every problem? Ha! Are my fingers flying as fast as a hummingbird’s wings? Don’t I wish. But here are the tips that got me moving again.
- Accept the paralysis as real, but temporary. Remind yourself that you’ve written before and you’ll write again. Believe it.
- Find another creative outlet to get the juices flowing. I’m spending part of each day quilting, and it’s helped the writing and the attitude immeasurably, not to mention the progress on my Happiness Key wallhanging.
- Approach the manuscript from a completely different angle. If you normally outline, try writing without one, or vice versa. If you usually start at the beginning and write straight through to the last page, try starting with a scene that’s already vivid in your mind, even if it will appear midway through the manuscript. Remember cut and paste were invented to use often and well.
- Feel free to experiment. Try telling the story from the point of view of a cocker spaniel or a robin. Try setting the story in outer space. Try writing it as a sonnet. Anything to get moving, to have fun, to get the words flowing again. Will you use it? Who cares?
- Think about everything that’s happened in the lives of your characters and the situation they find themselves at the beginning of the novel. Try changing the background or the situation to make it more dramatic, compelling, exciting. You say you can’t change it because that’s the heart of the story? Well, isn’t it possible that this heart isn’t beating and never will, which is why the story’s dead and you’re paralyzed?
- Consider the characters who are telling the story and why you’ve chosen them. Then try writing through the point of view of other characters instead.
- Don’t show your work to anyone until you’re happy with what you’ve done. By then you’ll be able to tell if their comments are helpful or just downright silly, and nothing they’ve said will keep you from finishing.
If you’re shaking your head right now and saying, none of this applies to your story or you, then perhaps you need to assess what part “not writing” plays in your life. Is it possible that “not writing” is exactly what you should be doing now, and you really don’t want to find ways back into your story? That’s okay, too. Just be honest with yourself, then forge a new, more welcome path. It might angle back to your story, and it might not. But maybe you’ll be happier.
For more writing tips, check out all The Write Way posts under categories to your right.
I enjoyed your column. I, too, thought I never experienced “writer’s block.” However, as many a family crisis has interrupted many important projects, I have found I have a great deal of difficulty getting back to them. I love my projects, but I just can’t pursue them with the verve that I used to do. I feel discouraged that I have so many what could be pretty terrific projects in limbo. Thank you for your frank discussion; it helps.