Zen of Writer's Block

Writer’s block is a famous concept easily misunderstood. You can’t say the phenomenon is fictitious: projects are often hard to start, you can tell yourself you have nothing to say, a blank sheet of paper – or its digital equivalent – may make you think your mind has gone blank as well. These are not problems unique to writers, or to habitual procrastinators, or to people who have blank minds. Of course, if you turn inward to find your mind blank all the time, you may have achieved zen mastership without all the arduous training that usually requires.

For the rest of us, go online to find advice about how to overcome writer’s block. These tips have a certain amount of value, but at bottom, problems getting started come from having some ill-defined purpose that does not compel you to write something now. Some situations hand you a purpose. Suppose you plan to give a talk before a large group of strange people: will you write some notes, or stand at the lectern with nothing to say? A teacher assigns a paper for your class: will you start the paper, or receive an F for the assignment? Your boss needs you to write a report to prepare a presentation for senior management: do you write the report, or tell your boss you really don’t think you want to do that right now? These examples illustrate how external circumstances can create a compelling sense of purpose.

Writer’s block occurs when a well-defined, compelling sense of purpose does not exist. If external circumstances do not create it, you must create it on your own. Pretend someone wants to pay you for your output, that you will disappoint your parents, or that some bad thing must happen if you do not manage to produce something. Make-believe urgency may come to feel like the real thing, especially if you promise results to your friends, your colleagues, your family, or your alter ego.

Suppose you have a sense of purpose, howsoever it originates. Now answer two questions while you think about what to write: 1) Who will read it? 2) Why do you want them read it? If you answer the first question in the first person, you need not consider the second question. People write many things they don’t read later. If you intend your thoughts for someone else, consider both questions. You needn't answer them before you write, but you should know the answers when you finish. Whether you want to post a small sign that contains less than ten words, write an essay of 7,000 words, or write a 350 page novel, have a purpose. Translate your purpose into a sense of your audience: who cares about what you write, and why?

When you do that, writer’s block goes away. It’s true a lot of things other than writer's block can make you procrastinate. Deferral mechanisms come in many forms. Procrastination is not writer’s block per se. If you want to write – now – and the blank page still stares you down, it generally means you have not brought who and why into sufficient focus. If asking the questions in your head does not yield satisfactory results, write each question down: 1) Who will read this? 2) Why will they read it? The second question points to a third, closely related prompt: what do I want to accomplish here? If that form of the question feels more appropriate, concentrate your effort there. Write your answers. Then you'll be ready to begin. Your sheet of paper won’t be blank anymore, either.

 In the first part of this article, I avoid specific advice about how to deal with writer's block. The second part suggests some specific practices. Best of all is to develop practices where you generally don't have to deal with writer's block at all. I have a terrible time with procrastination on big projects - books I write for myself, not for a client - but for me procrastination masks other problems. Classic writer's block refers to that dammed up feeling you have when you cannot express your thoughts, thoughts so clear they feel musical while still inside your head.

Perhaps I'm mistaken about the distinction between procrastination and writer's block, but mostly I have way too much to say. That means I have to manage my writing time to concentrate on what's most important. Of course I have the experience - quite often - of thinking eloquent thoughts that just don't flow from the keyboard. That's painful. It's part of writing. On the other side, you often see things flow from the keyboard that you did not expect. That's joyful. You do have to be confident that, if you think about something long enough, you'll eventually be able to write about it, and write well.

The first three pieces of advice below deal with thought processes. If you don't think, you can't write. If you don't communicate - speak, read, write, and listen - you'll eventually stop thinking. You have to keep your mind fertile with regular, high quality communication.

  • Read. Every book or article about how to write well includes this advice. You absolutely cannot become a good writer if you do not read. Structurally, reading and writing lie closer to each other than they do to speaking and listening. Reading a lot is the single most important activity you can undertake to avoid writer's block.
  • Think. Think about subjects that engage you as you apply yourself to other activities. Your brain is on automatic for many of the things you do during the day. Think about things that are important to you during these times. The more you think about something, the more readily you can write about it.
  • Talk and listen. Even though oral communication differs from written communication, it's still essential for keeping your mind active, learning, and growing. Conversation and other forms of oral communication contribute a great deal to your ability to write fluently. Writing may be a solitary activity, but good writing grows from all kinds of interaction with other people.

The second trio of items addresses the sometimes difficult task of expressing thoughts inside your mind, in language entirely accessible to other people.

  • Regular habits. As with the first point about reading above, you'll see this advice a lot. Have a routine that makes you productive. Regular habits often mean writing at the same time and same place every day, but modern, mobile schedules may interfere with that. The best you can do is be conscious of routines, then develop habits that contribute to the kind of writing you want to do.
  • Physical activity. This item is extremely important to me. I am a restless person. More generally, the brain needs physical activity in order to work properly. Whatever mental activities you have before you, your brain will thank you for the extra oxygen and nutrients you supply by taking a walk, or doing anything else that helps circulate your blood vigorously. We can't avoid sitting, but we need not sit more than necessary.
  • Chicken scratches. This activity represents the last preparatory stage, a transition state between fleeting thoughts and written language. Below I've devoted a couple of paragraphs to this activity.

The formal term for chicken scratches is pre-writing, or simply notes. You know from years in school that notes can vary a great deal. They may contain diagrams, arrows, lists, tables, references, phrases, points of emphasis, sentence fragments, abbreviations, symbols, marginal comments, asides, unconventional punctuation, all manner of disorder, and few signs of order. Why, you think, is my brain so disorganized? It's not disorganized. It's simply wired for associative memory and communication. Pre-writing creates a transition between this type of neural network, and the far different rules of structure we use for written communication.

 I use a form of speed writing for my notes, where many of the marks on my notepad resemble chicken scratches. A lot of people don't write notes on paper anymore, and have developed alternate ways to set down initial thoughts. Whatever your method or medium, the central verbal function of notes is constant: set jumbled thoughts on a path to organization.  No one else will see these notes. No one else could ever understand them, so you have taken external judgment out of the process. All you have to do is place the tip of your pen on your pad, even if your mind feels blank or dammed up, and see what happens.