The Writer’s Craft – Blocking Writer’s Block

(Pensacola, Florida; May 5, 2022,) – Writer’s block is the bane of all writers, a devious felon sneaking up on unsuspecting authors and unapologetically stealing their ability to put pen to paper.

Creative disruptions are something we all deal with when trying to develop our next (or even our current) project.  We’ve all been there and experienced the dreaded Blank, the unwelcome buzzing silence in our minds when the ideas are gone, the execution is dead, and the page remains empty.  Interestingly enough, I’ve found there are largely two types of writer’s block: chronic and acute.

Chronic writer’s block can paralyze an author for months or years.  Chronic writer’s block results from a variety of very personal factors, sometimes including such difficulties as health problems, family issues, financial pressure, etc.  Sometimes it’s born of simply an unrecognized boredom with that writer’s usual genre.  In any case, chronic writers’ block can devastate a writer, but it’s not quite as common as the mythos presents it.  It’s there, oh yes, but, in my experience, it’s the minority experience.

Acute writer’s block is much more common.  Acute writer’s block is short-term and often characterized by an immediate inability to get a desired project started, or the inability to figure out what to write even though you’re in the mood to write (or required to write by your job).  Acute writer’s block might be short-term, but it’s equally frustrating, especially when you have a deadline approaching.

I’ve dealt with both, though my chronic writer’s block (which lasted literally 20 years) was less of a hindrance and more of a mental incubation chamber.  Still, it was frustrating.  I’ve also dealt with acute writer’s block, most notably when I was working as a professional photojournalist and journalist for the Navy (and also as a civilian freelancer for a few years).  I’d sit at the computer knowing what story I needed to write, but having no idea just how to get the darn thing started.  I had the interviews done, the notes and research completed, even the headline ready, but the page remained maddeningly blank…and my deadline loomed maddeningly, inexorably closer…

But…nothing.  The page remained maddeningly blank while my amazing brain buzzed with directionless white noise.  However, let me address my bout with chronic writer’s block first.

The 20-year-long writer’s block I lived with was born out of a life circumstance—I was active duty Navy.  My mental energies were, frankly, 120% consumed by the job and life of a sailor…and this was a double-whammy as 15 years of my career were as a Navy media specialist and instructor.  I wrote, all right, but after the news and feature stories were drafted, the lesson plans developed and disseminated, and the other hijinks of being a Navy sailor completed, well, I was pooped.  Mentally pooped.  The creative ideas (such as those now being published in the Accidental Detective series) simply had to be shelved due to a lack of energy.

I don’t regret my Navy career one bit.  In a way, that 20-year block was a blessing for me personally because I grew up as a man and a writer during that time, so much so that I was ready to go fully independent and publish on my own through Amazon by 2020.  However, that’s my story; anyone dealing with chronic writer’s block has a unique story, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

For those dealing with acute writer’s block, I have a possible solution.  This is a technique I learned while I was teaching at the Defense Information School back in late 2009.  I had moved from the photojournalism team to the features/news team, so I was researching ideas for helping students get past acute writer’s block.  Every journalism instructor, hell, every writing instructor of any stripe, has had students who were smart as the proverbial whip and possessed amazing ideas…but got stuck trying to get those ideas on paper.

I wish I had the YouTuber’s name whom I learned this from, but I watched this video nearly 13 years ago.  This writer said she always warmed up by opening her word processing software and then turning off the monitor before free-flow writing for a minute, or even five.  She’d pick a topic at random, set an alarm, and let her fingers fly!

Turning off the monitor prevents your brain from getting hung up on seeing mistakes and becoming subject to the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ by feeling compelled to stop everything, go back, and fix the typo, grammatical error, etc.  This exercise helped me learn to let the creative process get going and put the mechanical process (the editing process) on the back burner.  I used this exercise regularly for a very long time.  I don’t as much anymore because I’ve been writing for so long that I’ve internalized the discipline of ‘turning down the volume’ on that editing ‘tyranny of the urgent,’ and, instead, unleashing the creative side until the rough draft is completed.  However, this exercise remains in my toolbox, and always will!

I started having my students do this.  Many classes used laptops, so I’d have them get their software set up before putting a piece of paper over the monitor to block it from sight.  Sometimes I’d give a topic, and sometimes (especially if it were a small class) I’d have them pick a topic for the day.  I’d set the alarm for five minutes and have them go at it.  Inevitably, a few students had real difficulty getting used to this (we are accustomed to seeing what we’re typing, after all).  However, once the students got the hang of it, they came up with some amazing work!  Even better, their minds were relaxed and the acute writer’s block that many wrestled with was neutralized for that day.

Chronic writer’s block is a difficult animal to tame, especially as its causes are rooted in the murky recesses of an individual writer’s particular circumstances.  Facing and overcoming it can be a difficult journey.

Acute writer’s block is often nothing more than a brain simply jammed with ideas, the grocery list, the need to get the kids to football practice, and our innate tendency to stop what we’re doing to correct a mistake.  The blank-screen exercise can allow you to get the creative process moving unimpeded by the tyranny of urgently fixing that one typo, unleashing your inner Shakespeare.  Get the word and ideas out; editing and clean-up can come later!

-Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/af2FZNQqw6Y

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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