You’re all fired up with a brilliant argument bursting from your brain. You have your sources arranged on the table, a rough outline composed, and a fully charged laptop glowing before you with a fresh document opened and ready. The world can’t help but await the inevitable gathering of words, phrases, and paragraphs into a cohesive, breathtaking whole: A Great Literary Work. Or a half-decent blog post about woodworking. Whatever. Your fingertips descend into position, finding those satisfying indicator nibs on F and J, and await the transfer of thought to the blurred kinetic motion of typing. Concept into reality. Only, there is a pause. A long pause. Your hands go slack. You’re stuck. Writer’s block.
Every good writer has encountered this phenomenon, and most have written something about it. From Annie Dillard to Anne Lamott, E.B. White to C.S. Lewis, there are reams of advice available to get an aspiring author through the doldrums. You’d be wise to seek and heed this advice, drawn from deep wells of experience. I have certainly done so, especially during those times (such as the present) when Joshua and I buckle down to crank out our articles for an upcoming issue of the magazine.
But while you’re here, visiting this particular blog post, I may as well lay out a few strategies that have helped me overcome this malady. It’s useful to remember that writer’s block is often a very temporary glitch, an easily removed clog in the plumbing of free-flowing ideas. Once flushed, things tend to progress normally again. So don’t despair.
The most effective strategy I’ve found is writing my way out. Remember, the first draft is rough for a reason – it may barely resemble the final product. A sentence might trail on, wander around, even describe the blankness of your thoughts in a given moment. But keep writing. Leave your current point in the outline and jump ahead – start writing the end of the essay. This gets the brain out of the mud of the current nuance and into the big picture again, where traction can be regained.
Another strategy that I use often is the sit and stare. This requires little in the way of explanation: You sit, and you stare. At nothing in particular. Don’t do anything else – it is forbidden. Pretty soon, your thoughts will magically reorient themselves and you’ll find your way back into the flow. I think it has to do with forcing the brain to move from an agitated beta state (when stuck trying to describe the process of, say, turning a burr on a scraper) down to a blank and relaxed theta for a time, like turning off your router for a few minutes to hard-reset it.
Another suggestion I’d offer (which runs counter to more sound advice) is to wander around the internet. This is usually a bad idea, as the gravitational pull of cat videos and dank memes can suck you through an event horizon of no return. You must be focused and disciplined – search for a paper or article about the particular topic upon which you’re stuck and give yourself 5 minutes to skim it. This will help you remember why you cared about this point in the first place, and where you might have been going with it. It’s even better if you find yourself disagreeing with the article you found. Get fired up! Show why they are wrong! Get writing again!
And finally, step away from the work and share with someone else what you are trying to say. A real human, face-to-face. My very patient wife has saved me on numerous occasions when we go for a walk and I attempt to explain what I am writing – she asks questions I hadn’t considered and lets me know where my logic gets shaky (or incomprehensible, as the case may be).
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