How Famous Writers Deal With Writer’s Block: Their Tips & Tricks

Near­ly everyone—from the most min­i­mal­ly edu­cat­ed to the most aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly accomplished—has expe­ri­enced at least once that pan­icked loss for words col­lo­qui­al­ly known as “writer’s block.” Faced with the glacial expanse of a blank page, or screen, the fin­gers fum­ble, heart races, and the brain seizes up. And, for those who write for a liv­ing, for whom writ­ing is a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of their very exis­tence, it can seem like one’s very soul becomes imper­iled, aban­doned by the mus­es or what­ev­er fick­le per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of cre­ative inspi­ra­tion.

The mal­a­dy is seem­ing­ly uni­ver­sal, even, writes The Inde­pen­dent, among “some of history’s most famous, and prodi­gious­ly flu­ent, authors,” like Leo Tol­stoy, Vir­ginia Woolf, Ernest Hem­ing­way, and Joseph Con­rad. One par­tic­u­lar­ly per­fec­tion­is­tic strain of writer’s block—the search for le mot juste—is for­ev­er asso­ci­at­ed with Madame Bovary author Gus­tave Flaubert, who described the sick­ness to a friend as “stay[ing] a whole day with your head in your hands, try­ing to squeeze your unfor­tu­nate brain so as to find a word.” Clear­ly, such illus­tri­ous names as the above found some sort of cure for the block, or we may not know their names at all.

Some writ­ers deny the very exis­tence of writer’s block. Nov­el­ist Kathy Lette belit­tles the notion as sound­ing like a “prison wing for authors who make too many puns—a puni­ten­tiary,” and she claims that “women writ­ers don’t have time for writer’s block.” Jef­frey Archer says he has nev­er had writer’s block, even though he named his Major­ca home “Writer’s Block.” I diag­nose these authors with a severe form of psy­cho­log­i­cal repres­sion, per­haps brought on by extreme and trau­mat­ic bouts of writer’s block.

From even a cur­so­ry sur­vey of those who open­ly admit to the pain of run­ning out of things to say from time to time, it seems there are as many ways to get going again as there are writ­ers. The Inde­pen­dent quotes nov­el­ists like Philip Hen­sh­er, who takes “the Tube to the end of the line,” then walks back into cen­tral London—a very geo­graph­i­cal­ly exclu­sive fix, to be sure. A Fla­vor­wire list brings us reme­dies from Maya Angelou, who would “write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat’” until the muse returned to save her from insan­i­ty. Neil Gaiman takes an entire­ly dif­fer­ent approach—he gets up and walks away to “do oth­er things.” Though it may seem in moments of severe writer’s block that noth­ing else could pos­si­bly mat­ter, his tac­tic—research sug­gests—may be just the thing to get the cre­ative uncon­scious going again.

Speak­ing of the uncon­scious, Anne Lam­ott rec­om­mends to her stu­dents that they com­mit to writ­ing three hun­dred words on how much they hate writ­ing, then “on bad days and weeks, let things go at that… Your uncon­scious can’t work when you are breath­ing down its neck. You’ll sit there going, ‘Are you done in there yet, are you done in there yet?’” Not help­ful. In the videos above, see how pop­u­lar best-sell­ing nov­el­ist Dan Brown deals with a lag­gard­ly uncon­scious. Love, hate, or be indif­fer­ent to his work, but you must admit, his is a very nov­el method: Every hour, Brown gets up and does some pushups and sit-ups to “get the blood mov­ing,” since it’s very hard to write the kind of “fast-paced plots” he does “if your blood pressure’s dropped too far.” Brown also gives his brain a dai­ly sup­ply of fresh blood by hang­ing upside down each day, either in grav­i­ty boots or, as The Tele­graph video direct­ly above details, an “inver­sion table.”

Strange, but no more so than many oth­er writ­ers’ rit­u­als. Lau­rence Sterne, the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry author of Tris­tram Shandy, had what may be my favorite design for con­quer­ing writer’s block: he would shave his beard, change his shirt and coat, send for a “bet­ter wig,” put on a topaz ring, and dress “after his best fash­ion.” Mock if you must, but it seems to me that no method of com­bat­ing writer’s block is too out­landish for those whose lives and liveli­hoods depend upon turn­ing out the words. We may not always like what we write—some days we may pos­i­tive­ly hate it—but there may be no worse, more use­less, feel­ing for a writer than being unable to write any­thing at all.

If you have your own sug­ges­tions for get­ting over writer’s block, please let us know in the com­ments below. We’d love to try them out.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Ray Brad­bury Gives 12 Pieces of Writ­ing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Gordon Rottman says:

    I refuse to suc­cumb to writer’s block. If I reach a point as to what going to hap­pen, I skip it and go on with the next chap­ter. At some point I’ll go back to the skipped part and it will hap­pen, I’ll fill it in, flesh it out, or what­ev­er. Don’t stop writ­ing! That skip­ping ahead may give you what you need to fill in.

  • laurie turb says:

    It’s so per­son­al. We are all dif­fer­ent, and moti­va­tion often results in con­trast­ing out­comes.
    My pri­or­i­ty is always rou­tine. Up at 5.30 and write for two hours in long­hand — my typ­ing skills just can not keep up with my brain. Addi­tion­al­ly, the pain of hav­ing to read my scrib­blings is strange­ly ther­a­peu­tic, and I find that through­out this labour I am able to dis­sect and improve the morn­ing’s work.
    This rou­tine is set in stone, but that does not stop me from fre­quent­ly return­ing to the nar­ra­tive through­out the day, some­times to make notes, whilst at oth­er times I might re-read what was writ­ten that morn­ing, or review ear­li­er chap­ters.

  • Zim says:

    This is the real advice.

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