Facing the Page: A Semi-Serious Guide to Beating Back Writer’s Block

Image by Andrew Lazo
Image by Andrew Lazo

By Andrew Lazo

Here for your reading (and writing) enjoyment, I humbly offer:

Twelve Tips to Try, A Pair of Practices to Avoid

Try Some of These: Face it–writing is a hard and painful process, and costs lifeblood to do it, not to mention to do it well, to say nothing of the torture-rack of re-writing. Maybe you’ll find something in this accumulated list that will help you push your pen across the page.

  • When starting on a piece of writing, also do something you despise even more than facing the blank page. Laundry. Grading. Bills. Emptying out the Inbox. Even tackling the next few sentences is better than that, after all, n’est-pas?
  • Start something you like doing. Like me, right now. On my other tab on my browser is a recipe that will soon turn into a Blood Orange Sour Cream Pound cake. But this blog keeps shoving its way in between the half-teaspoons of this and the whipped that. I wrote half of this to the soothing whir of the mixer. Who knew?
  • Speaking of cake, plan something nice for when you’ve finished. Like the above-mentioned baked good. Some schools of wisdom lean rather heavily on “book-ending” bad experiences. Start with something sweet (a talk with a beloved, a daisy, a walk, a smackerel of something, as Pooh would say), and have something sweet awaiting you (a long shower, a night out, a wee dram of something nice). This puts a parenthesis around the difficult doings in between. Writing is hard and it hurts. Might as well set up for yourself a sweet way to start and a soft spot to land.
  • Offer your good self permission to consider the consequences of what will happen if you just blow this writing off. Diana Glyer recently urged upon me the importance of the distinction between doing what I want versus doing what I will want to have done. How badly do I really want to binge-watch Hell’s Kitchen this afternoon as opposed to bashing out some pages?
  • Read something Yes, you may not find yourself at the point of writing so glorious a phrase as “not choose not to be” or “a zero at the bone” but who knows? And just maybe some of the goodness of great writing will seep into the keys without you noticing. Good language so often shows itself rather sneaky and insinuating. Invite it along for your rough ride.
  • Wait it out. A student of mine once pointed out how everything feels impossible for the first twenty minutes. Stick with it.
  • One of the best ways I’ve found to wait it out comes when I work the edges of a project. Remember how Ruth got herself a nice, prosperous Jewish businessman for a husband and became King David’s grandmother in the process? Niggle away at the periphery of writing. Do the Works Cited, dream up some chapter titles, dither away at some small point on the outline. It counts–it all counts and, by the way–no one’s counting!
  • If you’re anything like me, the moment you sit down to write (or, ahem! even consider such sitting down), a daunting number of completely necessary projects begin bleating for your immediate attention. So go ahead and do one. Allow yourself some little distractions. Think about the next phrase while you putter around. Muse about it.
  • Take a walk. Take a drive. Take a shower. Think all that time about your project–don’t allow distractions into your head. But put yourself in a position where you can’t write words down. That way, the really good ones will stick with you once you can. Wordsworth wrote hundreds of lines of poetry while tromping around on the moors. He had to memorize those lines and them down once he got home. Similarly, I tell my students that I do my best writing in the shower. A really urgent and memorable phrase or idea will have to tattoo itself into my brain until I can get to dry land.
  • When you have to take a break of whatever length, stop in the middle of a sentence. It’ll amaze you how well this technique helps you to

(see?!?)

  • Put the kettle on. After all, doesn’t a huge selection of the writing we most love come from the UK? Works for them, right? Plus it somehow make me feel more literary. Tip top, cheerio, toodle-pip and all that. Seriously–is there anything that a good cuppa tea cannot improve (excepting, of course, a good cup of coffee!)?
  • I owe the following tip in its entirety to Diana Glyer, the best writer I know. So, in her words, write as badly as you can stand to. Seriously, barf on the page. Employ such eloquent phrases as “blah, blah, blah” (only without taking time to write the commas). Don’t backspace, don’t edit, don’t perfect. Drafting almost only ever serves to tell me what I really wanted to write in the first place. Chipping away all the marble that doesn’t look like David and all that. Use such glowing words as INSERT BRILLIANT QUOTE HERE and “I hop this doesnt suck to bad.” Yes, I left those mistakes there on purpose. You do too. A couple weeks ago I made my students turn the brightness ALL the way down, and cover their screens with paper. One student wrote for ten minutes only to find he’d written entirely in the address bar of his browser window. Then accidentally deleted everything. Two others had somehow not clicked their cursors in the doc and ended up with blank pages. And we laughed delightedly, even as I assured them that they had succeeded best. Rather than lament the loss of the BFD (Barfy First Draft, pace Anne Lamott), I urged them to jot down a few words of their best idea they’d spent typing into ethereal nothingness. They’d gotten a first draft out of the way, and were now ready to take another whack at the thing.

Avoid: Try as best you can to refrain from doing either of these two things. They’re poor form, bad manners, lousy self-care.

  • Don’t get up. Oliver Stone says, “Screenplay equals chair plus ass.” Keep at it. Make deals with yourself. Take bets with your bladder, tapping out one more paragraph before you go running for the room. And come back tomorrow for more of the same. Diana also tells me that writing is like forging a sword, where we keep at that metal while it’s still hot. Takes a lot of time and energy to heat up the metal all over again–so get after it every day instead. It’s like taming a wild animal, she says. Little at a time, consistently showing up and offering up your hands for something good to occur. And finally:
  • Don’t jump off a building. As Michael Wilson says, “It’s not that bad, really. And I’m not that old.” Try your damndest not to treat whatever bit of writing you haven’t quite managed to get done yet as a referendum on the validity of your entire existence. Phrases such as “You worm!” and the more pointed, less elegant “You suck” you should probably shove into the pile of negatives to avoid until later. Much much How’s about, oh, say quarter past never? The painter Bruce Herman gave a talk once wherein he detailed the steady and accusing voice that daily assaults him with his unworthiness to the artistic task at hand. “Yes, yes, I’m sure you’re right,” he blithely assures the better demons of his nature, and then he goes right on squirting paint on the palette. Disbelieve those voices of doubt and despair. Sir Paul McCartney still gets stage fright. Self-doubts simply must defy the real, down-to-the-bone truth that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, that all the love and grace we need awaits us at the end of our fingertips, come what may. Or, as a far better writer has put it, pull from your heap of words, the ones that mean “Yes!”

And, if all else fails, write out some of your very best writing advice. Would that I had as many pages of writing done as I have hours of advice that I’ve fearlessly dished out (and assiduously failed to follow).

Give it a try.

*****

Andrew Lazo is a teacher, writer, and sought-after speaker on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings. Read more from him at his website: http://andrewlazo.com

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