On February 29, 2016, I participated in #EditQs with Katie Rose Guest Pryal and Lisa Munro. It’s a twitter chat where editors and writers discuss the craft of writing. During that session we discussed the challenges of writer’s block—the feared death knell of a writing career.
I used to have huge struggles with writer’s block. In fact, I spent years either flooded with ideas or staring at a blank page, my fingers sweating as I pleaded with my brain, “Come on ideas, where the hell are you?” When the page remained blank, I’d lament my stalled process.
In 2013, I joined a mindfulness-based writing class at the University of Virginia and encountered an approach to writing that freed me up. Here are the basics of the practice:
• Meditate for a period of seven to ten minutes to calm the brain.
• Spend twenty minutes writing based on a prompt
• Let go of any expectations regarding what it is or what it could be
• If you’re stuck, write “this is bad,” this is stupid,” or “I don’t know what to write about” until an idea pops into your head. If you don’t have any ideas, write about that experience.
• Immediately share what you’ve written with the group
There was something powerful about letting go of the outcome. I realized that much of my writer’s block was related to my attachments to what writing should be (a story, a poem, an essay) and whether I was following the rules of the craft. My pesky internal editor was constantly saying “That’s really dumb. You should probably give up.” Sadly, on more than one occasion I listened.
When I first joined the mindful writing class, that internal editor continued to send me cheap shots. I just wrote them all down. “This is stupid.” “I know this is the lamest thing anyone has ever written.” “I’ve got nothing to say.” After about five minutes of dictating these negative thoughts, ideas popped up. Some had potential. Others were terrible. But, as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, we all start with shitty first drafts.
And then we had to read what we wrote. Unedited. Unrehearsed. I wanted to offer a huge disclaimer regarding the inadequacy of my work. I wanted to skip my turn. I was shocked by the lines I hated that others thought were good and how much encouragement I received for something so unpolished. I began to value the importance of having witnesses to my process and the beauty of witnessing someone else’s creative expression. I discovered the authenticity present in first drafts shared in a safe, supportive environment.
Some of my twenty-minute musings have become essays and short stories. Some are now chapters of my book. Most are just the throat clearing one has to do in order to get to the really good stuff.
That little practice took care of ninety to ninety-five percent of my writer’s block. I still struggle with the nagging procrastination that happens when I encounter something uncomfortable that I don’t want to write about, or if I’m not feeling well. During those times I attend to mundane tasks that help me maintain my writing practice but don’t require as much creative effort—research, copy editing, line editing, outlining something that’s already been written. Sometimes maintaining a writing practice and overcoming writer’s block is about going with the the flow and being gentle with yourself.
The discussion on writer’s block during the #EditQs twitter chat was a gentle reminder that while we may lead very different lives, the problems writers face are very similar. We had all experienced writer’s block and developed our own solutions for addressing it. As the session wound down, everyone in the group agreed that having a journal and experiencing the highs and lows of the writing life was key to being a good editor. Journaling and wrestling with writer’s block has help me develop compassion and humility, because as Dinty Moore says in The Mindful Writer, “Writing is hard work.”