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How to Approach Writer's Block

Posted Oct 03 2008 11:31am

I am naturally gifted at a small number of things: listening, being grouchy, slouching. Unfortunately, writing is not one of those things. When I have writer's block - like right now, for instance - I go through these cognitive processes that completely depress me. I do exactly what I tell my clients to avoid in their self-talk: very punishing, self-centered statements. I also encourage my clients to be cognizant of thoughts that imply permanence and those that have no consideration for external factors that might play a role in the current problem. For example:

I can't do this. I'll never be a good writer. I suck at life. Why didn't my parents let me play football in high school? Because I'm a loser, that's why! They knew it then and they know it now.

It's pretty difficult to be a psychologically healthy person thinking along those lines. Strangely, those thoughts also make me want to punch Dr.Steve in the face, but that's kind of an everyday thing so it's possibly not related.

An alternative set of thoughts that might be more adaptive (and possibly even more accurate) might look like:

I'm really struggling with writing today, and I'm sure the lack of sleep isn't helping. I've done decent pieces in the past so I can't call myself a complete failure. Writing is difficult, at least for me, but that doesn't mean I can't be successful at it at some point. And you would have been a decent football player in high school. Chicks love football players.

Here I am acknowledging the specific difficulty without over-generalizing and I'm recognizing there are possible reasons for the struggle that go beyond being a loser. I am also not suggesting that it can't be changed. When people think along these lines they tend to have more manageable moods and become better problem-solvers.

Unfortunately I haven't been all that great recently at tapping into this thought process. Thus I decided to reach out for assistance to get a better grip on my hardships with writing. I emailed Tom Perrotta, author of fantastic books like Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher. I admire his work tremendously because his writing seems almost effortless to me. His books read as if he just sat down and punched out exactly what he wanted to say. I told him that I've been struggling with writing recently and asked if there was any truth to my notion that he's just gifted and doesn't grapple with writing. Here is his reply:

... I work very, very hard to make my writing seem clear and apparently effortless. That's the paradox at the heart of the whole process. I'm certainly not a fluent or fast writer, and I struggle all the time. I might spend five hours writing half a page. That's the luxury a novelist has--it takes however long it takes. It's a lesson that it took me a while to learn. When I was in graduate school, I had a good idea for a story, and I decided to give it as much time as it needed to be as good as I could make--it turned out to take three months to write twenty good pages. Once I accepted that it took a long time to write something well, I became more patient with my more work. That's my main advice for you--just give it a little more time. Make incremental improvements. Accept that it's never going to be easy, and then you'll feel blessed on those rare occasions when it is.

That was great to hear. If the author of Election can have trouble and be okay with that then I should probably get a bit more comfortable with the inevitable struggles of writing. I'll probably never lose my desire to drop Dr. Steve into a tank of piranhas but if I keep Tom's words of wisdom in mind I can probably manage my mood a bit better.

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