It’s one of the most oft-asked questions I get as a writer and teacher: “What can I do about writer’s block?”
“Write,” I say. (I was going say, “Simple. Write.” Alas, I realize it isn’t simple. It isn’t easy.)
I tell people I don’t believe in writer’s block.
Do the words sometimes come harder than at other times — or hardly at all? Sure.
Do you sometimes need to change things up to feel the mojo again? Sure.
Do you sometimes crave the idea of skipping that 5 a.m. appointment with your keyboard? Sure.
But this idea that we can’t move forward until the muse returns with open arms — no, that’s a crock. Basing your writing on feelings is no better than basing your life on feelings.
Sometimes you just have to power your way through.
It’s that way with anything we do. But writers seem to have created something of a self-fulfilling failure prophecy, a challenge apparently so insurmountable that we’ve given it an official name. And once something is named, it becomes an official malady.
Read: An excuse.
I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore than I believe in “plumber’s block” should the guy fixing my pipes suddenly find the going difficult. “Sorry, pal,” he might say as he gathers up his tools — and, of course, hitches up his, ahem, jeans. “Just not feeling it today.”
I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore than I believe in “surgeon’s block” should the doctor doing my knee operation find herself stymied. “Hey, Bob, hang in there. I’m going to flex out the rest of the day. Maybe catch a matinee to see if I can get back in the groove, you know?”
That’s not to say there aren’t things you can do to get yourself “unstuck.” Sometimes I’ll go back and read my piece from the beginning. Explain my plight to someone who knows my story with hopes they can jar something lose. Maybe even take a walk.
But this idea that you somehow need to wait until the “feeling” returns is bunk.
Ernest Hemingway said it well: “Easy writing makes hard reading. Hard writing makes easy reading.” Jack London claimed to have written 20 hours a day.
Part of writing is discipline. Is doggedly moving on. Is writing on even if the results aren’t perfect. Even when it hurts. Even when you’d rather be doing something else.
So, today’s efforts might not have rung your literary chimes. But they count for something. You persevered. To quit whenever it hurts it to make it that much easier to quit the next time. A lesson I learned while hiking the 452-mile Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail: “You must go when your body says no.” With writing, you must go when your mind says no.
Just last week, after a speech, someone in the audience asked me which of my books I’d written was my favorite. “They’re like children,” I said. “Each one is my favorite for a different reason. But the one I’m proudest of is American Nightingale because nothing in my nearly four decades of journalism has come with more difficulty. Nearly four years from idea on a Wendy’s napkin to seeing it on a Barnes & Noble shelf.” (I captured that research, writing, and promotional experience in a subsequent book, Pebble in the Water.)
Sometimes I draw inspiration from fellow writers. I do a lot of 5-a.m.-to-9 a.m. book writing before I go off to be a newspaper columnist. If my alarm goes off and I don’t want to get up I remember my novelist friend Jane Kirkpatrick and think this: Jane has already been on her keyboard for an hour.
Or because I write a lot about inspirational people, I’ll think about something they soldiered through — war, disease, the death of a loved one — and think to myself: Buck up, pal. This is just stringing together words. You’ve got it easy.