When writers are seriously blocked, they often resort to extreme measures—drinking, a divorce, traveling—even TV. But when merely stalled, they tend to rely on less desperate devices. I recently asked a collection of working writers what they do when they’re temporarily stuck. Their useful, humorous and inspiring responses follow.
I go sit outside and look at the pine trees. I go for a ride in my hot rod. I mentally flay myself for all the mistakes I’ve made in my life. I see if I can steal from somebody else.
—MARC NORMAN, SCRIPTWRITER AND AUTHOR OF SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
BUST THE DUST
If I’m stuck, it’s because I haven’t done enough research or thought things through, so I do more research and agonizing. I also do some housework. Dust flies even when words won’t.
—BARBARA EHRENREICH, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR OF NICKEL AND DIMED
I just begin revising some older, unfinished work. That usually gets the juices flowing, and often leads to a new poem. Or I go out back and plink at squirrels with a BB gun.
—JOE SURVANT, FORMER KENTUCKY POET LAUREATE AND AUTHOR OF RAFTING RISE
WALK IT OUT
I go for a walk, and try to put writing entirely out of my mind. Sometimes the more I need to work on something, the less I need to think about it. When I stop thinking about it, the solution nearly always presents itself.
—JACK WOMACK, NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF LET’S PUT THE FUTURE BEHIND US
I have never had time for writer’s block. I’m a working mom.
—BARBARA KINGSOLVER, NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE: A YEAR OF FOOD LIFE
THE UNSENT LETTER
I try to figure out what part of the story has me stuck—plot going nowhere, character acting goofy—and then I think of some writer who does plot or character especially well. I sit down and pretend to write her a letter about my problem. The important thing is that I’ll never, ever send this letter, so I’m free to say all kinds of weird, speculative things. I continue until I’m finished or I come up with an answer. It works more often than you might think.
—LISA GOLDSTEIN, NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DOOR
I do the Sortes Vergilianae—hold a book upright and stick a knife between two random pages, then look at the first line. It’s a medieval divination
practice. Or I do the modern-day equivalent, via iPod’s shuffle.
—LUC SANTE, ESSAYIST AND AUTHOR OF KILL ALL YOUR DARLINGS: PIECES 1990-2005
I turn to the books and poets I most enjoy reading. I immerse myself in their words, sounds and images, and often find some aspect of the work will trigger a poem of my own—or help me continue with the one I’m writing. If that’s not helping, I’ll head outside for a while, playing with the language in my head while I rake leaves or wash the car.
—ALBERT GARCIA, POET AND AUTHOR OF SKUNK TALK
THE SOLITAIRE BREAK
I play solitaire, always the same game, called either Klondike or Canfield. I deal out the cards whenever I feel the need for a break in concentration, and play three games or until I win, whichever comes first. I’ve been doing this for decades—works for me.
—LAWRENCE BLOCK, MYSTERY NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF HIT PARADE
MAKE STUFF UP
I write down a joke or a recipe. Usually the recipe is something from Lou the Greek’s, a bar/restaurant I invented across from the courthouse in San Francisco. The joke is usually less tasty. Both approaches keep me from thinking this is so serious—hey, it’s making stuff up for money! Have fun with it, and all will be well.
—JOHN LESCROART, NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF THE SUSPECT
NINE IS THE LIMIT
I play computer solitaire. If three games don’t do it, I play three more. Nine is the limit. After that, solitaire turns from a writing aid into an obsession of its own.
—NANCY KRESS, SCIENCE-FICTION NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF CROSSFIRE
THE SMOKING GUN
I go back a page or two and introduce some twist of plot I hadn’t been planning. [Raymond] Chandler had a similar theory and had someone walk into the room with a gun. However, it’s a dangerous expedient. I did it recently, and found that—to everyone’s surprise—I was only half a page from the end of the story.
—THOMAS M. DISCH, NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF THE WORD OF GOD
I like to paint, which is something I took up while writing a novel about Peter Bruegel. It’s nice to be off the word processor and working with the drippy, analog paints.
—RUDY RUCKER, SCIENCE-FICTION NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF POSTSINGULAR
CLEAN THE JUNK DRAWER
I write at a desk with six drawers. The top two are catch-alls, crowded with pens, batteries, business cards, eyeglasses, paper clips and other essentials. Cleaning and ordering these drawers becomes important in inverse proportion to how stuck I am as a writer. Thankfully, most of the time, they’re a mess.
—PETER COYOTE, ACTOR AND AUTHOR OF SLEEPING WHERE I FALL
I find and repair something that requires attention and manual dexterity; I imagine this activates the opposite side of the brain, whichever that is. Less challenging stuckness usually yields to coffee in a café, ideally with random eavesdropping.
—WILLIAM GIBSON, NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF SPOOK COUNTRY
FIDDLE WITH A GUITAR
When I’m jammed up I fool around with my 65-year-old Gibson J-45, trying to teach myself some tune by Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed or Marcel Dadi. By and by I tell myself, “Well, at least you can write, sort of,” and go back to work. It doesn’t always help, but it’s my best bet.
—PETER BEAGLE, FANTASY NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF THE LAST UNICORN
THE 10-MINUTE READING HIATUS
I read fiction. Not in bed but sitting at my desk to remind myself that I’m working. I try to keep it to only 10 minutes. When it works, I get some inspiration; when it doesn’t, I’ve enjoyed myself for a little while.
—WENDY LICHTMAN, YOUNG-ADULT NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF DO THE MATH: SECRETS, LIES, AND ALGEBRA
GO THROUGH THE MOTIONS
I stare out the window over my desk, even though there isn’t one. Then I sharpen a few pencils, even though I don’t have any. Then I go downstairs and fix a sandwich, even though there’s nothing in the house.
—PAUL PARK, NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA
HIT THE GLASS WALL
I just run at a glass wall headfirst full-tilt until it breaks or I do. But that’s what everybody does,
—CECELIA HOLLAND, HISTORICAL NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF THE SERPENT DREAMER
I go out to the garden and kill nutsedge.
—KIM STANLEY ROBINSON, SCIENCE-FICTION NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF SIXTY DAYS AND COUNTING
I pull out my notes: how to make a knife out of an old piece of saw blade; detail of a Scotch hobble; a list of possible names for horses; a sketch of the floorplan of a barn. Rereading these jumbled notes takes me inside the place and the people and the story—in a nonlinear way—which loosens things up enough so I can see my way ahead.
—MOLLY GLOSS, WESTERN NOVELIST AND AUTHOR OF THE HEARTS OF HORSES