Take Action: How I Overcame Writer's Block

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Ray Bradbury once said if you’re a writer and you’re blocked, well, you’ve picked the wrong subject then, haven’t you? At least he had a subject. For me, writer’s block was never so much about stalling in the midst of writing a story as the lack of a story idea.

Until the late winter of 2013, I had never suffered from writer’s block. If anything, I was a bit of a snob, doubting that writer’s block even existed. I thought it was an excuse on the part of writers to keep from doing their jobs – you know: The Work. I’d written hundreds of features as a journalist for a daily newspaper, and then after seguing into fiction, dozens of short stories and two novels, and they had all come easily to mind. I couldn’t fathom a loss of inspiration, and then one day my mind went blank: I had no clue what to write next. In desperation, I scoured my Idea File – a manila folder crammed with notes, photographs, newspaper clippings – even etchings on fast-food napkins – in the hope that a brilliant notion would sally forth. When it didn’t, I Googled my favorite topics: birds and birdwatchers and the American West, and visited my local library.

Yet after four months, nothing spoke to me. I began to wonder if my writing career was over. When I confided this fear to my writer friends, they said, “You’re tired, Renée, don’t be so hard on yourself. Take the summer off.” So I did. And the relief was immediate.

For weeks I did nothing more than tackle household chores and catch up on errands. I knew I’d made the right decision to take time off when I drove the speed limit day after day (o glorious leisure!), rather than race from the store to the bank and then home again, stressed that I hadn’t yet hit my word count.

But a funny thing happened during that down time: it calmly and quietly occurred to me that if I couldn’t think of a story to tell, I could tell someone else’s story. I selected a favorite, John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” and labored to make it my own. About a month after that, I also spotted an intriguing photo on Facebook, which inspired the premise for my new novel. It seemed that giving myself permission to breathe again had recharged my batteries, but even so, I moved forward cautiously. I signed up for a workshop led by a local writer, Jodi Angel, author of You Only Get Letters from Jail. Jodi is straight-forward, articulate, and utterly devoid of the flowery compliments writers give one another. She’s also a believer in prompts – or windows, as she calls them. I’d never written to windows, and doubted this plan would work for me. Still, I was determined to learn something new, and so I forged ahead. Over the next six weeks, my workshop-mates and I wrote 1,000-word stories based on the following prompts:

  • A winter coat in summer. (My first stab at writing a piece in first-person; I had to assume the point of view of a dog, just to get through it.)
  • The color yellow. (This endeavor produced a slightly more daring piece on Disney inkers and painters. Side note: Disney inkers were all women in the Snow White era, earning roughly $18 per week to a male animator’s $300.)
  • Intense clarity. (At this point we were halfway through the workshop, and I was getting bolder. I wrote a story about a robber who abandons his friends in the Oregon desert, thwarting his own arrest.)
  • Disappointment. (This assignment induced panic on everyone’s part, since Jodi asked us to write in second person. I wrote a short-short from Pete Best’s point of view, regarding his sacking by the Beatles.)
  • On week five, each writer was given a different genre, with a specific location and an article, which we were asked to incorporate into the story. My assignment: sci-fi / drug-rehab center / wig. (I wrote about a dog who morphs into a woman, in order to kill a killer.)
  • In this, our last prompt, we were each assigned a random sentence from a different novel. My sentence: “She had cut her wrist with a knife.” (This produced a piece about a misfit genius.)

What I’ve learned from all of this – the writer’s block, the letting go, the need to embrace a new writing practice – is that it’s crucial to be as kind to myself as I am to others, and to cut the ties of judgment. In moving forward, I now have a strategy to deal with writer’s block: follow Jodi’s lead and pick a word or a sentence – any sentence – and know it will take me where I need to go: from paralysis to action.

Renée Thompson’s latest novel is THE PLUME HUNTER (Torrey House Press, 2011). She has placed in the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition on three occasions, most recently taking 2nd place for mainstream/literary fiction. She has new stories forthcoming from Crossborder and Chiron Review. Find Renée at reneethompson.com.

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