Conversations With Writer’s Block

This is an essay by Katriena Knights.

Many writers I know personify their muses. The muse is an attractive creature, an ethereal, celestial being who arrives at capricious intervals to sprinkle writing dust over your notebook or keyboard. But how many writers personify writer’s block?

While writers are catering to the muse, feeding her in whatever way possible, they usually ignore writer’s block, saying it doesn’t exist or hoping it will just go away. The closest many of us come to personifying this phenomenon is to blame it on the nature of the muse. He’s being a bitch today. He’s withdrawn his affection. She’s gone kayaking with all the other muses.

I’d like to propose another approach. Personify your writer’s block. Call it the anti-muse. Or George. Whatever works. Invite it in and sit it down for a cup of tea.

Why in the world would anybody want to do that? Writer’s block is the thing to crush, to smash, to banish by whatever means necessary. Weapons of mass destruction? Bring ’em on.

But I believe writer’s block is the flip side of the muse. It’s inspiration that’s gotten bottlenecked. And the majority of the time, it’s trying to tell you something about the work or your attitude toward it. Often it arrives to alert you to an outside factor you need to deal with, one that, if ignored, will lead to long-term struggle.

So invite that anti-muse in and ask it some questions.

1. Why are you here? This first question is often the hardest to answer. Why has the blockage occurred? Why has it become persistent enough to be labeled a blockage?

I’ve found in my own process that the answer is generally one of two things. The most common is that there’s something in the story that just isn’t working. A plot point is headed straight for a dead end. My protagonist is acting out of character. I’m trying to write about something I know nothing about and I’ve tried to handwave the research.

The second answer to the question is often related to me rather than to the work. Am I tired? Am I coming down with something? Am I overwhelmed with something outside the writing? Is it, you know, that time of the month? (Boys can mostly disregard that last one.) Do I love what I’m writing?

Being aware of when you find yourself struggling with the words, whether it’s back to school time for the kids or the winter holidays, can alert you to your personal patterns. Then, if you find yourself unable to get words onto paper around Thanksgiving, you’ll be less likely to beat yourself up over it and more likely to accept a couple of slow days. Just alleviating the stress of your own often stratospheric expectations can get the words flowing again.

2. What can I do to make you happy? When writer’s block shows up because of a problem with the work, the best thing we can do is let it talk to us. Pay attention, and often your blockage will talk you through the problem. Brainstorm the upcoming scene. Interview your characters, asking pointed questions about why they’re not cooperating. Often my blockage occurs because I’ve either written something that undermines or eliminates an important emotional conflict or because I’ve plowed into a difficult scene without establishing essential framework.

If the block is coming from you rather than the work, the solution might be trickier. The tricks you use to appease the muse will often get you through this kind of hump. Write something, even if it sucks. Take a nap. A bubble bath. Have a massage. Go for a walk. Or wait until a stressor event has passed, especially if it’s something you know will be over and done in a few hours or the next day.

3. Do you always drop by right at this time? This has to do with finding your personal patterns. I used to freak out every time I hit a wall at about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through the story. Then I realized it happened every time. No matter the length or the topic of the level of passion I had for the project, there was always a point where I stalled. I’m still not sure if that wall shows up because of structural or plot issues or because I’ve hit a point where I realize I’m close to letting go of the story. I think it’s a combination of the two, though usually more one than the other on any given story.

I think these issues can be boiled down into three guidelines that, if practiced consistently, can help you keep major blockage at arm’s length.

1.  Honor your process. Know how your stories generally spin out of you and don’t panic when a story falls into a rhythm you recognize even if that rhythm is frustrating.

2.  Keep solutions at hand. Know the tricks that can keep you on track. Some people rely on outlines. I tend to recover best with meditation, naps and taking showers. (I can’t tell you how many tangled plot issues I’ve resolved staring at a shower wall.) When you find something that works, keep it in your toolbox even if it seems silly.

3.  Be gentle with yourself. Don’t ignore signals telling you you need rest, isolation, quiet, exercise or just a short break. Don’t beat yourself up over a low word count day. Just keep moving forward.

Once you’ve chatted with your writer’s block and found what it needs, often you can get past the block, give it what it needs to toddle off for a while, and invite your muse back to your table for a high quality, productive writing session.

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Katriena Knights is a multi-published fiction writer with over thirty published novels, short stories and novellas. Her contemporary romance novel, Where There’s a Will, from Samhain Publishing, reached number 22 on the overall Kindle bestseller list early last year. She is also published with ImaJinn Books, Loose Id, Changeling Press, Torquere Press, Still Moments, Noble Romance and Etopia Press. She is also an editor for Changeling, Samhain, Etopia and Adams Media’s upcoming Crimson romance line.

Photo: Luca Rossato via Compfight.

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3 Replies to “Conversations With Writer’s Block”

  1. Great post, Katriena, writer’s block doesn’t always just go back where it came from–sometimes we have to think about where and why it pops up in the first place. I was wondering if you ever find–I know I do—that you are most blocked about the things you love to write about? In my case, I imagine that it’s because when I’m really passionate about a topic, sometimes my self-doubting writer self worries about being able to do it justice.

  2. Thanks for this. Do you know the work of Jane Anne Staw? She has great things to say about the writing process, silencing the inner critic, dealing with writer’s block. One tip I remember (which made me cringe until I did it): have a conversation with your inner critic, along the lines of “I know you have things to say & I want to hear them, but not right now. Let me get this down and I’ll come back to you.”

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