How to Avoid Writer’s Block

Writer's Block

Writer’s block is a familiar term among writers. It refers to that idle period when the writer’s creative ability seems to have disappeared leaving him blank. In other words, it is a mental condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to continue with what one is writing. According to Dr. Richard Nordquist, professor emeritus of Rhetoric and English at Georgia Southern University, USA, writer’s block is a state in which a skilled writer with the desire to write finds himself unable to do so. The expression, writer’s block, was originally coined and popularized by the famous American psychoanalyst, Edmund Bergler, in the 1940s.

As implied by Nordquist, writer’s block is not exclusive to amateur or budding writers. Virginia Woolf, the famous 20th-century British writer best known for her novel Orlando (1928) and her pioneering use of stream of consciousness as a literary technique, suffered this infliction many times. So also did Leo Tolstoy, a 19th-century Russian author famous for his voluminous novel of 1,225 pages War and Peace (1869). In Tolstoy’s case, he was unable to write at all for months and years at a stretch.

Writer’s block, being a long-standing and general problem within the creative circle, has attracted diverse opinions. Many writers have attempted to trace its causes and proffer remedies based on their personal experiences. The causes are broadly categorised into two. Those originating from weaknesses in the author’s workplan or the work itself and the ones induced by adverse circumstances in the writer’s life such as physical or mental conditions and socio-economic pressures.

Regardless of the underlying causes of your own problem, bear in mind that writer’s block is a natural phenomenon that cannot be avoided completely. Just as one occasionally experiences a burst of inspiration for no apparent reason, so does the writer’s block appear from nowhere to clog the flow of creative stimulus. It should, however, be equally noted that there are practical steps that could reduce its incidence, frequency and protraction.

The first step is believing in yourself as a writer.

There are writers who are so doubtful about their own creative ability that each time they try to write they get blocked by that pessimistic inner voice that underrates them. A writer must constantly remind himself he can do it, not by merely telling himself he can, but by actually doing it. He should set out specific times for writing and follow it diligently. With time, the routine becomes a habit that even the most chronic writer’s block would find difficult to break.

I give example of myself with this copious quote from the interview a journalist had with me at the presentation of my first work titled Hoodlums (2011). ‘Many a times I would start a story only to stop half-way because of other activities competing for my attention. Sometimes I spent a whole month writing just one short story, even though there were always other story ideas waiting to be developed. But I eventually rose to the challenge by creating a short story sub-column in my literary column in the New Nigerian newspaper and ran my short stories on weekly basis. This compelled me to write stories regularly to keep the column going. I did this for a year and at the end produced many stories. You just have to get up and go!’

In the period of writing those stories, I realised that the main source of writer’s block is inadequate preparation. Like any other undertaking in life, every piece of writing demands enough groundwork. Be it fiction or non-fiction, before putting pen to paper, the writer must first clearly itemise in his mind or on a jotter the intended contents of the write-up. This could entail a thorough research on the subject-matter and logical listing of the components before weaving them together. Without this necessary preliminary, the writing becomes aimless, and the writer becomes vulnerable to the dreaded writer’s block.

Another factor that triggers writer’s block is lack of adequate knowledge and the relevant experience that would enrich the writer’s imagination and help him in expressing his ideas. In his book How to Become a Published Writer (1991) Chukwuemeka Ike, a renown Nigerian author, speaks of a novel he started writing but had to abandon half way due to lack of the relevant knowledge and experience of the subject, which was afterlife. He said, ‘It has been an uphill task creating the appropriate physical and social setting for a land I have never visited, neither have I met anyone who has been there and come out alive.’ He joked that he could have granted himself liberties and write whatever he liked since no living person would be in a position to prove him wrong! Then he cautioned, ‘It is very difficult to invent an entirely imaginary environment unless you have adequate information to enable you to make a credible job of it.’ The bottom line is that the writer would find it easier writing on subject-matters that are within his grasp than exploring realms he cannot even conceive much less deliver.

Gestation in literary parlance is the process by which a new idea or a piece of work develops in one’s head. Before writing a short story, for instance, the writer first forms the mental picture of the characters, setting and the narrative that would combine to make the story. The more and the longer he turns the story over in his consciousness the more it takes shape. Now, this gestation period, which could also be called incubation period, is a necessary step in the creative process. The writer should be patient to let the idea take proper root in his cognition, familiarise himself with the characters and the setting before starting. Writing under this condition makes the story flow effortlessly and keeps writer’s block at bay.

At times procrastination could come in the guise of writer’s block. Some writers are so lazy they keep postponing what they should do at once. Such writers, when they sit to write, get scared by the blank look of the sheet or screen before them. But the trick is just for them to begin a sentence. A first sentence is like a step put forward, other sentences would instinctively follow, flow, and gradually grow into paragraphs and chapters. The advice here is, just make a move, the block will give way, and soon you will find yourself making a mansion out of a mud house!

Fatigue could also attract writer’s block. In this case, all the writer needs to do, according to an English author, Neil Gaiman, is put away his writing for a while and try to forget about it. ‘Literally, I walk around it,’ he said. ‘I will go for long walks, a trail run, anything to physically get my brain loosened and approachable once again.’

This resting period is equally an opportunity for the writer to engage in reading. The writer should use the gap to read other writers’ works as it has a way of not just relaxing his mind but inspiring him. In fact, the more the writer reads the more his mind opens to new ideas, vocabularies and expressions. And when he is fully armed with these, his writing begins to flow in spite of threats from writer’s block.

Interestingly, sometimes writer’s block could be a signal for the writer to end his story. Some writers overwrite, forgetting that no discussion is exhaustible. But I believe the right thing to do when you feel dried up like I do now is to conclude!

Sumaila Umaisha

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