R. Shapiro photo


by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

May 2012

"Don’t write. Read instead."

It’s been days, maybe weeks, and you have convinced yourself that you have used up all your material, that you will never have another thing to say on paper. It puts you in such anxiety that not only do you think about it all day, but the thought keeps you up at night, too.

What to do?

1. Don’t write. Read instead. If you’re writing poetry, read a novel. If you’re writing a novel, read nonfiction. You will be filling yourself with new information, new voices. Go see films.

2. Go on vacation. It doesn’t have to be anything exotic or expensive. Go visit a relative. That will give you material.

3. Take notes on what’s around you. Don’t try to form it into anything. Just describe a sunset or a slug.

4. Keep a journal. Include in it all the angst that you feel about not writing. And buy a journal with a fabulous cover and paper you’d love to write on. Buy a fountain pen or anything that you’re not used to writing with.

5. In an interview with Poet Laureate Billie Collins in the Paris Review, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/482/the-art-of-poetry-no-83-billy-collins said that first lines are the DNA of a piece. When you get one, it has an energy to it, and gives the work not only a reason to go on, but an imperative to do so. So make a list of first lines that come to you. Don’t even try to go farther until one calls to you, till it grips you with its steely fingers.

"Meditate. Collins says that great first lines come out of the detritus of the mind that you need to pay attention to."

6. Meditate. Collins says that great first lines come out of the detritus of the mind that you need to pay attention to. Sitting still for awhile with your eyes closed, not paying attention to anything but the thoughts that float up, however trivial, will help you find that get-you-going line.

7. The poet, William Stafford, argues that there’s no such thing as writers block if you lower your standards enough. He means that a writer has to let go, forget about being the “best” writer and just write. That’s why writing classes where you get graded are sometimes lead to writer’s block. We have to be able to write “messily,” not worry if it makes sense or not. Just go with it. After you write 50 pages like that, you may get that great line. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Dickens, the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities.

8. Physical exercise helps. Go out for a run. Walk your dog. Do yoga. Run around your apartment like I do.

9. A good trick is to not try to start at the beginning of your writing project. Instead, start somewhere in the middle or even at the end, whatever interests you most. That may end up becoming your beginning and you flash back to the rest of the story.

10. Record your ideas and play them back to you. Write about them in clusters. They don’t have to make sense right away. But something will come.

11. Establish a routine and stick to it, regardless of whether you feel like writing or not. Set a goal of how many words you’ll write a day and write them, even if you think they don’t make sense. It’s the inner editor that needs to be snuffed out.

"If you’ve experienced or are experiencing writer’s block, it might be a comfort to know that you aren’t alone."

If you’ve experienced or are experiencing writer’s block, it might be a comfort to know that you aren’t alone. Here’s a website with quotes by writers who have faced it: http://grammar.about.com/od/yourwriting/a/wblockquotes.htm

These are a few of my favorites:

“People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.” —Anna Quindlen

“If I waited for perfection, I’d never write a word.” –Margaret Atwood

“When I try to write I may write for two weeks, “The cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat. And it might just be the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse sees I’m serious and says, “Okay, okay, I’ll come.”—Maya Angelou.

“I set myself 600 words a day regardless of the weather, the state of mind, or the mood I’m in.”—Arthur Hailey

“I have to get into a sort of zone. It has something to do with an inability to concentrate, which is the absolute bottom line of writing."—Stephen Fry

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Rochelle Shapiro is a regular columnist for Authorlink.
Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com