The Townhouse of Ideas

Writer’s Block

I talked in an interview once about how to deal with writer’s block… and the interviewer seemed shocked by my advice.

Most writers, when they talk about dealing with writer’s block, tell you to sit at your computer and stare at the screen until an idea comes to you.

To me, that’s a not a good idea because:

1/ Staring at the computer screen makes a person feel panicked. That white screen feels like a reproach, as if it’s saying, “You’re no writer. If you were, you’d be typing instead of staring at the screen.”

2/ In a state of panic, you grab the first idea that comes into your head, even if it’s not a great idea. You grab it because it’s better than staring at the screen. That bad idea might tank a good story.

3/ Then, the next time you have writer’s block, you feel even more panicked, which causes more writer’s block.

4/ During all of this, your inner critic is yelling and screaming at you that you’re not really a good writer, that you’re just a hopeless dreamer, and so on. Inner critics can be your worst enemy, so don’t let the inner critic live rent-free in your head.

So, my advice is to stop looking at the computer screen, save your file, and go do mindless housework.

When you do a basic task such as unloading the dishwasher, you’re calming yourself down, which gives the subconscious mind a chance to mull over the scene you’re stuck on.

Make sure that the task is mindless, though. If you do your taxes, for instance, you are focusing on mental work instead of letting your subconscious mind do its work. Don’t listen to music, unless it’s something without words such as classical music. If you listen to music with words, then the song’ll get into your head, and instead of an idea, your brain gets stuck singing “Hooked on a Feeling” or whatever all day.

When you’re doing mindless housework—which after all has to be done at some point—you’re telling your inner critic, “I am accomplishing something, even if it isn’t writing, so lay off.”

It’s like when people study for a test. At a certain point, they can’t look at the book or notes any longer, so they do something else. Doing something else refreshes the brain. Don’t do something like playing a video game, because your inner critic will say that you’re just procrastinating. Also, video games require a lot of focus and concentration.

Doing housework doesn’t require that kind of focus and concentration. As a side note, don’t do anything that requires operating heavy machinery or a hammer or a saw or anything else you could accidentally injure yourself with. When your mind is working on a story, your attention is half on the task, half on the story—and you don’t want to end up in the ER because you picked the wrong task.

If that doesn’t work, take a walk or have a nice lie-down. I’m a big believer in “a change is as good as a rest.”

If none of these things work, express your frustration to someone who cares about you. Articulating your problem out loud can sometimes be the key to solving your problem.

Writer’s block happens to all of us, so like the Guide in The Hitchhiker’s Guide says: Don’t panic.