The Writer's Survival Guide: Chapter 8: When You're Stuck

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Sometimes, of course, the drum has rolled and the trumpets blared, but when the writer tries, nothing happens. This can occur at all stages of the writing process, though most frequently it occurs as we are starting, whether that is a first draft or launching into a revision draft — though it can also occur completely, all the time.

Being stuck — or writer's block, as this condition is commonly called — can hit any writer at any age and at any stage. Henry Roth published the acclaimed novel Call It Sleep in his twenties, then plunged into a severe writer's block that lasted over fifty years. Humor writer Fran Liebowitz is renowned for her writer's block, which stretched across a few decades. During the last several years of Truman Capote's life, he claimed to be working on the book Answered Prayers but, as the final manuscript has never been found, some have speculated that he was actually too incapacitated by a writer's block to produce anything. (This would make sense, as he was deeply depressed by the widespread ostracism he suffered after a gossipy excerpt from the book appeared in Esquire.) My own worst case of block occurred after I had written four book-length works as a kid, and then, suddenly from ages eighteen to twenty-four, I froze completely, and couldn't have dredged a word of fiction out of my pen if I'd been kidnapped and had to write a story for my ransom.

Why do we get stuck? There are many reasons, but almost all of them come down to fear. We are afraid what others will think of our ideas, or our talent, or our chutzpa, or our intelligence, or our money-making capacity. They will conclude we are no good, which will be, we imagine, the proof that we are indeed no good. So we can't do for fear of finding out that we, well, can't do. Hence, we do nothing.

Often, apprentice writers who are stuck think that all they need is some kind of verification of their competence, and then they can get going. I have had countless unpublished students tell me that, if only they could get something published, they would become the prolific writers they know they really are inside. So insistent are these students that publication is their holy grail that they grow red-faced with anger when I tell them that publication is a false god; it will not unlock them. "You just don't know!" one snapped at me, her eyes tearing as she confronted me in a school corridor. "You've been published. You know you're good. I'm never going to get there." I told her she was mistaken; I was on intimate terms with writer's block, as most writers are. In fact, some of the most celebrated cases of writer's block have happened to published authors, particularly after they publish a book to great acclaim and need to come up with another. (This subset of writer's block is fairly common for successful first-time authors, for whom it is called "sophomore slump" or "sophomore jinx." The expectations on them seem so high, they can't move forward one word.)

What gets you out of being stuck is not external. Writer's block comes from within, and as a result can be healed only from within.

The first thing you can do when you're stuck is to remind yourself of the cyclical nature of the writing process. Writing works a lot like the seasons: you do tremendous work at some times, producing insightful, exciting creations that seem as if they will keep writing themselves forever. Then your energy tapers off, or your ideas come to feel rigid and dry. You enter a phase of not writing, of simply sitting around, feeling dark. And then — voila! — something spins back into place, and you can get going again.

When we're writing actively and regularly, we're caught up in a writers flow. When we're hitting the bumps, slowing down, and abandoning the car, we've hit writer's block.

This cycle happens to all writers, but the duration varies from person to person and from incident to incident. Some writers may experience block for only a five-minute gap in their thirty-year careers. Others may have thirty-year blocks with only a five-minute burst of flow. Most writers hit block occasionally. Block itself is not the problem; the frequency and tenacity with which it occurs are.

If you are enduring long-term or, more likely, habitual blocks, you may feel there is no way out. There is. Let's start by breaking down the cycle of the writing process to understand more about why we sometimes enter winter, and how to get ourselves into spring.

When we're writing actively and effortlessly — when we're in a period of flow — we can't imagine how we were ever in block or that we might tumble into it again. Writing is so much pleasure! we tell ourselves. It makes all the difficulties in the rest of our lives seem easy to handle — in fact, it seems to remove the difficulties in the rest of our lives. When we're writing with flow, we feel such a sense of hope — about our talent and the prospects for our career — that optimism permeates everything in our lives. The promising date who doesn't call back? Sure, it's a bummer, but hey, we've got this spectacular story unfolding before our eyes, showing us how smart and witty and sexy we are inside, so we believe we're going to be okay. The bill collector who keeps calling? Yeah, we still fret about how to get greenbacks into his hand, but with this fascinating novel on our screens we know we're competent and bankable, so we believe we're going to be okay. When we're in flow, nothing can dent us. Our writing sails us over our worries by reminding us that there is more to life than our worries. Plus, it gives us all the proof we need — aside from anything an outside source would say — that we should keep going.

But then, sometimes, we hit a change. I'm stuck, we think, and we fall into despair. Seldom, however, does this have to do with our writing itself. De-emphasize the stuck; the trouble is virtually always with the I. That is, stuckness comes from a negative shift in how we're seeing ourselves, whether as people or as writers. Instead of believing we're going to be okay, we begin to feel we're failures, that nothing we do will work out, that we are destined to be zeroes. We believe this so completely that we lock up inside, and can't give ourselves the freedom to be imperfect on the page. Therefore, we can't write.

When I was trudging through my six-year writer's block from eighteen to twenty-four, I didn't know any of this. I truly believed I couldn't write because I had no ideas, and because I wasn't thick-skinned enough to take criticism from editors. (As I mentioned in the Introduction, just before my last day of high school, a teacher gently edited three of my stories with me; I was so mortified to see that I had not been perfect that, instead of recognizing I just needed to do more work, I believed I would never make it.) I thought the problem was in my abilities as a writer.

Only many years later, long after I'd returned to writing, did I see what had really been going on. At age sixteen, two years before the block entombed me, I had undergone an extreme and sudden change in my family circumstances: my mother impetuously married an ex-con she'd just met in a bar and then went on the lam with him, disappearing for seven years. I was taken in by a charitable boarding school, and then a charitable college, but for a long time I remained an emotional wreck. I felt unworthy of a mother's love, which is a deep cut indeed. My shock and anger were so great I turned them on myself, telling myself I was no good, meant to be kicked around like dirt. My first few years in this situation I still managed to write, but eventually my debilitated self-image seeped all the way through my spirit, and I couldn't manage to do any writing at all, with the exception of school papers. Each day the problem would multiply; since I couldn't write, I would tell myself that I wasn't, as I'd always believed, a writer, and the more strenuously I insisted to myself I was no writer, the more certain I was that I couldn't write. Not writing proved to me that I was not a writer — rather than simply letting me know that I was in a bad patch, a time when I needed to process my life by living instead of by producing. Not writing didn't mean that I needed not to write; not writing, I believed, meant that I was a not.

After college, still believing these distortions, I went on with my life. I got jobs unrelated to writing, surrounded myself with friends, and met the man who became my first husband. I also, after much agonizing, tracked down my mother and re-established a relationship — and realized that what had happened had nothing to do with my personality or degree of worthiness, but with her insecurity and her own demons.

This realization took a while to sink in. In the meantime, I came to feel loved and appreciated in both my private and working life, and as a result to feel better about myself.

And so, when I sat down to write again (a year after I'd remet my mother), I found my block was gone. This wasn't because I understood literature any better, or had learned better ways to open a story. My talent hadn't changed. My knowledge of books hadn't changed. My feelings about myself had.

All the other writer's blocks I've heard about are, in essence, the same story. My other major block came right after I sold my first book. I was thrilled to be thought of so highly by my editor, ecstatic to be given this tremendous opportunity to prove myself — but underneath it all, I suspected that I was a fraud. They just thought I was a great writer, but I knew that I was only mediocre, that the stories they already had were the only stories I would ever write, that instead of being a rising star, I was collapsing into a black hole. In addition to fearing I could not transform myself into their dreams of me, I was also mourning the loss of a few friendships which had recently bit the dust. My thinking about myself grew quite distorted. Not only was I a fraud, but I was a lousy friend, someone worthy of rejection. I should just crawl into a cave and go away.

So how could I keep writing? I could barely keep living! This block took me a year to climb out of. And, again, that occurred only when I addressed my overall sense of myself by untwisting my thinking and recognizing that, maybe I was flawed, but flaws do not make a person unworthy.

Essentially, when I pulled myself out of these (and other, less lengthy) blocks, I did so by applying the concepts of cognitive therapy, which I discussed in "The Right Mindset" in Chapter 6. That is, I recognized that I was believing highly negative things about myself, most of which came down to some variation of I'm no good. Then I came to see that these thoughts were not facts, but misbeliefs. I could then dismantle my negative belief system, release myself from my self-condemnation, and get back to letting myself write.

In the two examples above, I did this by developing love in my life through friendships and romance. This gave me the evidence I needed that I was good. At my present stage of life, however, I avoid block by applying cognitive therapy methodically — and immediately — if I sense I am falling into negative thoughts about myself as a writer or a person. This is a much more effective and efficient way to keep myself moving forward, since it doesn't rely on others. And it feeds on itself: because I can address and correct my distortions on my own, I add to my sense of self-worth. I am untangling my thoughts on my own; therefore, I can keep writing on my own. Independent healing begets confidence, which begets writing. You only stay stuck when you dislike you.

I urge all my blocked students to keep a process journal (described in "Warming Up," Chapter 6) and read up on cognitive therapy. I also urge them to relax and work on adopting the Three Basic Attitude Groups of Writing: 1. Eliminate your ego. 2. Acquire patience. 3. Listen to your inner voice. (These were discussed in "Handling Criticism," Chapter 6.)

Put together, this is all you need to get yourself out of block.

But perhaps you've been reading this and thinking, Well, that's not me. My problem is technical. I simply don't know how to get the stolen porpoise through the streets of Tampa to the aquarium where Lorna the marine biologist sits in tears beside the empty porpoise tank. That's why I'm stuck, not any emotional mumbo jumbo. Simon, you're not helping me with that.

So for those of you who insist it's all technical, here's a breakdown of the three times when you're most likely to feel blocked — none of which, as you'll see, are the result of purely technical reasons — and what non-technical approaches you can take to remedy each.

Blocked From The Beginning Of The Draft

You have a fabulous idea for a piece of fiction, yet you can't get yourself to start writing it. You are baffled by this. Maybe you can see the whole story — every mustache tweaking, every eye glinting — so clearly that your inability to write it mystifies you. Or maybe you have a gem of an idea but no sense of the setting in which it should go. Or maybe you have monumentally ambitious stylistic and thematic goals yet no characters, or even a glimpse of a scene.

Whatever the problem, you can't write more than a page or two of the beginning. What is going on here?

You might be caught up in wanting to eat the entire banquet in one humongous gulp instead of, as you must, a single, human-sized mouthful at a time. If you already see a lot of the story in your mind — or a bright, shining central idea or theme — you might be fearful that you can't get your words up to that level of skill, or do justice to that central vision. You know you must write one word and then another, but you are impatient to complete the great plan. Single words — even paragraphs — seem too time-consuming, too onerous, too boring. Not only that, but they could lead you astray, digress you away from your desired scheme. Or they could lead you to define characters and scenes that you would rather leave undefined, since defining them might drag your monumentally ambitious goals down to the level of the microcosm and the everyday. And the process? The revision? Ach! It'll take too long to crawl to what you can already see. What trouble. You simply can't get psyched up for any of it. You just want to take a nap instead. Your imagination is so overwhelmed by the task ahead that it would rather lie down and get a nice forty winks.

At this point, you will probably do one of two things. You will either quit writing entirely, in which case you're not likely to be reading this book. Or you will decide that your problem is not fear or impatience, but that you just don't know what to do. You simply need more information. That's it. You need to look at completed books, you decide, searching (depending on your dilemma) for either data or examples. If only you could spend some time reading up on your subject matter, or studying books written in a style similar to your own, or perusing stories to trigger some epiphany of setting or character, or scouring biographies of authors who wrote novels as ambitious as the one you're planning — then you'd have either your missing data or your model of the "right" way, and then you'd get unstuck.

This is a stock response to beginning-the-draft block. Instead of acknowledging their fears and applying egolessness, patience, and the inner voice, many writers try to overcome beginning-the-draft block by reading a lot. Not writing as well, since that is too scary. But reading, only. They tell themselves that by reading, they will see how other writers did it, and so will see how they can do it. Or they will become experts in the information they need, and so can go forth.

Between my first and second books, I believed this too. I recognized I was terrified of starting a second book — a novel, no less — and so I began reading and reading other novels. Over the months, my list grew, and the more I read, the further my start-date receded. This might have gone on for years had I not had a conversation one night with a friend who, for seven years, had been unable to write her dissertation. She asked how my novel was coming, and I told her I was reading a lot of novels to see how to write a novel. She laughed, and said she'd been reading a lot of dissertations to see how to write a dissertation! Then she added what a teacher of hers had advised: "Every piece of writing is unique, whether novels or dissertations. Yours will be too. You can read as many other novels or dissertations as you want, but all they're going to show you is how other people did their novels or dissertations. You won't be able to do yours until you just start to do it."

Don't use reading as an excuse for not trying to write. Reading might give you that ker-pow! of inspiration and it might not, but if you're not writing at the same time, you'll never see the inspiration evolve into work on the page.

It is tempting to give yourself tasks which you must complete before you start. Sure, you might need to do some research on how peasants lived during the Russian revolution, or on how the inside of an oil tanker looks during refueling. Or you might need to see how Faulkner switched points of view throughout his book so you can switch points of view throughout yours. But first drafts are not about getting all the details right. First drafts are about getting the basic story out. If you give yourself a slew of must-do chores first, you'll never get going. You might think you are on your way, but in reality all you are doing is getting your chores done — and tricking yourself into believing that you are writing. Unfortunately, once the chores are done, your fears will not have gone away. In fact, they might even be worse, because you'll have too much to measure up to.

Just write, one page and day at a time. If it comes out "wrong," work on it later. First drafts are your time to make mud pies and get all dirty. You get stuck before you begin them only if you aren't willing to be patient with the process, and accept that you will need to revise.

This is true no matter how you are conceiving the piece. Neither the well-visualized story, nor the great central idea story, will materialize unless you sit down and begin. Maybe your writing is far, far away from capturing your desired vision. That's fine. If you keep working, and eventually revising, you'll either capture your vision, or write your way into a new and more interesting one than you'd originally imagined. All of which means you need to start — not just so you can get the project underway but, more importantly for your block, so that you can begin to diminish your fears.

Ditto for the ambitious plans. Many apprentice writers can't get going because they want to write a novel that encapsulates all the knowledge of civilization, plus answers every question about humanity that every great philosopher has ever pondered. All these writers can see when they peer into their writing future is a massive palace of literature, an extraordinary creation that will make War and Peace look as interesting as a grocery list, a book that, once entered, will transform the reader like a dinner with the Buddha.

In other words, the goal is so big, and you're so small, you just can't brave the feat.

Again, the only way to do it is to start. And start small. Very small. Just a paragraph, or a page. Or start with a tiny subject — a mouse scrabbling for a crumb under a grate, instead of a king getting decapitated. Maybe start with a minor character, or an image of the moon. Then move to the next step. One. Thing. At. A. Time. Move slowly. Don't get it "right." Just get it out. Right can come later. Out is all you need now. Producing a complete draft — however clumsy and silly it reads — can help reduce your fears, as it will render you feeling somewhat more in control.

Beginning-the-draft block is most likely to occur when writers feel under a deadline. If the deadline is external — an editor or teacher waiting with tapping foot for the chapter — you still need to apply the one-step-at-a-time approach, and you still need to give yourself room to make a mess. You can always revise. If, however, the deadline is internal — you think you should have a story done by now, you'd better have that novel written by the time you're forty or else! — then look back at the discussion of "Patience" in Chapter 3.

When Stuck In Later Drafts

(i.e., When You Feel Like You Can't Revise)

So you've got your first draft, maybe even your second or third. But you're not happy with it. Perhaps you know where you want it to end up, perhaps you don't — but either way, you're not sure how to get there.

This is the one instance in which your block might be due to technical trouble. Which means that your trouble may be quite easily solved by revision. Many books cover revision in great detail, and I suggest you refer to them to understand the process more thoroughly than I can explain here. But they probably won't cover the fundamental attitudes that are necessary to face and proceed with revision, and that's what this section is about.

First, bone up on the Three Basic Attitude Groups of Writing. That is, constantly and consciously work on keeping your ego out of the process. Constantly and consciously remind yourself of the need for patience. Constantly and consciously tune into the concerns of your inner voice. (For more detail on this, see "Handling Criticism" in Chapter 6.)

Then, you need to work at accepting that the text is fluid. A lot of our resistance to revision comes from some bizarre feeling that once we've put the words down, they're sacred. It's ridiculous, but we do it again and again — we begin a story with a sense of openness, the blank page some uncharted ocean which is ours alone to frolic in. But as soon as we put anything on the page, we lose that sense of freedom and spaciousness, as though the ocean has turned to concrete and our whole body, so recently splashing about with delight and abandon, has become paralyzed. But the words are not concrete. The words are fluid. Your entire story is fluid. By that I mean infinitely malleable, variable, fixable. This applies from the level of the word to the level of character to the level of the plot itself.

I think we switch from ocean to concrete because we fear we won't be able to come up with a better solution. In my novel, which I spent two years revising, I lost control of the storyline fairly early in the book and spent the next seven hundred pages following all kinds of subplots and characters which, I eventually realized, were unnecessary, and in fact prevented me from figuring out the plot and characters I really needed. I was loath to cut anything, and so I didn't. Instead, I let the novel sit like a prop on the corner of my desk, a concrete Mt. Everest that I couldn't imagine climbing.

In the meantime, I turned to other writing projects, and settled on one which was (thank you, god) a rewrite of a previously unsuccessful story. I had worked on this story for years, altering the ending, switching from first to third person — but essentially leaving most of it intact, solid — concrete. I decided to turn the story into a screenplay, which meant that I needed to rethink the structure entirely, add characters, adjust the pace, externalize the ending, and so on. Luckily, it had been several years since I'd worked on that story, so I no longer cared about any particular paragraph or development. In fact, I no longer cared about anything except the basic idea. The text suddenly became fluid; I saw I could do anything I wanted with it. So I extracted what I cared about from the story, dropped the rest, and — abracadabra — found I could turn my handkerchief into a rabbit, and quite an exquisite one at that.

Thus empowered, I returned to my novel. I now knew that I needed to see text as fluid. That is, I needed to address every element of the piece — not just plot and characters, but also structure and tone and length and a zillion other things. I had previously seen this as impossible: they were my words; I had worked at putting them there; what if I lost something vital? I tried to counter this attitude with egolessness. So what if they were my words, right? They weren't working, so out they should go.

Still, it was a novel, the first novel I had written as an adult, and, unlike when I'd rewritten the failed story into a screenplay, I found that I needed some help in making this attitudinal shift. In effect, I needed a technical crutch. Then I remembered that I had once read about a writer who threw into a dresser drawer everything he scissored out of his early drafts. I decided to follow this example and see if it helped, though I decided to use not a drawer, but a computer file. I called it CUTS, and whenever I hit a section of writing that I thought I might need to sever from the novel, I simply tossed it in there. Almost instantly, I lost any residual squeamishness about revising my novel, because I knew that if I wanted to reuse those sections, they still existed. This, in turn, reinforced my new ability to see my text as fluid. I could cut, I could retrieve, I could add, I could cut what I added. The novel melted from solid concrete back to a liquid form, one that I could pour and repour into new shapes and sizes. I felt freer than I'd ever felt before. After twenty-five years of writing, I finally felt that I was learning to write.

That, however, was not the only new attitude I needed to adapt to stay unstuck. I also needed to recognize that there are many levels of revision. That is, what I had thought was revision — trimming the ending, changing from present to past tense, making a red dress blue — was only one level of revision, and the final one at that. Revision can be an all-encompassing, Sherman's army that mows down everything except the name of the town, or it can be a dainty spring breeze that does little besides ruffle the petals. Sometimes all that's needed is a spring breeze. But in the case of that novel, I needed to attack with much more powerful force.

After I sold my novel, I found that people began asking me about revision. How could I have reconstructed my novel so dramatically? They knew about revision, but when they trimmed their endings, or made a red dress blue, their novels didn't really get any stronger. What did I know that they didn't?

I explained that there are different levels of revision, and, in striving to elaborate, I came up with three basic divisions of the process. These are, in my own personal terminology, cosmetic changes, surgical strikes, and major overhauls.

Cosmetic changes. (Also known as Polishing.) This is the dainty spring breeze — the tiny things you change here and there. You want to change Cinderella's slipper from gold to glass, for instance, so you erase one word and substitute the other. Or maybe you realize you have two sentences make the same point. Listen: "On that spring morning, beneath the trumpeting rays of the sun, roses blushed into bloom, frogs sprang skyward from sleepy crouches, and seedlings do-si-doed with adolescent glee. It was a beautiful day." Obviously, "It was a beautiful day" merely recapitulates what was just illustrated, and therefore is unnecessary. Being a careful writer, you cut it. Cosmetic changes are the easiest kinds of changes, and as a result are what apprentice writers usually think is meant by revision. Fix a word here and there, alter hair color from blonde to brunette, and the story is finished. However, this is frequently the final, not the first, level of revision — no matter how brilliant a writer you are. This is one of the most major attitudinal shifts that a writer must make. We all want to think that our stories need only cosmetic changes and, in fact, that cosmetic changes are what is meant by the term "revision." But cosmetic changes are only the finishing touches. Accepting this early in your writing career will make your life much easier.

Surgical strikes. These are similar to cosmetic changes, except instead of working on the level of the word or sentence, they're on the level of the paragraph or section. Maybe in the middle of your Cinderella story you have a lovely flashback about Cinderella's days in the Girl Scouts, and how she earned her botanical merit badge while gathering strawberries in a meadow. The scene has nothing to do with the story of Cinderella and so, despite its lyrical appeal, eventually you come to recognize it's superfluous and cut it. Or let's say you've organized the story so Cinderella goes to the ball and comes home and returns to being a servant-girl. You need to have the prince rescue her, but you can't figure out how to get them together again. Finally, revision lightning strikes, and you realize you need to introduce an element that's not in your story — so you invent the device of the glass slipper, which you then go back and weave all through the story. Surgical strike, then, is a bit more challenging than a cosmetic change, because it means giving up something substantial that was in your first draft, or putting in something substantial that had not been there previously.

Major overhaul. This is Sherman's army, the most formidable level of revision. Let's say you started writing a story about sad, lonely Cinderella, a servant-girl to her stepmother and stepsisters. But shortly after the first page, you veered off into having Cinderella meet a Martian, and then shifted to Mars and spent time with the Grack Family, and you needed to get Cinderella to Mars but didn't have a rocket in the story so you just figured, Screw it, no one will notice, and put her on Mars, and while we're at it, let's stick that Girl Scout scene in somewhere. Eventually, you realize that what you've written doesn't tell a good story, and that for it to do so, you need to blow up your first draft and start again from scratch. This is the TNT approach to revision, and unfortunately is necessary much more often than we might like. With my collection of short stories I never did a major overhaul, but I sure did with my novel, and in fact major overhaul accounted for most of my two years of revision. With major overhaul, you shove dynamite into the text, detonate, and rescue only those shards of the story that will work. This is by far the most arduous level of revision, but once you've done it, you feel that you can conquer anything.

Almost every piece of fiction initially needs at least surgical strike, if not major overhaul. It is important to recognize that these earlier stages of revision, though seemingly overwhelming at first, actually take a shorter period of time than the later stage of revision, cosmetic changes. This is because major overhauls and surgical strikes deal with larger, and hence fewer, elements; cosmetic changes deal with all the minute elements, and so you have many. Another way to think about this is that after you have addressed the big, major stuff, the polishing can take a very long time, since there's so much, and so many stages of it, to do. (Polishing is not discussed in this book. I highly recommend you review other books on the subject, especially Write Tight by William Brohaugh [Writer's Digest Books, 1993], a book which has helped my students enormously.)

A few other attitude changes are worth mentioning here. The first is that revision is a cyclical process. One round of bettering your draft is only one round. It may take you many rounds before the story (or paragraph, or sentence) is done. This doesn't mean you're stupid or untalented. It means you're normal. I revise so many times I don't count. Revision is a fact of life.

Also, realize there is no one correct way to revise anything. Revision is about exploring some possibilities out of an infinite selection of possibilities and finding the solutions that work best for your particular story, and appeal most to your inner voice. But there is no single, perfect answer to every revision problem. There is no "correct" or "right" writing; there is only good writing. The more creative your solutions are to your revision problems, the better your writing will be.

And finally, recognize that sometimes you are too close to the material. This tends to happen when we are writing about something that is autobiographical; we know so many of the details, and have so many mixed feelings, that we can't see straight enough to get the piece into a workable shape. If this applies to you, consider letting some of your story deviate from your original plan. If you are white, maybe make the character who is based on you black, or if you are twenty, change your character to forty. Drop details which are there because you want them, not because you need them. Shift locations, plot developments, number of major players in the story. Develop different revelations. Don't stick to fact. Fiction isn't journalism. It's fiction.

That's all I know about helping yourself get on with revision. Try following these tips — not just for a day or two, but for weeks, or months. No experiment can work overnight, and certainly not one as profound as changing your attitudes about revision.

If, however, you try all this and still feel stuck with revising, you might want to spend some time away from the piece, during which you live your life and/or write other things. Then, when you return, you might be able to see the piece with fresh eyes, and feel less attached to your words, and so be able to go back through these suggestions again with greater ease, satisfaction, and, possibly, success.

When Unable To Write At All

You have stories you want to start and stories half-revised. And you can't face any of them. Maybe you can sit down at the desk, but you can't get a single word out of your pen. Maybe this has gone on for weeks, or months, or years. What can you do to break out of this hell?

This condition is blatantly not technical. Of course you could write a word — even meaningless words. But you feel you can't write at all. You feel completely frozen. You are a writer who's become trapped in amber.

Usually this occurs when a writer has been trying to conquer a specific novel or story that has proven elusive. One of my friends has been blocked for five years because she can't face a half-begun novel, and can't seem to let herself begin anything else. I've had recurring bouts of block over a magical romantic novel I've never been able to write.

My solution, and the solution I recommend to my students? Write something else. It doesn't matter what. Letters to correspondents. A journal. Fairy tales for your kids. Your mother's words — verbatim — about how she met your father. Haiku. Content doesn't matter. Beauty of language doesn't matter. The only thing that counts is the act of writing itself. Your writing muscles will never be able to handle the decathlon to which you aspire if you don't first let them pick up a fork so you can eat your peas and carrots. Just write anything that appeals to you. Write until you remember the fun and pleasure of writing. Then keep writing some more.

Eventually, you'll write your way into a place where you've never been before. Maybe that will be a rewarding pen pal relationship with your five-year-old niece. Maybe it will be a career as an ad copywriter. Maybe it will be a single prose poem that you can insert in your Seasons Greetings cards.

Whatever it is, it's still writing.

In other words, if you can't do it at all, try some other it. You might find it's just as worthwhile as your original goal, if not more so.

I still haven't written the magical romantic novel, but in the interest of surviving the blocks it inspired, I've written another novel, a memoir, and this book. I now know I'll write that novel someday, because I've written myself into a state of faith. And that, in the meantime, I've been productive and improving, so that when I finally can manage to write it, I'll do a much better job than I would have done before.

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