Picture the scene: a chef returns home early from work neither sweating nor smelling of roast dinners. In fact, it is mere minutes since he left for the kitchen and his wife is confused.
‘It’s no good, love,’ he tells her. ‘I tried, but I’ve got cooking block.’
‘Oh!’ his wife replies sympathetically. ‘In that case you should take a frying pan from the kitchen, put it on the coffee table and look at it occasionally while watching The Jeremy Kyle Show.’
‘Thanks, love. I knew you’d understand. It should pass in a few months.’
‘You just take your time.’
This is, perhaps, a simplistic view of writer’s block but, looked at in this way, it highlights that we are alone, professionally, in indulging in the ‘crippling’ feeling a blank piece of paper can invoke. Teaching block? Builder’s block? Plumber’s Block? Parenting block? Can you imagine it? The world would fall apart while its inhabitants sat up in bed and drank tea. This doesn’t, however, help anyone who is suffering from writing anxiety, but the analogy helped me not to take writing too seriously.
The reason that other professionals do not suffer ‘the block’ is because when installing a shower (using the example of a plumber) they are not thinking that this shower needs to be the best shower in the world; it needs to be infused with the full weight of my personality and talent; it will stand for centuries to come and people will travel miles to marvel at it and celebrate the wonderful plumber who was gifted enough to place it there. Don’t get me wrong, I have taken much pride in the jobs I have held, but there isn’t the same personal investment.
The best advice I have ever received was in an interview with Gladiator screenwriter, William Nicholson, who simply told me to ‘write even though you know it’s shit’. This made a lot of sense to me. He went on to advise that a writer should complete one whole draft, fighting the temptation to edit at all. It sounds obvious, but anxiety often causes us to try and make everything perfect on the first run and surely having a terrible first draft to edit is better that having an over-edited first chapter or scene and nothing else.
If, however, it is not confidence or personal pressure that is causing you to freeze at the sight of a biro, it could simply be that your idea isn’t quite developed enough to plunge into the writing stages and more planning or research is needed. If generating an idea is the problem try writing exercises. No amount of staring at a blank piece of paper is going to turn a creative void into a bestselling masterpiece.
Another problem could be the strength of your idea. Writing a sizable piece of work could take years and is daunting even to the most experienced practitioner, but if you have chosen to write something that you only have lukewarm feeling for you are going to struggle to find your way to the desk on a cold winter morning when hiding in bed feels much safer.
When writing, it is important to take regular screen breaks; stretch; go for a walk; go and find inspiration. If you find that none of the above is affecting you, it could simply be that you have been overdoing it, or that you are not comfortable in your environment. Setting up a writing space that is just for you – maybe even the kitchen table when the kids are at school – is essential to the wellbeing of you and your work.
Remember that there is no right or wrong way to be a writer. If writing by night works for you, then great. If starting at the end of the book/script and working backwards is for you then do it. Maybe you find that working on more than one project and alternating your attention between the two will keep you interested. Writing is one of the few professions where you can suit yourself and that is something to be celebrated. However, if you are feeling isolated and really finding it hard to get going, a course or even speaking to other writers will be a definite help.
Finally, if all else fails, it is discipline that will see you through. Plan working times and deadlines and stick to them. You chose to write for a reason; remember that reason as often as you can and – just write.
So, to recap:
- Have confidence in your project and yourself, even if the whole world is telling you that it cannot be done.
- Complete a whole draft, resisting the urge to edit.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Make sure that you have done enough research/planning.
- Make sure that you are interested in your subject.
- Take regular breaks.
- Set up a writing environment that works for you.
- Suit yourself and enjoy it.
- Speak to other writers or take a writing course.
- Plan working times and deadlines and stick to them