Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Observing Writer's Block

OK, I admit it. I don’t eat five servings of fruits and veggies every day. I don’t floss every day. And I don’t write every day. Some days, like today, are Doritos and Oreos days. Some days a toothbrush and an extra swish of Listerine are good enough. And some days writing means pondering plot while vacuuming the pool. I’m not going to discuss the days where I ponder vacuuming while eating Doritos and Oreos, sans plot, floss, or actual work of any kind. That’s just too embarrassing.

In my graduate lecture at Vermont College, I discussed how the right and left sides of our brains affect our writing. (You can read an article based on that lecture in Hunger Mountain literary journal here.) I talked about all the reasons why we should write every day. I talked about Robert Olen Butler’s “The Zone,” muscle memory for the right brain, and a lot of other stuff that I really believe and rarely practice.

Yes, writing every day has merit. So does “butt in chair.” But what am I supposed to do when I’m stuck and have nothing to say? If I’m really honest, this happens a lot. Fear holds me back more than anything. Once I write down what it’s in my head, I’m faced with the fact that it’s not as brilliant as I imagined. In their book, Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland write, "Vision is always ahead of execution--and so it should be." Knowing this doesn't stop the fear, though, so sometimes it’s easier to avoid writing altogether. I know, I have to write. But I can't. But I have to. But I can't. And the block begins. 

So what do I do when I’m blocked?

1.      I don’t force it. Whenever I force writing, I end up with a bigger mess than when I try to shove green beans into my eight-month-old granddaughter. Believe me, it ain’t pretty. Think Linda Blair from The Exorcist. Violent. Scary. Spittle-infused.

2.      I let it go. I have fun during my hiatus. I listen to music and take walks. I go out with friends and laugh and drink wine. I try to let go of the guilt. This part is hard. I went to Catholic school; it’s engrained in me. But the sooner I forgive myself for slacking, the sooner I can actually get back to work.

3.      I read really good books. Vermont College alumni, The Apocalypsies, and The Luckies add to my to-read list all the time. Well-written stories with heart always rev up my writing mojo. So do really good movies. Story inspires story. 

4.      I do mundane jobs around the house. The act of scrubbing or sweeping is so boring that my mind wanders, usually into my work-in-progress. While I wring out a dish rag, I can twist and untwist plots and get my characters in all sorts of predicaments. I work out the messy details. Looking around my house, I think I should do this more. Much more. 

5.      I start slowly. Once ideas are ripe and ready to go, I only make myself write a few minutes a day. After a few days, I write more and more until I’m on a full sprint. I’m not a slow-and-steady marathon writer. I’m more of a sprint-and-crash writer. Once I’m off and running again, I usually have enough momentum to finish a project. Then I start the process all over again. 

Do you get blocked? Does fear hold you back? What do you do about it?


K.A. Barson writes YA contemporary and MG historical, both fiction and non-fiction. She graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in January 2011 and is repped by Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc. Her debut novel, 45 POUNDS, is forthcoming from Viking Children’s Books next summer. Visit her at www.kabarson.com.


  1. Love this post, Kelly. My list is much like yours: taking the pressure off and having a little faith always helps.
    ART & FEAR is one of my favorite books on the creative process. I also recently read Jonah Lehrer's latest (Imagine: How Creativity Works) and was blown away by how succinctly he surveys the latest brain research and how it might explain creative endeavors. Can't recommend it highly enough! Thanks for sharing your article, as well. I've bookmarked it to take a look:-)

    1. Kristen, I love Jonah Lehrer! A while back I posted this video of is appearance on the Colbert Report on my Facebook page: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/412742/april-17-2012/jonah-lehrer?xrs=share_copy
      He really helps alleviate guilt. I love how writers get each other.

  2. This is really, really good advice.

  3. Whenever I get writer's block, I go for a run or hike. Works most of the time.

    Great advice, Kelly!

    1. I'm sure it would work for me too, but sometimes my laziness and love of Oreos and Doritos win, which is not a good strategy for writer's block. Unless, of course, a writer wants to look like a block.

  4. I don't believe in writing every day, and thus I don't get blocked...:)
    Take a deep breath, and remind yourself the well is infinite.

    1. That is so simple, yet brilliant: "don't believe in writing every day". From now on, I won't! Thank you! Yes, the well is infinite. Gentle reminders mean so much.

  5. Doritos and Oreos...very nice combo!