Gordon Stamper, Jr.
One of the writing life’s potential horrors is writer’s block. The departure of the muse, the well running dry, the gaping void of the blank page—all could be used as descriptions for the terrifying affliction. But this blog entry will leave the land of metaphor and look at two practical reasons for writer’s block, one unavoidable, the other utterly avoidable.
Life can silence your voice as a writer. Illness, whether it is yourself or someone you love, happens. If you have a career and/or a family to provide for, and you don’t have the luxury of writing for a living, your writing output can be significantly reduced. If you have children and there is no trust fund to pay for the nanny, you may not be able to crank out that great idea for a novel.
Tillie Olsen wrote about this in her excellent nonfiction work Silences. She was an expert on this subject, being a working class mother, wife, and political activist, and when life’s demands allowed her, an award-winning short story writer. Olsen posited that talented working class people were burdened by demands of life and the need for income when they wanted to write, particularly women until the later 20th century. In her 50s and 60s, she was able to publish more works and eventually become a respected college instructor, but there were decades of gaps between her published works before the 1970s.
Then there is “I can’t think of anything to write about.” This faux affliction is illustrated by Joel and Ethan Coen’s film character Barton Fink. Assigned to write a screenplay for a “wrestling picture,” Fink is stymied and longs for his more sophisticated New York projects as a playwright. Fink misses out on many potential sources of inspiration, including a hulking and maniacal traveling salesman who loves wrestling and happens to be Fink’s next door neighbor.
When you are a writer, you should be an observer. Have a dedicated notebook, be it paper or electronic, to jot down bits of inspiration in journal or notation format. How could that nasty exchange between an angry customer and a cashier turn into a potential scene for your story? As a poet, what kind of impression did the lone crane make on you as it flew over the busy highway? This could serve as that later wellspring of ideas when your imagination is running dry.
And when all else fails, try heuristics, writing prompts, and freewriting. Reporters’ questions can help generate and expand new ideas. Books such as the excellent Writer’s Block by Jason Rekulak have invaluable prompts to kick start writing, such as creating your own definition of words and composing an expository essay from what is happening in a photograph. Even the old standby of freewriting can help, tossing away self-correction in favor of creation.
An old professor of mine who was also a pen-named romance novelist, Richard Hull, told us the writer’s adage that was passed down to him: sit down on your butt and write. When life prevents you from sitting on your butt, it cannot be helped. But any other writer’s block is curable by a world full of ideas, if you take the time to observe and write about them. Then writer’s block is not a terror anymore, just a paper tiger.
Gordon Stamper, Jr. is an adjunct faculty member of Ivy Tech Gary, limited-term lecturer at Purdue University North Central, a published writer, and moderator of Highland Writers’ Group, which meets in Griffith (Grindhouse Café) and Valparaiso (Blackbird Café) on alternating Saturdays.