Writing Block Part 2: Breaking Out of Mental Jail
Posted on February 25, 2013
In Part One, I visited the concept of writer’s block both through what respected writer Neil Gaiman said about it as well as the overwhelming frustration it can produce in any writer. The one word I didn’t use in Part One is the word I think truly sums up how it felt. I was in mental jail. Now, I don’t want to assume that any pointers I give here is the only way. But I did want to share with you some of the possible “keys” to breaking myself out that worked for me.
One of the things Gaiman mentions that can be a writer’s biggest downfall is the tendency towards perfectionism. I will be honest – I am not a fan of revision work. I write and revise a lot in my head, but when I get it down on paper or typed in my computer, I don’t want to have to do more than proofread it in the long run. After all, my writing can’t be that bad, can it? It’s perfect just the way I wrote it, right? A writer can drive themselves mad with these thoughts (and many of us do).
Letting go of my sense of perfectionism was the first step to removing my block. Once I gave myself permission for my sentences to have mistakes, I found that I could write more than just one sentence. The same went for the hook of the first page. Instead of constantly trying to find the perfect hook that literary agents and readers would lap up like a kitten on milk, I just let the writing be what it was.
Taking away the need for every word to be in the perfect order with the best characterization and world building allowed me to put word after word together until I found myself with a chapter. I didn’t allow myself to go back and edit. It sits there with all its imperfections, and you know what? I’m still alive. And even better, I have a chapter from which I’ve added other chapters. I’m sure there are mistakes galore, but I’ll find them when I come back for rewrites.
Another crucial thing I had to let go of to break down my block was the need to write the blockbuster or the next big thing. We all do it. We all read the various blogs, subscribe to different pages, and pay attention to what’s going on in the publishing world. It’s a changing beast daily, and there are no perfect roads to the finish line. But all of us writing our first novels want a taste of success whether it’s self-publishing or getting an agent to secure a deal. Focusing on the end game can ruin the beginning of it before you even start to play. For me, I had to stop obsessively finding out who got the latest YA deal or who’s at the top of Amazon’s lists. If the only people who read my book after it’s been through the writing ringer are my family and friends, I’ll be okay. The point is to write the book and get it out there.
The last major contributor to letting myself out of mental jail was a writing partner. We all know how important it is to find a writing group or other people who are writers with whom we can share our journeys. I got lucky that a former editing client turned out to be a friend. She keeps me on a schedule and honest with what’s going on. For about two out of the three months, she diligently asked me how my writing was going. She never judged when I told her the truth – that I hadn’t written a word. Instead, she offered daily encouragement.
I didn’t allow myself to go back and edit. It sits there with all its imperfections, and you know what? I’m still alive. And even better, I have a chapter from which I’ve added other chapters.
I got to see her put down loads of words. And that little bit of competitor in me (okay, a very large part of my personality) wanted to join her in increasing my word count. So I took some of her advice that she gave that I believe helped me take those last few steps to breaking out. She suggested some possible moments of meditation. I could visualize my writer’s block as an actual block, and then I had to see it being destroyed. Sounds funny, but in the long run it was a fun exercise that I could do anytime I felt frustrated.
Lots of books have suggestions that may or may not work for you. One of the most supportive books I found was The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block by Hillary Retig. Instead of adding pressure by emphasizing the lack of writing, it was the first book that I felt gave tools to help get me going again. A word of caution – don’t read too many books. Too much education of what to do can start hampering the creative juices again.
Again, I don’t really want to jinx myself by jumping up and down proclaiming that I have the secret to busting writer’s block. I know that at any moment I could find myself back in jail. But I did want to post that it can be overcome. While my path to freedom may be different from yours, the point is to get yourself on that path. And always remember – be kind to your jailer. After all, we’re hardest on ourselves in every step we take as writers. No point in beating ourselves up anymore than we have to. Better to put that energy into writing more words.