Monday, June 8, 2009

Breaking Through the Wall…

"I have a love-hate relationship with the writing life. I wouldn't wish to have any other kind of life…and on the other hand, I wish it were easier. And it never is. The reward comes sentence by sentence. The reward comes in the unexpected inspiration. The reward comes from creating a character who lives and breathes and is perfectly real. But such effort it takes to attain the reward! I would never have believed it would take such effort."-Journal of a Novel, December 15, 1997, Elizabeth George, Write Away

"I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done." --Steven Wright

The idea of being a writer would appear to be a glorious, magical journey, akin to traipsing through a field of daisies on a spring day. Blowing bubbles, twirling under the clouds and then… inspiration strikes and with a wave of our hands, the novel appears before us like a rainbow in the sky.

Or… we spend hours, days, months, years, pounding away at the keyboard, pounding away at the wall lodged in our thick skull as we struggle in vain to reach that novel tucked deep within our souls.

The writer's life ain't easy. Moving past the proverbial Writer's Block is as much fun as a root canal. And at least that has a time limit!

"We conquer, not in any brilliant fashion, we conquer by continuing." --George Matheson

When writers hit a wall, the greatest idea in the world won't help. We need more. We need to break through and we're not sure how to do it. This is our personal Dark Night of the Soul—when we need to push onward down that rocky path despite the lack of light.

And how exactly do we do that? First thing we need to examine exactly what writer's block is. To my mind it's a two-parter. The outer symptom is that we're stuck, we're stumped because we've reached an impasse and don't *see* what comes next. The inner cause though is often simply fear. Fear that the next sentence will be mediocre. Fear that as we type, the words will turn to gibberish. Fear that unless we are struck with a brilliant inspiration that is clear and obvious, we can't write.

Inspiration is lovely but it's perspiration that counts. Many writers will admit that their most inspired moments turn out after reflection to be just so-so. While the writing that seemed humdrum while slogging through a slow day actually turned out pretty darn good.

A friend came to visit James Joyce one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.

“James, what’s wrong?” the friend asked. “Is it the work?”

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at his friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?

“How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”

“Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you.”

“Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”

From On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

There are two things one can do with writer's block. One is step away. Take a breather. Live life for a while and take the pressure off.

Many people hear voices when no-one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. --Meg Chittenden

Sitting cooped up with nothing but our imagination and our writing tools can be crazy-making after all. We may just need something to jar us out of our slump, to give us fresh perspective, to help us reawaken the delight within our souls.

I have learned as much about writing about my people by listening to blues and jazz and spirituals as I have by reading novels. — Ernest Gaines

For me, it's music. When I pull away and listen to a favorite tune, I feel transported and rejuvenated. For my friend Cathy, a stroll through the fragrant redwoods gives her a lift and brings her a sense of joy and comfort. Maybe for you it's repotting a plant or hitting a garage sale, repainting the living room or getting a massage. Hmmm… sign me up for that last one!

That's step one. But it doesn't get us writing again. What can we do to actually GET back to the process of writing once more?

The answer is simple, frustrating, annoying and obvious.


The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Spender said, "The best thing is to write anything, anything at all that comes into your mind, until gradually there is a calm and creative day."

We're training our mind to respond to our hand movements. Whether it's typing or scribbling long-hand on legal pad, our brain is geared up to associate the mental process of writing with the physical process. Now, sometimes the block is resolved by the foray away from writing. We come back and just *know*. And sometimes money does magically appear on the front lawn (I joke but once I looked out my kitchen window and saw a twenty dollar bill fluttering down to the ground!).

The real test though is in the writing. Which is rather a pisser. *heh-heh* To think the problem and the solution might just be the same!

"People on the outside think there's something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn't like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that's all there is to it." ---Harlan Ellison

So you sit down and write. If you're stuck with a scene, you tell yourself that you will come up with six possible ways the scene could go. The choices can be totally wacky, unbelievable and implausible.

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." --Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland.

This is where we need to realize that writing is both a linear and creative process. When we're stuck and we keep trying to approach the scene with a linear perspective, we find our self pushing against the wall.

You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created." --Albert Einstein

The above quote applies to writer's block as well. Which is why a change of scenery often unblocks the mind. By letting go of the linear, logical, rational perspective and just writing those six implausible scenes, you are freeing your mind from the constraints. You're giving your creative self permission to color outside the lines. You know what this can do?

How about… Free You As A Writer. Or… Awaken the spontaneous brilliance that leaves your jaw gaping and your skin tingling. *wink*

While Writer's Block is often simply fear dressed up as procrastination, it's also an amazing opportunity. It's almost as if our soul is whispering, "This particular path is okay but there's another close by that's so incredible you'll feel transported." You may be "stuck" but in truth there could be a touch of intuition that *knows* there's an alternate idea that's so freaking cool it'll blow your mind.



So… Go for it. Take those breaks and then get back to work. Listen to the music within your soul, take a deep breath and Play. Dream up impossible scenarios and tell yourself that anything goes. Give yourself permission to color outside the lines and you might just find yourself dancing in Wonderland.

"If you’re going to be a writer, the first essential is just to write. Do not wait for an idea. Start writing something and the ideas will come. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow." --- Louis L’Amour

Let's make this a spectacular week, everyone! We're approaching spring and all its glory. Let's give the stories that dance in our heart freedom to spill out on the pages. We can do it. Why? Because we're writers, that's why!

So tell me, how have you 'broken through the wall'? What methods do you use to move past writer's block?

Chiron O'Keefe
Also featured at Pop Culture Divas!


Tiffany James said...


How did you know I needed to break through a wall?!

For me, the wall comes in the form of my perfectionistic, analytical mind. When I'm writing a rough draft I just write. I don't worry about whether what comes out is brilliant or tripe. No surprise - that's when I do my best work. But now I'm working on the seventh draft, and for some strange reason, I've convinced myself that this writing needs to be better than when I was working on the rought draft because, hello, this is the seventh draft.

I think it's time to "conquer by continuing". My goal is to write for an hour today - it's summer, the kids are home all day and already bored - that's all I can manage. But I'll be continuing and that's what counts!

Thank you for such a timely post! And have a wonderful week.


Sandy said...


What a fantastic post.

You are right that writer's block has a lot to do with just having a problem with writing the scene. Even when I can visualize a scene it takes time to find the words to write it. lol

This is definitely a tough business we are in.

Kathy Holmes said...

Writing is especially delightful and productive when you're supposed to be doing something else. I had a great writing day today while I was doing my day job. :)

J Hali said...

I needed to read this. Music sounds like a good idea. I do escape into the joy of it and always feel better, recharged afterwards. Thanks for putting it in perspective.

Gem Judson said...

Chiron, I've never been here (at your blog) with so many new things to learn and places to go. This is a breath of fresh air. Now I have to go back and read past blogs! Love the quotes too. Very inspring collection.

Anonymous said...

When I hit my one major speed bump, I walked away for a bit and grabbed my trusty notepad. I wrote down possible solutions to the bump and eventually I was able to get by it. Granted I'm a new writer so I've only had one bad block so far but logic would dictate that more are to come.

Great post, Chiron!

Liena Ferror

Chiron said...

Hello Tiffany!

Ah, yes, the perks and perils of a perfectionist mind. At least you're able to whip through a rough draft, often that's exactly when perfectionists falter!

I know the feeling with the rewrites. For me it helps to turn over my manuscript to crit partners and beg for feedback.

Your goal sounds perfect! An hour of productivity a day is a great plan.

Have an inspired week, Tiff!


Chiron said...

Hi Sandy,

Thanks so much! Yes, even when we know what we want to say, we still have to figure HOW to say it. *grin*

Thanks for stopping by!


Chiron said...

Hey Kathy!

Hah! Wow, what a cool thing. *grin* Good for you!

Thanks for jumping in, my dear!


Chiron said...

Hello J!

I'm so glad the perspective helped. Yes, sometimes we need to find exactly what recharges our internal battery. *heh-heh*

Thanks so much for being here!


Chiron said...

Hi Liena!

You did the EXACT right thing!! Woo-hoo! Yup, every problem has a solution, and the key is to just keep writing (on keyboard or pad) until the 'right' one comes to us.

Good for you, girlfriend! *high-five!*


Chiron said...

Hello Gem!

What a lovely thing to hear! Thanks so very much! Bless you, my dear, you just made my day. *smile*


Celia Yeary said...

Chiron--I don't have any specific ways to break through a wall. Believe me, I've had plenty, but somehow they just go away. Maybe it's because I ignore the roadblocks and do something else. I liked Louis L'Amour's advice--just write, anything, something. You can't get water unless you turn on the faucet. Now, that may sound trivial, but I've done it a time or two.(Usually, though, I have to delete it, but maybe it gave me an idea that would work.)
Some authors like to confer with a crit partner or writer friends. I don't do that as a general rule, but once or twice I did. Still, stubborn me, I go back to my own idea. Thanks! Celia

Chat Blog said...
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Miss Mae said...

Chiron, how DO you come up with these posts? They're brilliant! You're right about the fear too, fear that there might not be another "story" inside you. And if there is, will it be a carbon copy of what you've already written? How original can one continue to be? The fears seem endless. :)

Now I just can't pick up a pencil, or sit at the keyboard and write aimlessly. I have to have SOME idea of where I'm heading. There be a vague outline of the scene in my mind. Whether it comes out exactly as I've imagined is something else, but just to write, for writing's sake, is something this gal doesn't do.

I'm weird, yes, I admit it! LOL

EA said...

Great post as always. I have those moments where I can't write, we all do, but it doesn't keep me down. The key is not to panic.

Chiron said...

Hi Celia!

I love that: You can't get water unless you turn on the faucet.

I always make up a "Free Write" document for every book. When I'm stuck, I pull it up, put in the date and then just ramble on. Since it's not attached to my book, there's no worry about cutting. It's 'safe', so to speak. After some stream-of-consciousness typing, an idea will spark. I love it!

I have yet to brainstorm with my crit partners but I know if I need them they're always there.

Thanks so much for jumping in!


Chiron said...

Hey Miss Mae!

Thanks so much!! Wow. *grin*

Well, I'm with you. I can never be a pantser like some. How do they do it? Unless I have at least a clue of the direction I'm lost. In my Free-Write document I can pound the keys and explore while writing. But as for my actual book, forget about it!! *laughs* If you're weird then so am I.

Maybe someday but I'm not holding my breath. *grin* Hopefully my outlines will come faster over time.

Thanks for stopping by, my dear!!


Chiron said...

Hello Evie!

You're so right. That's the key, definitely. The panic can freeze you up. Even journal writing can help us to remember that there ARE thoughts there if we just keep going. *nods*

Thanks for being here!


Linda LaRoque said...

Chiron, I find sometimes it takes me a good while to find a breakthrough when I'm stuck. It takes a lot of mulling for me. Sometimes I find it's best to leave it and work on something else. I have two WIP and can go between them.
Great post.

Glynis said...

I am a bit of a giggle for the Cypriots as I stride out in the midday sun when the block hits.I talk to myself, take photographs, sit in the shade, watch the men in the coffee shops, gabble a bit of Greek and then amble home. I am writing my first novel, it came to me and will not leave. I have forsaken my poetry for the words that tumble through my one cell at the moment.
I agree that to walk away is the best thing to do and then go back and write, but I never go back to my novel. I write a letter to family in the UK, my mind wanders and I am back at the novel again. I have stacks of unsent, half written letters!
I enjoyed my visit. Thanks, Glynis

Chiron said...

Hi Linda!

Great idea to jump back and forth between manuscripts when you're feeling stuck. It still keeps you writing but also gives you a break. Nice!

By the way, I LOVED your book. Can't wait to read more!


Chiron said...

Hello Glynis!

Sounds like writing letters (that never get sent) is a great way to jumpstart your creativity. Good luck with your novel! Hope you have lots of fun with it.

Thanks so much for stopping by!