Writer’s Block and Mental Traffic

Writer’s block.

The cursor sits there and blinks. The blank notebook page waits right there in front of you, but nothing happens. You’re stuck.

Writer’s block is a commonly-acknowledged plague affecting those of us who venture into a career or hobby of written worlds. The writer sits there, frustrated and out of ideas, but nothing happens.

I have heard of it, but I haven’t had writer’s block since high school, during my earnest but stilted efforts at writing fiction. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I don’t struggle with writer’s block anymore until I read a statement by Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451:

“If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed quickly, to trap them before they escape.”

This statement made me realize a very probable reason that I don’t have writer’s block. Now, I’m not a geyser of ideas , and I do struggle in many other important areas: finding time to write, balancing research and writing time, keeping theme in my writing subtle but strong, and a host of other craft issues. However, the reason I believe I don’t find myself battling writer’s block is that I read constantly and I keep involved with other areas of life. I think these two things are a big part of how I prevent writer’s block. For instance, I preschool my niece and I am constantly delighted by what letters and words and names mean to her. It’s quite a different perspective. I watch movies and TV shows weekly- the TV show Parenthood has given me a great model for showing the honest lives of real people- it’s inspiring. I read fiction and nonfiction constantly and consistently… Right now I’m reading the first installment of Lord of the Rings (no, I haven’t read them before!) and Rasputin and the Jews. Rarely, in fact, am I not in the middle of at least one book if not two or three.

Not everything I do has to do with writing and reading. Quite a bit of my time is spent baking. Cakes, pies, tiramisu… the chance to do something physically creative gives my brain a rest while still giving me an outlet for creativity. A big part of my idea-generating comes from news, even sources that don’t necessarily agree with my political views: listening to NPR in the car, reading BBC articles, and watching FOX news when I get the chance makes an enormous impact on the material I have available to me. For example, several months ago I read a BBC article dealing with Somali pirates attacking a ship carrying chemicals. Because of that, a similar concept appears in my own novel, and the idea spread to include Somalia and Yemen and elements of Islamic mythology in my plot. I like this direction so much that book two will include a major scene in the caves of Oman.

Ultimately, being involved in the lives of other people is a huge benefit to my writing. Developing and maintaining friendships helps us get to know who people are, and writing is ultimately about people. My relationships with friends and family have been key in my inspiration for my writing, and as an additional bonus, knowing that helps me to not feel guilty about setting aside time for them when I struggle to keep up with my writing.

I like to think of the constant influx of ideas, techniques, and characters as mental traffic. If I want the rush hour brainstorm, I have to work for it. I have to create, think, have friends, and most importantly, listen to what’s around me and read everything I can.

For me, these things prevent writer’s block. Of course, I do struggle with what to do with my ideas. How do I make X idea happen realistically? What do I do with my Somalia pirating idea, now that I have thought of it? If I know it fits and I just have to figure out how, I sit down in my library and figure it out. I’ve got a marker board for freewriting. I take my coffee with me, turn my cell phone down, and turn on music…And then I figure it out.

Some ideas take more work than others, but the advice “just do it” rarely fails me. Andy Rooney puts it a slightly different way:

“My advice is not to wait to be struck by an idea. If you’re a writer, you sit down and damn well decide to have an idea. That’s the way to get an idea.”

What about you? Do you have a good way to prevent or solve writer’s block or a great technique for getting your ideas to work in your writing?

9 thoughts on “Writer’s Block and Mental Traffic

  1. HI Kate,

    Interesting idea about what is considered an universal problem!

    I try and read a lot. In my experience, for me to generate ideas I need to be in a ‘thinking mode.’ I find that when I read a book, sometimes a few pages or even lines is enough for me to slide into that mode. Also, I found that I seem to think the best while I am driving my motorbike.

    The idea, the inspiration and the ‘flow’ should come from WITHIN. However, you can teach yourself how to bring it out.

    If after all this I get stuck, it is okay. I distance myself — something like the Brechtian Alienation-effect, and git it time.

    Hope we all do not get stuck, and if it so happens, we find our way out

    Gopinath

  2. Hi, Kate. Like the picture at the top.

    I write mainly poetry, though I’m working on two fantasy novels at present. For poetry, “just do it” doesn’t work – not for my kind of mystical, lyrical poetry anyway. I’ve gone through periods when I’ve written only pretty ordinary stuff and come out again. There’s something that tells me “this is right” or “this isn’t the real thing” and I need to listen, not use force.

    Nonetheless, I’ve found there are tricks that can help. When I worked in a mainly office job and commuted by train, the time when I was receptive to writing poetry was on the return train journey – so it made sense not to pick up the paper immediately. I retired and was surprised that for a couple of months I was writing very little poetry of any value. Maybe I was too tied up in financial arrangements, forms, files. But I tried a couple of things that worked. I live by the sea and I found the beginnings of a poem sometimes came when I was walking by the sea. Classical music helped too. I take a notebook if I’m out in the country walking in case I need to jot something down.

    Other writing – I find it helps to read back over what I’ve written immediately before and then the continuation may be easy. I’ve far less experience of prose writing than poetry, but I’ve found a few times that an idea has been kicking around in my head for ages but I’m not satisfied that I’ve got it right or that there’s enough life in it; then I think, “Oh, let’s try writing it anyway” and it comes to life.

    • I rarely write poetry (though I do aim for poetic prose), but I can see how the idea-generating process would be different. Force isn’t the answer, I agree. For me, at least, the key is consistency, discipline, and exposure to idea-generating things like news, music, and of course, nature. Thanks for the thoughtful response!

  3. Hi Kate,
    I used to struggle all the time with finding ideas for writing. I spent most of my life knowing little of what I actually wanted to do, which took me to a variety of places and gave me different experiences. When it finally clicked that I should be a writer, I couldn’t believe I didn’t figure it out sooner. I jumped in head first with a lot of catch up to play because until then, I never gave writing a second thought. I switched majors from wildlife biology to journalism and my grades took a turn for the better. After all the 101 classes though, I realized that I had no ideas for what to write on. All my information had come from news sources and I had no clue how to find stories myself. After two years out of college and keeping my head in the writer’s world, ideas come to me all day, nonchalant.

    I have a few tricks when facing trouble starting a piece, for instance, reading similar works to what I am going to write or reading about the subject. Now, as seen here, I have a hard time jotting down an idea without 500 words spouting out. And the eclectic past fuels my writing.

    Staying busy in a world outside of writing such as relationships, jobs, hobbies and all other forms of distractions definitely keeps my writing rat wheels spinning. Fiction, non-fiction, it doesn’t matter. A writer should be living in this world of distractions. TV, though, I hate TV. I’m saying I don’t watch it, just that it never gives me ideas. My mind shuts off as long as that is on. The exception, of course, agrees with what you said. News and sports do spark ideas – no matter how hard I try to keep them rats from running.

    Thanks for the post. I enjoy reading material that will move me to do something.

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  5. Hi Kate,
    I write fiction as well as non-fiction…not book length but ranging from 300 words to 3,000 words. I write on a variety of topics and indulge in different kinds of writing. Some are damn serious; some are light; and some others are downright hilarious.
    I have encountered writer’s block quite a few times but not frequently. For most part, I ran into a writer’s block when I was trying to do excessive work on a single theme.
    But, my pen never got stuck. The cursor did not keep on blinking at one spot. I think I ran out of ideas on a particular theme for the time being. I used to shift from one theme to another or from fiction to non-fiction and back. And, that would bring respite to my writer’s block and I would ride a different horse on to an altogether different destination.
    I think writer’s block happens when we try to draw water from the same well persistently because if you do that any well is bound to dry up at some point of time. The solution lies in drawing water from another well or wait for the well to replenish its water resources. To my mind, writer’s block is only a temporary phenomenon and it does not hang around for long unless we let it.
    Hope this is helpful to you in your study of writer’s block.
    Cheers,
    Vincent Van Ross

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  8. Hi Kate! When I have the writers block I look around the Internet, or other blogs, carrying similar content or styles to see what touches an interest or a place to start or a place to pick up at. There are many, many good ideas out there! I have always said, some of the best ideas out there are borrowed and not created. I do not mean copying but using our personal experiences to to write from the other subjects out there. Now ‘Focus’ is what I need the help with!

    Take care Kate!

    ~Andy

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