How to Overcome Writer’s Block: Advice from a Write-aholic

I’m a write-aholic. I get writer’s block about as often as an alcoholic has a day where he just can’t force himself to drink. It doesn’t happen too often. So, maybe I’m not the best one to give advice on how to overcome writer’s block. Then again, maybe I am…

If I take my car in for an oil change and I have to sit around for half an hour in a Honda dealership waiting room, where the accommodations include weak coffee and back issues of People magazine, I write. I always carry a pen and notepad. I’m always writing something in my head, even when driving, walking, eating. I get it down on paper as soon as I’m able. I pull over to the side of the road if necessary. If I take myself out to breakfast, someplace where the coffee’s good and the refills keep coming, I write. As I write these words you’re reading now, I’m sitting under a tree in Red Rock Canyon while my dogs are frolicking in the creek. I get quite a bit of writing done on my daily dog walks.

Twenty-five years ago, I took an eight-day vacation to Hawaii with my wife at that time, and over the course of those eight days, I wrote a novel. My wife was irritated with me throughout the trip. “Look at the waterfall!” I was busy. I was happy. I saw the waterfall, but I was too involved in the scene I was working on to pay much attention to it. We got out of the car and walked a short path to get right up close. I carried my notepad and when we stopped and stood there, breathing that misty air, listening to the pounding of the water, I propped my notepad on my arm and started writing. Back at the car, she was furious. I was annoyed. What was the problem? I think I said something like, “It’s just a fucking waterfall.” That marriage didn’t last, but my writing did. The novel was never published, but the Frank & Rudy stories (finally getting published on this blog!) were chapters written on that trip. (Hey. I’m working on Frank & Rudy again!)

I’ve rewritten that Frank & Rudy novel many times in the past twenty-five years. At various times of my life, I’ve gone years without looking at it. I’ve changed the opening, changed the ending, juggled chapters, added and subtracted characters. One of these days, it’ll be ready. I’m in no hurry. I’ve got half a dozen other writing projects I’m working on. At this point, Frank & Rudy are like old friends. Pulling that dusty manuscript out and working on it again is like eating comfort food.

I believe the reason I never have writer’s block is because I always have multiple writing projects in the works. I only work on what I really feel like working on. If I get stuck on something, I don’t think of it as writer’s block; it simply means it’s time to work on something else, maybe even start a new project.

Most of the writing I’ve done for money has been nonfiction, and nonfiction writers generally work on deadlines. A deadline would be hell if you suffered from writer’s block. But, here’s a fact you may not know: Writer’s block is an affliction of fiction writers. Nonfiction writers never get stuck, because they’re not making up stories. They’re providing and organizing facts. If you’re stuck on a nonfiction book, you know it’s because you’re lacking facts. So you do the research necessary to get the facts. Research is an integral part of the nonfiction writing process. It’s not writer’s block; it’s a lack of information. You get the info and move on.

Fiction writers, on the other hand, are creating something from nothing. A story can go anywhere. A scene can suddenly change. A new character can appear. An old character can transform herself. In fiction writing, you can get stuck in the middle of a conversation between two characters. Maybe you have some vague idea of where you want the scene to go, but you can’t mentally get it there. What do you do?

What I do is put it away and write something else. I won’t waste five more minutes thinking about it. I’ll go back to that scene when the conversation writes itself in my head, when I’m can’t wait to get it down on paper. I know the scene will be crap if I force myself to write it. If I shove the scene to the back of my head and turn my cerebral dial to “stew,” the characters will find where they’re going. And if they don’t, I’ll have nothing more to do with them. If they want to live, they’re going to have to figure out where they’re going and take me there. I’m more than happy to get it down on paper; in fact, I live for recording these moments of characters coming alive.

So I shelve it. I might start working on another scene from the same novel, or something else entirely, something I really want to write. When you’ve got a lot of different projects going, there’s always one that looks like the fun one to work on.

I write very much the way I read. I’ve got multiple books bookmarked in every room of my house. I read the book I feel like reading at that time, and figure I’ll get to the others later. Some I’ve had lying around for months. Some, I may eventually put back on the shelf and never get to again. There are too many books I want to read for me to waste my time just “getting through” one because I started it.

Same with writing. I have uncountable manuscripts started that never went anywhere and probably never will go anywhere. Doesn’t bother me. I don’t see it as work wasted or time wasted or anything at all wasted. Writing is educational, entertaining, and rewarding in itself. When a manuscript turns into money, that’s icing on the cake.

Considering all the manuscripts I’ve started and never finished, the truth of the matter may be that I’ve got writer’s block worse than any writer in history. But I’m oblivious to it because I’m too busy writing.

If you’re a writer who suffers from writer’s block, and I mean suffers, my advice is to stop trying to write when the inspiration for the manuscript you’re working on dies. Just stop. But don’t stop writing. Write something else. Write what you want to write. This may make you a drag to be around when you’re vacationing in Maui. But twenty-five years later, you may discover a short story you wrote instead of looking at that waterfall. And now, when I read “Frank and Rudy at the Ice Capades,” I can see that waterfall like it was yesterday. Oh, it was a beautiful thing. Breathtaking. You can see it right from the Hana Highway. If I ever sell the Frank & Rudy book, I’m going back to Maui to celebrate. I’ll get a bottle of champagne and walk that well-worn path with all the other “howlies,” pop the cork right there and pass the bottle around to one and all. And if I don’t ever sell “Frank & Rudy,” what the hell, I got some blog posts out of it. What more can a writer ask?

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2 thoughts on “How to Overcome Writer’s Block: Advice from a Write-aholic”

  1. You nailed it, Arnold lad! Of course, I’m a nonfiction writer so what do I know about fiction writer’s block! I’ve been keeping a never-ending log of article ideas for years now. Keep a pad ‘n pencil on my bedside table for my 3 a.m. idea rushes … and have discovered that writing while perched on my padded toilet seat is quite comfortable.

  2. I should not have neglected the all important toilet writing sessions. In Ann Charters’ biography of Jack Kerouac, she says that Kerouac often wrote in the toilet when he stayed in William Burroughs’ apt, because Burroughs didn’t like the smell of marijuana. Allegedly much of Kerouac’s novel “Doctor Sax” was written while high in Burroughs’ bathroom.

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