On Writer’s Block (and Getting Over It)

Writer’s block is a strange thing. I spend a good portion of my non-writing time convinced that I’m blocked and, when I’m being productive, I’m convinced that writer’s block doesn’t exist. Stranger still, I hold these two thoughts simultaneously; but how is it that something can both exist and not?

First, I’ve come to find that writer’s block is not a monolith. It’s not some massive boulder tumbled down a mountainside to obstruct my path. From my experience, writer’s block is an accumulation of self-doubt. My worries gather over time, like debris gathered by floodwaters. Piled up, it’s near impossible to even figure out what they are.

To the second point, most of the time, I don’t have the slightest clue what it is jamming me up. There’s just a vague sense that something is off. Along with writer’s block there are questions cycling through my brain, all of them a product of my awareness that my story isn’t working as expected.

Third, I must figure out what the problem is. This can be the hardest part. Maybe there’s a character whose voice feels “off” but I can’t figure out how to fix it. Maybe I’m working from an outline and I don’t know how to get from point A to point B (or I’ve deviated from my outline completely). Most of the time, I have no clue what’s wrong, things just are not working.

So, what to do?

My strategy when facing an obstruction to my writing is to do one of two things: going over or going around.

If I take the latter option and “go around,” I get away and do something else. However, it’s more than just not writing. The point here is to take a step back so that I might be able to view my writing project with a little more objectivity. I might not be putting words on the page, but my writerly gears are still turning. For example, just last night I had an epiphany regarding the novel I’m working on as I was washing the dishes. Sometimes, those gears just run a little smoother when I’m not staring at a blank page and a blinking cursor. Meditate, mow the yard, paint a portrait of your cat, go jogging, call your mom. Whatever you do, allow your mind to relax just a bit and relieve yourself from the self-imposed stress of the idea that you’re “supposed to be writing.” It’s about taking a break and giving yourself an opportunity to take care of yourself.

If I choose to “go over” the blockage, I just write. Sometimes, if I’m stuck on a scene, I’ll jump ahead and make note to look at the skipped scene in the next draft. This can be a real test of will power, but forcibly moving forward on my bigger project or writing something smaller (hence, this you are reading right now) reminds myself that I can write. What gets written might be worth keeping and it might not. The point is to overcome that worry of writing something bad. Bad writing is inevitable; it’s how we get better.

More often than not, what I come up with isn’t half as bad as I thought it would be. The key is to press forward, keep climbing, and get to the other side of your doubt. Go over, or go around, but never turn back, and never give up.

That’s the process that works for me; results may vary. If you’ve got strategies of their own for getting past your writer’s block, let me know! I’m always on the look out for new ways to approach my own creative process.

3 Tools for Writing Without Distraction

Sometimes it feels that distraction is unavoidable. Often, I don’t realize I’m being distracted until I look up from my phone and see that the sun has set while I’ve been scrolling mindlessly through social media. Or maybe I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole and spent my precious writing time watching some dude in Indonesia hand dig a swimming pool. And then there are the times when I actually am being productive; I pause to look up some bit of information crucial to my writing and suddenly read an entire Wikipedia article on the history of the Soviet Union’s space program (which is endlessly fascinating, by the way).

These are the moments, largely manifestations of my own ADHD, when my best efforts fail. Maintaining focus and avoiding distraction are becoming more and more difficult as technology progresses. Everything we could ever want to see or hear is at our fingertips. Worst of all, much of the internet is designed to keep up entranced endlessly clicking and scrolling until our brains turn to mush. I, increasingly frustrated with my lack of productivity, consciously sought out ways to avoid those devices and platforms engineered to facilitate my distractible nature.

And so, presented here, are the things I tried to keep myself focused and productive.

Pen and Paper

When I made the conscious decision to create a distraction free environment for myself to write in, I did it the only way I knew how. Convinced that technology was the problem, I went with the most luddite solution: writing things out by hand.

Writing in longhand works for a lot of people. For me though, I was never able to maintain my creative “flow” for long. I begin writing and, at first, everything seems to move along nicely. But eventually, my handwriting devolves into a mess of block letters and indecipherable cursive. Even if I manage to write something decent, I know I will never go back, decode the scrawl, and type out on the computer.

Pen and paper are still useful for brainstorming and jotting down ideas. I usually carry a little moleskine notebook with me in case I have an epiphany while I am out in the wild. But for something more lengthy or polished, writing by hand does not work for me. Still, it is worth a try and you might find that it works as well for you as it does Neil Gaiman.

A Typewriter

I am going to be upfront with you here; I love typewriters. I spent many an hour as a kid clacking away at weird little stories on my grandma’s old Smith-Corona.

There is a special something to a good typewriter. I use mine – a 1952 Royal HH who works like a dream – mostly for short stories and poetry. The weightiness of the keys and permanence of the ink make every word feel like a special deliberate action. Typing on a computer, I make a lot of typos. I will rewrite the same sentences over and over, obsess over a single paragraph. On a typewriter, there is no room for that. Unless you are willing to waste a whole lot of paper, you must be sure of what you’re putting down.

A Royal HH identical to the one I own.

 When I am on a typewriter, I can’t distract myself with the minutia of editing every line as I’m writing it. The slowness forces me to take a few extra seconds with every word before it’s written. I become more consciously connected to the process of using words to translate my thoughts into physical form.

the Alphasmart Neo2

I discovered this weird little machine after seeing the freewrite. The idea of a modern machine designed specifically for distraction seemed awesome. Backlit e-ink screen? Mechanical keyboard? Cloud backup? It all sounds incredible!

Then I saw the price tag.

So, I went hunting and researching, as I do, and discovered the Alphasmart line of word processors.

“What is that?”

Most every time I’m out in the wild, writing in a coffee shop or wherever, someone wil ask me about my Alphasmart. I don’t blame them for being curious, it is an unusual anachronism.

Essentially, the Alphasmart is just a word-processor. A strange hybrid of personal computers and electric typewriters, their popularity faded as laptop computers became affordable for the average consumer. Most of the early word processors either had a built-in printer or a disc drive, or both.

The Alphasmart, having been developed in the early 2000s, has a USB port moving your text files to a computer. But the transfer process is a little weird because there are no actual “files” to transfer in the traditional drag-and-drop sense.  What the Alphasmart does is autotype your file into whatever text program you’ve got open on the attached computer. Google Docs, Word, e-mail programs; it types your document in so there is no need to convert files or worry about bizarre format changes.

It is powered by three AA batteries and, in the three years I’ve been using mine, I’ve only changed the batteries twice. But the long battery life comes with a price; the screen is not backlit. It is a plain liquid crystal display, so you will not be using an Alphasmart to write in the dark.

Despite that, I cannot recommend the Alphasmart enough. It is durable, lightweight, and powers on fast. Not having to wait five or ten minutes for my decrepit laptop to power up makes things way easier when I want to squeeze in a quick five or ten minutes of writing. Usually its right before bed or when I am sitting in a waiting room when I get some burst of inspiration. Being able to whip out the old Alphasmart and just type it out quick is a godsend.

My Alphasmart Neo2 word processor, I use it a lot.

I got mine for $25 on Amazon… three years ago. They are a bit pricier now but they’re still available online for under $50.

So to break it all down; there are a variety of strategies that a person might employ to minimize distraction. I hand write a lot of my notes and ideas, write artsy-fartsy stuff on the typewriter, write most everything else (including this) on the Alphasmart, and there’s a freewrite in my dreams.