Block the Block!

It’s happened to all of us at one time or another. You’ve settled into your favorite working chair, to your right lies a cup of tea or coffee, or on a particularly challenging day, perhaps a glass of whisky, the kids/dog/spouse/other casual interruptions have been temporarily banished, and you’re ready to write.

And there it is, staring you in the face: the dreaded blinking cursor, alone and demanding in the upper-left corner of the screen. Winking insistently as if to say, “C’mon, write something already!” The problem is you may not have anything properly incubated to say. Or you may have a half-baked idea, but it’s just not coming out properly. Or worst of all, you’re drawing a total blank.

It happens. The trick is to not tense up—don’t go to that place you may remember from fifth grade when you showed up at school to discover there was a math test that day and you completely forgot to prepare for it (or insert any alternate nightmare scenario here). The cursor can wait a bit—take a sip of that libation and then a deep breath. Nobody dies today because you have a momentarily blank page in your head to match the one on the computer screen. Just relax for a bit.

I’ve written seventeen nonfiction books on sometimes challenging topics—including two for a somewhat demanding audience at NASA—often on short schedules. Talk about pressure. One book contract I received took so long to finalize that the delivery date on paper was actually a month before the date of contract execution. I had only a couple of months to turn out 180 pages on that one. There were other demanding manuscripts that, because I had been so busy doing research and other jobs to stay solvent, I had just a few weeks to finish—again, it happens. In one case, I set up my living room as a writing office and literally slept next to the computer desk—write a few hours, sleep a bit, write a little more, catnap again—for weeks. It was difficult (writing is supposed to engender a state of bliss, at least part of the time, after all), but workable, and ultimately still fun.

When I do talks, the question of writer’s block comes up with some frequency. “What do I do when that occurs,” they will ask. My answer is probably somewhat unsatisfying, but always the same: I don’t get it. Ever. The looks I get in return range from confused to bemused, and even disbelieving. “How is that possible?” they wonder.

It’s really pretty simple, and bear in mind that this comes from a person who has Adult Attention Deficit Disorder and is non-medicated for it. When I was a kid, ADD was not yet a “thing.” Those of us who had it were either moved to the back of the class or plopped into accelerated learning (in my case, both).

The real answer is don’t let it happen. I know that sounds glib, but it’s not intended to be. In the thousands of hours I’ve spent writing books and hundreds of articles, there have certainly been days when I was not in the mood to write, or it was too noisy in the house, or I was tired from a late night of work the previous day, or some other reason, but I always make myself write anyway. And in this process, I have discovered one key thing: writing is often like finding a lost wedding ring in a vat of cooked spaghetti.

Sure, there are days when it just comes out of your fingertips—those are the blissful experiences, the direct connection between your creativity and the finished product (prior to the many, many passes of editing we should all do, of course). But other days are tougher—the spaghetti days. And you then have two choices.

The first is to roll up your sleeves and spend hours feeling around in the vat of spaghetti to find the diamond ring, which is tiring and often not very rewarding, and the second is to take the “bulk” approach and toss the entire vat of steaming pasta against the wall and watch your treasured jewelry drop to the floor. Yes, it’s a mess, but it works. And so it is with writing.

If you can muster the discipline to avoid being victimized by the alleged prose demons—those little voices that tell you there’s nothing to say that day—and simply get words on paper, the diamonds will pop out. You may end up tossing some or most of your work from that session at some point, but the good stuff will stay. Good writing includes editing, after all, and we all need to face the fact that to perform this task at our best, we’re going to be revisiting these words six, eight, or maybe twelve times or more before we’re done. That’s just the cost of doing it properly. You owe it to yourself and your work to rewrite, trim, cut, and polish the same way that diamond was created.

The beauty of this is that it always works, and while it may sound time-consuming for an individual session, it’s way better than sitting in flop-sweat, staring at that damnable cursor because that does nothing but block your creative flow. Own the page and curse the cursor—you will ultimately win. Some of the best stuff I’ve written came from days that were tough ones—sessions in which the English language felt like a bitter foe. But by simply getting to work and pushing a flow of words, the creative block is vanquished, and the cursor becomes a servant to you, rather than the other way ‘round.

In the end, you will feel refreshed, powerful, and in control of the writing process. Writer’s block will fade over time because you know the cursor isn’t the boss, you are. And the chapters just keep coming. They may not be perfect on the first pass—that’s to be expected, and the reason why editing is so important. But armed with the knowledge that you can take as much time as necessary (or allowed per your deadline), you can relax into the writing process and do your best work.