Every writer has experienced Writer’s Block at some point in their lives. The first time that I can remember suffering Writer’s Block was in the sixth grade. My teacher, Miss Beasley, required a journal entry every Friday in our composition books. The pressure of a due date and writing about my week conspired to force an internal struggle within me to get something, anything, down on paper. These journal entries were worse than spelling tests in third grade. I hated these assignments, but I didn’t want to disappoint my favorite teacher.
As a sixth grader, I understood that Writer’s Block was a terrible illness of the mind. It comes in two, equally devastating forms for the infected writer. First, this writing disease attacks that part of the brain that allows the writer to think of what to write. This form is particularly harmful to writers who have to meet a regular schedule (like me in sixth grade) and is most commonly found in columnists, students, bloggers, pastors, newsletter writers, op-ed writers, etc.
The second form of Writer’s Block interferes with the neural connections between the hemispheres of the writer’s brain and their fingers. A writer with this form of Writer’s Block knows what they want to write. It is well-formed in their mind. The idea has reached that level of fruition where it must be written, but the writer just can’t figure out how to say it. This form is most likely to infect storytellers.
Writer’s Block is a very common infection among writers. My informal studies of the subject suggest that every writer will suffer at least one bout of Writer’s Block in their lifetime. Some of these cases may be quite mild, which would explain why some writers claim to have never experienced The Block. Some writers deny their symptoms.
Mild cases of Writer’s Block usually run their course in a matter of a couple of hours, or a few days, at most. Infections lasting more than four days can be quite debilitating leading to missed deadlines, depression, and a general malaise. Cases lasting more than a month have been reported and, on occasion, leads writers to abandon their projects and careers.
While Writer’s Block is not caused by any known “germ,” a germ theory approach may be the best way to prevent this fell illness from wreaking its desolation upon the writing class. In the medical world, hygiene provides the conditions and practices that make good health possible. By analogy, Writing Hygiene would be the conditions and practices that make good writing possible.
Good writing hygiene will ameliorate the worse effects of a case of Writer’s Block by alleviating the symptoms, much like washing your hands after cutting up a chicken prevents the spread of salmonella. I want to teach you some of the habits of good Writing Hygiene to keep the havoc of Writer’s Block at Bay.
From unfortunate experience with the ultra-more-creative-than-thou crowd (Once I also blindly trusted in inspiration and the muses), I know that some will reject my advice out of hand as the stultifying of the creative juices. Thankfully, via vociferous self-reporting, I know that this class of writer tends to be relatively free of The Block. For the rest of us, I hope and pray that you find my thoughts on Writing Hygiene to be a valuable tool in keeping Writer’s Block at bay.
There are many folk remedies for Writer’s Block. Some suggest a walk, listening to music (or not listening to music), exercise, reading, drinking coffee, and a thousand other things. There is no agreement as to whether these cures really work among sufferers, however each cure has partisans that swear by their brand of snake oil.
Writer’s Block is a real illness. At any given moment, it is impacting the lives of thousands of writers. We have already considered some of the folk remedies. I have my own preventative cure that I call Writing Hygiene.
Going forward, I want to concentrate on thwarting Writer’s Block. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say.
At the risk of sounding like the “more-creative-than-thous,” I want to brag on myself for just a moment. When I sit down in my writing chair around five in the AM, I know what I am going to write about. I know what my first sentence will be. I have thought through the textures of my first paragraph. I know quite specifically where I am going with my writing for that day. However, especially in my fiction, I am ready “to get into the flow” and follow my creative inspiration wherever it may lead.
Alas, it hasn’t always been so. Once, long ago, I had to write, prepare, and present weekly long form lectures to a diverse crowd of listeners who were rather compelled to be present and listen. These sermons were on top of my normal, more pressing responsibilities, so, like many of you, I gave my “leftover” time to the writing, preparing, and presenting. I was often tired when I began. I worked in short, non-optimal time increments with regular interruptions.
I always had something to present when the time came. Over time I learned to hide the lack of preparation and poor writing in an active presentation, but these homilies were often shallow, a little boring, and lacking in original thought. I felt the poverty of my product and longed for something better. I was so desperate that I gave up my “let-the-creativity-flow” discovery writer ways.
I began carrying a notebook and pen everywhere to record my thoughts. I began collecting snippets of conversations and watching people for how they really behaved. Then, in my most anti-creative move, I began to outline and add detailed thoughts to those outlines, and, like the divergent road in the wood, it has made all of the difference.
To get serious for a moment, I realized that I had an impoverished conception of writing. Writing is what used to happen exclusively in my writing chair early in the morning before the sun came up, and I cherished that time. However, it didn’t work for me. I realized that my writing was suffering from a dire lack of inputs. Too much of what I was trying to put on paper came from my own experiences and thoughts. My writing lacked depth and insight.
Today, I know that the real work of writing begins when I stand up and begin the rest of my day. I have spent the last several years training myself to be a keen observer of humanity. I watch the interplay of families at restaurants. I study herds of young people. I witness little spats. I contemplate old friends meeting at coffee shops. Above all, I amass snippets of conversations and personal interactions in notebooks that I always carry with me.
These morsels are more precious than diamonds or gold. They are raw reality that spark the imagination. Why did the cute redhead cut her eyes when the curly-headed man passed by? Where did the contempt come from? What was going on when I heard one women say to another, “My God, do you think they’ll find out?”
As I have trained myself to scrutinize the human drama unfolding around me, I have discovered that I am becoming more sympathetic, and less judgmental. More importantly my writing has improved because I am much closer to Faulkner’s “eternal verities,” or as my mother says, “Folks are folks and have always been folks.”
These scraps of reality and working through them mentally prepares me for writing the next day. There is richness and depth to my character that was lacking before.
In a follow-up article to this one I will be going into more depth on the methods of preparation.
I am an early morning writer. I get up before the sun and tend to the dogs before making coffee and having breakfast. During breakfast I check Facebook and the news. I watch a couple of YouTube videos. I prefer “maker” and cooking videos. My goal in this “couch time” is to indulge myself a bit, so that I don’t feel like I am rushing off to “work.”
When I sit down in my writing chair, I am at work. I want to stress this. I am working for myself and I demand of myself that I work hard for me. I want to be a diligent and conscientious employee. I am my only employee, so all of the productivity in my business comes from me. I have a business partner that I am responsible too as well.
I am emphasizing the work aspects of the time that I devote to writing. This is part of my Writing Hygiene. I want my time writing to be clean of distractions. I train myself to not goof off at work.
Generally, I arrive at “work” between five and six A. M., but occasionally, if I am excited, I arrive much earlier. In the summer I work until 9 A.M. because I have other responsibilities. In the cooler weather, I work until lunch.
I practice regular work hours. I take breaks. I protect this work time. As a self-employed person, it is easy to cheat yourself and give this time away. You have to fight against this in your life and practice Writing Hygiene.
Where do you write? I have two different writing areas, depending on the season. I have a desk in the house that sits in a corner of the dining room that I use during the summer. I have my back to the room. I am not intentionally trying to block out distractions but that is the effect. My space is almost a cubicle. Coffee goes on the right. Incense burner goes on the left. Laptop front and center. My chair is from the dining room table. I hated this chair until I took the pad off of it.
My second writing area is on the front porch, which we also use as greenhouse to protect our temperature-sensitive plants through the winter. This is my preferred space, and as soon as the temperature settles down, the dogs and I make the transition. Coffee, incense, and laptop follow me. My chair is an ancient iron patio chair that I have used from this purpose for 15 or 20 years. I love that chair and would bring it in the house if it weren’t for the wooden floors.
I use these two spaces only for writing. I don’t surf the Internet or play games in these spaces. When I need a break, I get up and move to the couch. I don’t want to train myself to do anything but writing in these spaces. If I find myself spending too much time dilly-dallying over morning emails, I unplug the laptop and move to the couch to answer the emails. When I am done, I come back to write.
This is Writing Hygiene. I keep the spaces clean for writing. I feel that this trains my mind and body to get down to the business of writing when I sit down.
Whether or not you find my specific advice helpful, I hope that you are able to develop your own personal habits to keep Writer’s Block far away.
The Hygiene of Writing and Ray Bradbury
I wish that I could claim coining the term “Writing Hygiene,” but I cannot. As near as I can tell, Ray Bradbury was the first to use the term. Bradbury’s use, however, is very different from mine. His use of the term is general writing advice while I use the term to refer to the “conditions and practices that making good writing possible.”
Meanwhile, listen to this fabulous lecture from Bradbury. He is worth listening to.