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How to Use Writer's Block in Three Ways

by Editorial Assistant Morgan Mitchell

Every author, at one time or another, has struggled with writer's block. Symptoms include staring at a blank piece of paper and procrastination. There are dozens of articles and blogs claiming to have the ultimate cure for the condition. College professors bend over backwards creating prompts that will hopefully keep the light bulb on for good. But what if this condition that affects so many writers doesn’t need to be cured? What if writer’s block is something we need to take advantage of?

For nearly a decade, I viewed writer’s block the same way as I’m sure most of you have—as the enemy. In my mind, writer’s block was this inky black, all-consuming creature that survived on a steady diet of creativity. It was the reason for all of my failed novels and lukewarm poetry. If I felt like I wasn’t living up to my potential, I would blame writer’s block. But I was wrong. And I wasn’t doing myself any favors by giving up responsibility for my lack-luster literature.

Merriam-Webster describes the creature as a “psychological inhibition.” It is my belief that writer’s block is our brain’s way of telling us to try something new. Writers who easily grow bored with their current projects don’t typically suffer from writer’s block. Instead, they experience a mild case of it on a regular basis. Other writers, who are afraid to leave the comfort of the creative techniques they know, don’t seek out change. As artists, we must embrace change, embrace our differences. Everyone has unique methods that inspire them—different “happy places”—to create. Some enjoy refreshing their creative brains with journal entries, drawing/painting, and people-watching (my personal favorite). Others prefer listening to music, or talking with friends/family/strangers, or maybe sitting in complete silence.

I interviewed three authors to dive deeper into how they use the so-called burden of writer’s block to strengthen their own writing. They will let you in on their creative secrets and provide prompts that will hopefully embolden you to embrace the inhibition. My hope is that, whether you are an emerging writer or seasoned author, you are encouraged by the idea that there is no wrong way to become inspired.

Listen to the Right Music or Sit in Silence (KaToya Fleming)

KaToya Ellis Fleming is an Assistant Professor for Publishing Arts at UNCW. She is also an editor for Lookout Books and is working on a bibliomemoir titled Finding Frank.

People say that writer’s block happens as a result of not being inspired. But Fleming believes the state is derived more from a fear of not having anything to say. “If you exercise the muscle of writing, the wheels will start turning,” Fleming says. Writer’s block isn’t a mental condition that we are helpless to overcome. Fleming explains how as writers “you’re trying to give a name to your fear and make it something that is out of your control.” We need to take back control of our creativity. We need to exercise that muscle by exploring new methods.

Favorite Creative Method(s): In our interview, Fleming revealed that music compels her to write. She shared her love for instrumental music. “Music without words teaches us to feel.” The lack of lyrics forces the audience to develop their own sense of what sensations the artist is expressing and what sentiments they hoped for us to gain. Fleming is able to create a mood by listening to the bowing of violins and gliding of chords across a piano. She bases the mood she creates off of her music. One could also work in reverse by choosing music based on what mood you want to be writing. Music is a universal language that allows us to tap into a wide range of emotions (joy, sorrow, hope, regret), which results in a wide range of writing material.

Inspirational Prompt: One prompt that Fleming uses when she struggles with writer’s block is something she calls “Six Word Memoir”. She starts by writing a 500-word memoir. It can be her life story, “from the cradle to now” as Fleming puts it, or it can be focused on a few selected moments. Once she’s written the 500 words, she must distill that down to fifty words—not rewriting the memoir but taking what has already been written. Then, she takes those fifty words and distills them down to a single sentence of six words that speaks to the heart of the original memoir. This prompt fine-tunes the writer’s ability to figure out the intention of their piece.

Can’t Write If You Don’t Read (Rebecca Lee)

Rebecca Lee is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UNCW. She was awarded a 2023 Guggenhiem Fellowship. She is also the author of The City Is a Rising Tide and Bobcat and Other Stories.

When asked about her overall thoughts regarding writer’s block, Lee replied, “Writers' block can be pretty excruciating for a writer.” However, Lee believes that it can be a fairly healthy thing, especially if the writer is “willing to push through it and to find a good new road through the material.” For Lee, writer's block can be due to the fact that “the rest of life is overwhelming and feels more important and that swamps the work psychologically.” Her suggestion for this is to write “while the rest of life isn't calling your name.” Later, Lee mentioned that being bombarded by life isn’t the only type of writer’s block. The second type echoes Fleming’ beliefs about the source of writer’s block. Lee referred to it as “a fear of the material, of one's skills and energy not being a good enough match for the thing you want to write.” In an effort to combat this fear, Lee’s advice is for writers to revise their work over and over again. “This layering quality produces beautiful work, but it also decreases the psychological fear that one has to be writing well at every moment,” she said. What a great reminder! Revision is not solely for bettering one’s writing but relieving the anxiety of not being a perfect writer.

Favorite Creative Method: Lee emphatically stated that just reading is her way to be inspired. She starts her writing sessions by reading. “There is a mysterious moment when I 'jump the tracks' and start working on my own work,” she explained. Lee went on to say that, while some writers are kind of always writing in their heads, for her reading “starts up a conversation in [her] brain and makes [her] want to join in and write myself.” For Lee, experiencing the creativity of another artist is magical.

Inspirational Prompt: Lee has a notebook by her computer where she lists interesting themes from her book. When she experiences apathy or a “lack of interest” in her book, Lee looks at that “growing list” of themes and asks herself which one interests her at the moment. Lee said, “I find the imagination cares about different things almost every day.”

Seven Sentences (Sayantani Dasgupta)

Sayantani Dasgupta is an Associate Professor of Creative Nonfiction/Fiction at UNCW. She is also the author of Women Who Misbehave, Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-between, and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. She has also had several essays published.

The first thing Dasgupta said in our interview was “I don’t believe in writer’s block.” And I’m glad she said it. The concept has been adopted as commonplace, when, in reality, it might not exist at all. Instead, she thinks that it is most likely due to exhaustion. Rather than a need to exercise the creative muscle (like Fleming suggested), Dasgupta recommends taking a moment of respite. “You are entitled to rest,” she says. As writers, we place so much pressure on ourselves to be the next [insert famous writer here]. We run ourselves ragged trying to meet these absurd expectations. Then, we panic when it feels like we have nothing left—when it feels like we have nothing left to write. Dasgupta reminds us that “this too shall pass.” Sometimes our brains (and our bodies) just need a break.

Favorite Creative Method(s): One of Dasgupta’s favorite ways to incite creativity is by writing seven sentences every day. It could be about anything: a protest she witnessed, a conversation with her father, what she had for lunch that day. The goal is simply to pour oneself onto the page in seven well-crafted sentences. Dasgupta also thoroughly enjoys drawing. Even though she’s not writing, she’s using the creative portion of her brain. She also recommends rereading favorite books, attending TED Talks, and forcing yourself to watch movies or shows you don’t like. That’s right. Immerse yourself in things you don’t like. Dasgupta says that “hatred is gold.” It can be difficult to put how much you care about someone in words, but you could probably rant about your biggest pet-peeves for hours.

Inspirational Prompt: During her drives to and from work, Dasgupta enjoys observing the world around her. She’ll write about the first three people she sees with white shirts, or she’ll write about the seventh house she drives by. Dasgupta strongly encourages writers to take advantage of their surroundings. This prompt helps the writer hone their observation skills and use the sometimes-mundane details of life in their writing.

In summary, writer’s block exists because we allow it to, because we continue to feed into our fear, and we are too spent to fight against that fear. We are all worked up about an invisible monster hiding in the curves and folds of our brains. We can conquer writer’s block. We are not helpless. We can find our inspiration once again.

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