Thursday, October 28

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, October 28, 2010 8 comments
We all get stuck at times, find our productivity come to a screeching--or sputtering--halt. In THIS previous post, I discussed one of the causes--hitting walls because we hadn't let our intuition guide the process and had taken the story in the wrong direction.

In the comments on that post, I got the sense that walls are not as common as desert times for making us unproductive. So what is this phenomenon--"desert" writer's block?

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"The word block suggests you are constipated or stuck, when in truth you are empty."
--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird 178.

"You're blocked because you have nothing to say. Your talent didn't abandon you. If you had something to say, you couldn't stop writing. You can't kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance."
--Robert McKee, Story 73-74

We've all been there--somehow stuck in a place where you're plumb out of ideas. This place feels hot and parched and lifeless--desert-like. Entering a desert usually looks like the following:

- Your characters are faceless mannequins.
- The story setting is a big white box.
- Your characters slump around looking bored.
- The sound loop is your head is chirping crickets, or some really annoying pop song with unintelligible words.
- When you sit down to write, the only word that comes to mind is "waffles."
- You can't blog, tweet or update your Facebook status.
- Your house is exceptionally clean.

Lamott says that you need to accept that these desert times are going to come. In that acceptance, you free yourself to begin filling up again. When the Israelites let the pillar of cloud and fire lead them, God sent them the resources they needed--manna to fell from the sky, water gushed from a rock. The fact was, they couldn't get to the Promised Land on their own--they needed divine intervention. So do we. Call it "the muse," one's "inner light," "intuition," "unconscious mind," "talent" or "the Holy Spirit"--the sources of creativity need freedom and care and feeding.

So how do you allow the empty places to refill? Acceptance, as Lamott says, is a huge piece of it. If you try to push, "Your unconscious can't work when you are breathing down it's neck" (Lamott, 182). She suggests writing 300 words a day culling your memories--just rough journaling to keep you loose. Then seek things that feed you--walks, visits with friends, reading lots of great and terrible books, go to museums and historic sites.

McKee's advice is strikingly similar. He suggests research as a way of filling up in empty times: "No matter how talented, the ignorant cannot write. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliche, it's the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression."

Veronica Roth had a great post on this same concept, "Not Writing, or Why Your Brain Is an Ice Cream Maker."

In other news, I just won my very own copy of Lamott's wonderful book from C.A. Marshall. Go check out her fabulous blog!

What things have helped feed you in empty, desert times? What new thing might you try based on Lamott's and McKee's advice?


  1. I love the idea that going for walks and visiting fun places is part of the job for a writer :). I usually forgive myself for not being creative and go read/watch amazing things until I get that itchy finger feeling.

  2. Hey, I think Blogger ate my comment, or maybe I'm just commenting twice :) I want to try to "feed my talent more" by sitting outside before winter comes. Winter usually makes it harder for me to write because I enjoy the outdoors so much! This was an awesome post!

  3. Typically two things help: reading, reading, reading, and taking a step away for a bit. I can't count the number of times I've been stuck or empty and some random detail sparks something, and I'm back in the game.

    Mileage varies, but one or both of these usually do the trick.

  4. Beautiful post--as per usual. It's funny, I've never really had a desert kind of writers block (at least not yet). Mine is more like the wall, that I'm going with the flow and all of a sudden I realize...crud, I have a problem. Some decision I made has screwed things up and now I can't move forward. Just as frustrating though...

    Also, love Ann Lamott! :)

  5. JEM: Me, too. I love Lamott's take on how to fill up when you feel empty.

    Bethany: Great idea. Around here the lovely fall colors are peaking, so walks in the woods are magical.

    Jon Paul: Getting out of the house can help a lot too. When my 'step back' means stepping into nature, or just wandering around people watching, I start to feel filled up again.

  6. Shannon: Thanks. Take a look at part 1 for ideas of how to deal with writer's block walls. Lamott says "when your wife locks you out of the house, you don't have a problem with the doors"--a great metaphor for how our writing problems require creative thinking.

    Jessie: Glad it's helpful. Hope you have a filling weekend!

  7. These are great tips! Julia Cameron suggests artist dates: time spent with only yourself and your inner writer to "fill up the well" as she calls it. You take yourself out of the house with your notebook or camera and fill up on images, smells, people-watching, sounds, etc. Let me tell you, it works!