Tuesday, July 5

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, July 05, 2011 10 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?

Image from weathersavvy.com.


"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--walking, visiting friends, reading lots of great and terrible books, wandering 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."

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

*This is a revised repost from October, 2010


  1. Great post--I'm sort of at this point at the moment. I'm starting a new story and am excited about it, but I only have written two pages. I know the story and I know the characters. However, in my case at the moment, I actually think it's fear that is causing the block. The story I want to write means a lot to me and I scared that I"ll get it wrong (I know there are revisions, but still). I just have to push through I think.

  2. i'm in a desert not of my choosing right now. the activity and stress of getting our house ready to sell, the packing, etc, caused me to have to stop writing. it was too much for my brain to handle and there were no ideas. i felt better when i decided to let it go for a time. but in that time, ideas have come. i've seen movies, read books, etc that have all added to the idea pile. very soon i hope to get back to it, but i can't force it. i'll know when my brain is finally ready.

  3. I feel this way right now and didn't write for a week then yesterday I just mustered through it and wrote 1500 words. Sometiems for me it's just a matter of making myself write.

    I do like the idea of research. I get lots of good ideas that way.

  4. Lamott has the best advice. After reading Bird by Bird my writing flourished! :o)

  5. Kelly: Lamott's advice about drafting is really helpful for fears like yours. Expect your first attempts to be crummy and stumbling. Remember that no one has to ever see your first draft!Hogtie that inner critic who's saying "you're gonna screw up" and listen instead to your characters. They are what make the work fun!

    Michelle: I know what you mean. I went through a fairly dry season not long ago because of day job and family pressures. I love Lamott's idea of being accepting of these times and taking care of our creative selves. The work will be there, ready when you are.

  6. Patti: I hear you. It can be so hard to manage "butt in chair" time in summer. And those breathing-space times away often help in ways we can't imagine to be much more productive when we return. I think your story illustrates this well.

    Jessica: While this is a repost, I decided to dust it off again because I'd been looking at Bird by Bird last night. It's an amazingly encouraging book, even on the sixth reading.

  7. I find myself in this place sometimes. I push through by writing something, anything, just to keep going. I agree, it's a good time for research and related projects. It helps too, to write something I don't normally write, like a different kind of blog post or writing prompts.

  8. Karen: I love the research idea, too. I think encountering new information stimulates our creative side.

  9. What I usually do when I'm stuck is just write anything in a journal, like what Lammot said. I find that if I can just write something, anything, even if it's a bunch of complaining, it helps clear my mind and gets words flowing for me. It also helps to ignore the inner critic and keep writing. :) That, and reading a novel or poem by someone else.

  10. A great post, Laurel. I'm in one of these places at the moment. I have a new story, just the seed of an idea, and I'm struggling to plant that seed and help it grow. I know that these moments happen to the best of us and am trying to be patient--with myself, with the story, and with the muses who seem to not be taking my calls at the moment. Your post had great timing for me.