Breaking Through Writer's Block

by Troy M. Hughes

Remember that scene in the film Throw Mama From the Train which depicts a writer/professor (Billy Crystal} having trouble finding an adjective for "The night was..."? As the crumpled pages mount in his waste basket, so does his frustration with the whole thing. We laugh, of course, because it's funny; even non-writers can relate to the feeling of 'being stuck'.

For writers that feeling can be a very scary thing. It is frustrating, even suffocating. It is as if we have just switched off the part of ourselves that is able to create, to make sense, to write.

We hear a lot about the causes of Writer's Block: stress (related and non-related to what you are writing), fatigue, burn-out. There are as many causes for it as there are writers, because everyone works and deals with life in his or her own way. We all deal with block in our own ways as well. What I would like to offer here are some ideas for avoiding block altogether, and some for dealing with it.

The stock answer for getting through a block is to "write through it". The theory here would seem to be that getting yourself over the hump, so to speak, will help you to keep your work moving along. Going back and fixing up the rough edges is for editing and rewriting. This has worked for me in the past. One writer friend is what I call a note taker; she writes notes to herself within the piece when she hits those patches that she is not sure about. For example: "The rain fell like a wild horse, beating down fiercely, dancing off the ground (Note: Not sure this presents the vision I need with it)."

While this has never worked well for me (I have a hard time feeling out my work as whole given the breaks in continuity caused by constant little notes in the text) she has had great success, and only minor periods of block. And that, I believe, is the most valid measure of a technique to deal with this type of problem. It has to work for you.

But how about the Block the freezes you? The kind that leaves you staring at a blank monitor wondering what to write. You know what I mean. The Block that makes you wonder why you write. You know you have myriad things to say, you have notes upon notes, you know what you want to do, but it just won't come. This is what we all fear. Lets take a minute to put things in perspective.

For many of us, writing is not our primary career. We are out there working our day jobs to pay the rent, and we come home at night and on weekends to write our freelance articles, our private masterpieces. It is a fact of life for writers today. And no matter how little our day jobs may mean to us, most of us need to keep them. The key, I think, is to not make it your Life. Leave work at work. Give yourself time to relax after work. Have dinner with a loved one, a friend. Talk about your day, your frustrations. Allow yourself to slip into "writer mode". Forcing it will jeopardize the quality of your work. I find that writing before my work day begins is a great way to start my day. It puts me in a good frame of mind, and it keeps the work I need to do at home that night in the front of my brain.

Before getting into one other means of overcoming a block I would like to address avoiding it altogether. What we write and why is based on our observation and interpretation of the world around us. And while the Internet, television and the print media are great tools for keeping abreast of the world out there, they are someone else's interpretation.

As writers, chroniclers, we need to Live. We need to experience nature and business, love and hate, anger and joy. We need to make time within our sometimes overwhelming schedules to pursue Life. Be spontaneous.

How many times have you read about a favorite author who writes only at regulated times, uses the same kind of pencil, eats the same lunch at precisely the same time, etc. etc.? Not that these things are bad. Not at all. Many people work very well under this kind of regimen. Personally, I'd rather be watching the sun rise over Lake Superior at 6:00 a.m. then hammering away at my keyboard. But then, these things inspire me and fill me with breath to go on. Some people get that inspiration from finger sandwiches.

The point is, always make time for you. If you have children, play with them and take notes on their reactions to things. Spend time with your spouse or a loved one tonight instead of writing until midnight. Contemplate the immortal lines of Shakespeare and why Sting keeps stealing them. Look at your high school yearbook. Take pictures of as many of those people as you can find and make a reunion book. Enjoy your Life, and exploit it. Make the highs the highest and the lows the lowest because that is your job as a student of the humanities, and as an artist.

Being a student of the Theatre and a director of various plays has allowed me to formulate a technique which has worked well for me over the years. I call it Incubation. Now we all know what an incubator is, but consider what it is to incubate an idea. When directing a play, my period of incubation is vital. And it serves a purpose other than helping me to cope with block; it also allows me to take on more than one project at a time effectively. You see, one can incubate an idea while working.

I approach directing a play much like writing. I learn the material and then I decide where I want it to go. I take lots and lots of notes. I make myself familiar with the period of the piece and of historical events and people which may have impact on the story. For example, if I were to direct My Fair Lady, I would re-read Pygmalion.

After I have voluminous notes, an idea of setting, and a general outline of what the play will be, I Incubate. I put it all away and go on to another project for a little while. I keep a notebook handy for the daily revelations that will be coming during this time. Or I grab some of my notes, go to a beach or a place of quiet and ruminate and erase and generally re-think everything. This process allows me to round out the technicalities and begin to create.

Thus it is when I write. I find that character sketching and outlining generally help me to structure what I am doing. It is during incubation that I ask myself, "Why?". Why do I need to write this, and what is my goal? Why does Jack want to be a football star? And why does Diane yearn to be a debutante, back-seat, of Jack's car?

Not to make light of all of this (or of John Cougar). If I give myself the time and the space to make many of my decisions, and answer many of my questions, I can jump into the writing confident and focused. And this helps me to avoid block.

And this may not work for all people. Maybe you are "writer through-er". Or maybe, unlike myself and many others, you can make the right choices for your work during the initial write, or during editing. If so, I envy you. For you are not cursed.

Any way you look at it, writer's block is difficult to cope with. It saps energy and inspiration. It makes us question ourselves and our ideas. It makes us afraid to try, because we become afraid to fail after the struggle to create. I believe that if you work to develop a system of your own, one that may combine all of these ideas, or shun all but one, you will help yourself to become a more effective, thoughtful and evocative writer.

**Troy M. Hughes is a theatrical director and critic residing in the Detroit metropolitan area. His credits include: A Chorus Line, Broadway Bound, The Fantastiks, Ain't Misbehavin, Lend Me a Tenor, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and Eleemosynary. He can be reached by email at

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