Suzanne Roberts is the author of Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties (Nebraska, 2022), Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (Nebraska, 2020), and Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Bison Books, 2012), and four collections of poetry. Visit her website here.
I was giving a reading at a college recently, and one of the students asked, “What do you do about writer’s block?”
“There’s no such thing,” I said and was met with an audience of blank stares. I could see what these students were thinking—how could I deny something they had all felt?
I backed up and said, “I’ll explain what I mean. But first, how many of you have had writer’s block?”
Hands shot into the air, so how could I have said there was no such thing when they had all experienced it?
We have all experienced it—that feeling where we stare at a blank page, uninspired. We have nothing important to say. Whatever we write won’t come out the way it sounds in our minds. To be sure, these are all real feelings, but they have little to do with not being able to write. We can always write something. And that something is where everything always begins.
Writer’s block comes from the fear that we don’t have anything interesting or useful or entertaining or important to say. But here’s the thing—wanting to say something is enough.
Here are some things I’ve found useful, not in finding inspiration (because I have not yet found its hiding place) but in making it:
- No one is listening. Seriously, there’s no one sitting behind you, reading the words as they appear on the page. I start by imagining that there’s no reader at all. I’ll even go so far as to tell myself I won’t EVER share what I’m about to write. Sometimes this ends up being true; other times it doesn’t (it’s okay to lie to yourself a little). But the idea always gets me writing and often frees me up to be more honest, more vulnerable.
- Read, read, read. There’s no teacher like a good book. I count reading time as writing time—it’s that important to my writing life. Also, use something you’re reading as a writing exercise, meaning try to imitate some aspect of the piece. Does the story start with dialogue? Does the poem have long lines? Is the essay written in second person? Try to emulate one thing about the piece in your own writing.
- Set a timer. If I’m really having trouble getting my butt in the chair, I set a timer for an hour, but you can begin with 20 minutes. The rule is that if I get up for any reason or open email, etc. I have to re-start the timer (I’m very strict). I make sure I have my tea and have used the restroom, that my phone is not within reach, and sometimes I unplug my modem to remove the temptation to “just look something up,” which can turn into a whole hour wasted. You would be surprised what you can accomplish in an hour, or even 20 minutes, if you create a distraction-free setting for yourself. And note, it’s not a bad idea to do some stretching between your writing sessions—your body will thank you.
- Make lists. You may feel like you can’t write sentences, but surely, you can make a list. Make a list of interesting words to use in a poem. Make a list of the scenes that will make up an essay or story. Make a list of things that need to go into whatever you’re writing—nouns and verbs and adjectives. Specifics from the setting. Descriptions of characters. Pieces of dialogue. All the senses—what does it smell like? Sound like? Feel like? Once you have these lists, it’s a whole lot easier to sit down and write because you are no longer staring at a blank page or screen.
- Change it up. If you feel stuck or blocked, change the location of where you usually write. Or change the way you write. If I’m feeling stuck on my computer, I always open a journal and write by hand. Every big project I’m working on gets its own project notebook, which is a place I can ramble on; somehow, the stakes feel lower when writing in a notebook or journal. Some of my best ideas and sentences come out this way.
- Use writing prompts! You can use prompts to generate new material or to help you with an ongoing project. Even if the prompt takes you in an unexpected direction, writing time is never a waste of time. I will often procrastinate writing with writing (I wrote two books of poems while procrastinating my dissertation). There are many books on the market that feature writing prompts to get your started or you can sign up for my themed writing prompts over on Substack (52 Writing Prompts—a writing prompt sent to your inbox every Friday). Each exercise is designed to take 20 minutes, and themes have included Making Stories Out of Shame, Childhood, Love and Loss, Travel & Adventure, Home, Writing the Wider World, The Greater than Human World (Nature Writing) and more. It’s free to sign up here.