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Fighting Writer's Block, Part II

Posted on Friday, April 28, 2017 at 9:55 PM

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Longtime editor of Commentary magazine Norman Podhoretz once described the writer's block illness this way: "What happens to a blocked writer is this: not only is he unable to finish anything he starts, but after a while, he literally forgets how to write, becoming tangled in syntax and lost in grammar ... there is nothing to do but stop." Sounds like a grim situation, way beyond what gets into me.

Novelist and journalist Joan Didion's problem sounds similarly desperate: "There is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic." Sounds desperate, much more so than I allow myself to get.

Grim and desperate the situation can be. Solutions are offered everywhere: 14 tricks, 5 creative cures, 12 steps, 18 ways, and "27 Ways to Crush It Forever" ("Talk to an imaginary friend," "Curse like a sailor," "Take a short trip," "Listen to the rain," "Create weird challenges," "Get your inner critic on your side"). None of that sounds crushing to me, although physical removal from one's site of writing has been mentioned by more than a few of those who went through such mental upheaval as, indeed, at least a path toward a cure.

Don't Settle for Good-Enough Writing

Widely published writer and longtime teacher of writing Anne Bernays is, in my view, farther along a road to recovery when she says: "Nice writing isn't enough. It isn't enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently. You can't just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the reader with the unexpected."

Not only does a reader require that. So does the writer. You need to be surprised, provoked, astonished by the material or the approach or the focus or the message that is your purpose as writer of a particular assignment. You need to make the process interesting by collecting the right stuff to write about. That might be enough to jar you loose of the block.

Striving for a new path in your use of words; searching for something that stimulates your ears; getting freshly excited about how to make the most of our glorious English language: any of these might lead you back to paper or computer screen.

Accept the Challenge

Accepting the block as a reality, try against your feelings to begin a project early, so to allow for time to rest or music listening or walks around the block or snack-times along the way.

Most of all, I fear you simply have to be strong enough to overcome the block by realizing that being a writer is your chosen profession, and to serve it requires enough emotional strength to defeat what has become a stumbling block. Accept it as your duty. Fight the weakness as would a soldier. Then, don't look back. Don't look ahead, at least not too far. Labor in the present and let the words flow, one word after another, phrase after phrase, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, and onward.

It can be done.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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