Writer’s Block

March 25th, 2010

I was having the best time in NYC, helping friends to celebrate their birthdays (click here if you missed it), and shopping until I literally dropped, when I was felled by an insidious bronchial infection that was obviously released here in the city by that same terrorist cell that’s been doing such a good job of making CTU look totally stupid (except for Chloe, of course) on this season of 24.

Since I’m obviously going to die (ha, kidding: I’ve secured the antidote in the form of antibiotics and life-saving codeine cough syrup. Take that, terrorists!), I will finally answer the question all of you have been asking me forever:

What do you do about writer’s block?

If there were a single cure for writer’s block, someone would already be raking in millions of dollars from it, riding around in limos with Jesse James’s and Tiger’s ex-mistresses (unless of course he/she actually had some self-esteem and class), and going on Oprah.

But there isn’t one single way to “cure” it.

Scientists are definitely trying, though!

The best book I’ve read on the topic is The Midnight Disease by Dr. Alice Flaherty.

Someone once sent me Dr. Flaherty’s book because they thought I had the direct opposite of writer’s block, hypergraphia (the inability to stop writing).

Obviously, I would love to have this disease, but I don’t. With hypergraphia, you do not lay around and watch back-to-back marathons of What Not to Wear and Say Yes to the Dress, then go, “Well, I guess I better get back to writing. But wait, Clean House is on!”

There are no marathons of Say Yes to the Dress with hypergraphia. You write ALL the time, even in the bathroom. On toilet paper.

Dr. Flaherty would know. She’s director of the movement disorders fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. She’s experienced both writer’s block and hypergraphia (during a horrible time in her life, when she lost her baby twins). You can read more about her and her research here. She’s one very cool lady.

While I don’t have hypergraphia, I have experienced writer’s block. Every time, in fact, I write a book!

I’m not talking about the kind of writer’s block where you sit in front of a blank page with no idea where to start. If that’s your problem, to me that indicates that you just haven’t found the story you want to tell. Keep looking! It will come.

(Or maybe, if your teacher or editor has assigned you a story, you just don’t feel like telling that particular story. When that happens to me, I try to find the story within the story that I do want to tell.)

The kind of writer’s block I’m talking about is when you’ve found the story you want to tell, but hit a snag within the story line. Suddenly something just doesn’t “feel right.” You get stuck and realize the scene you’d planned to be next isn’t going to work anymore, even if moments before everything was going fine.

Something is clearly wrong. Only what?

That’s where Dr. Flaherty’s research comes in.

Because the solution to your problem is there, somewhere, lurking in your subconscious. You just have to figure out how to tap into.

If talking it out with my editor (or friends, spouse, therapist, mother, or sympathetic if bewildered postman) doesn’t work, I “back burner” the problem for a while, leaving it alone and letting it simmer.

Go away and do something else—take a bike ride, clean out your closet, shave your legs, bake some cookies, hang out with friends. Meditation would be good, if you could sit still that long. Do anything but actually writing your book.

What always helps me is not to think about the problem . . . not until right before bed that night, when I think about it like CRAZY.

Then, right as I wake up the next morning, before getting out of bed, before even opening my eyes—I’ll fake sleep if I have to!—I’ll concentrate on the problem again.

Almost always, the solution will be there: a wrong turn I took somewhere earlier in the book. I knew it all along. I just wasn’t paying attention.

This method doesn’t just work for writer’s block, either! It works if you lose something, too.

When my mom lost her car keys this past week and was going to have to have them replaced (for $200!), I said, “Before you buy new keys, sleep on it. Right before you fall asleep, think about where you might have left them. When you wake up, I bet you’ll know where they are.”

This was how I saved my marriage a few months ago when I “lost” my wedding rings for a whole week (after tearing my hotel room apart and almost calling the police because I thought they’d been stolen, I woke up at 3 in the morning remembering I’d zipped them up—“for safe-keeping”—in this weird side pocket of my purse I never use while on the way back from a 7AM taping of a news show).

Of course my mom called the next day to say, “It worked! I told Ron” (her boyfriend) “what you told me to do, and he did it, too, and in the morning he said, ‘Oh my God. I borrowed your car keys when you asked me to move your car after the last snowstorm! I think I left them in my coat pocket.’ We looked, and there they were. You saved us $200!”

See?

Try this method next time you’re blocked on something (or lost something, or have any important or difficult decisions to make), and see if it works for you! It may take a few nights, but eventually, it will work.

Your brain is stronger, smarter, and more capable than you think. That block often isn’t a block at all: It’s YOU! YOU might just been standing in your own subconscious’s way the whole time. Next time, just get out of the way, and let your subconscious do its work.

This is where the saying “sleep on it” comes from.

More later.

Much love,

Meg