Was the night . . . humid, moist, or wet? The right word on the tip of your tongue, but you’re tongue-tied? Have a great scene for murdering a condescending convenience-store clerk, but can’t get his body into the beer box without being seen? Have your characters developed minds of their own, barricaded themselves in a bank vault, and refused to make an appearance on your computer screen?
What now? Start by deleting the words writer’s block from your vocabulary, then follow the advice of Larry Donner. “Who’s Larry Donner?” you ask. Remember the movie, Throw Momma from the Train, a spoof on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 thriller, Strangers on a Train? The movie stars Billy Crystal as writing instructor Larry Donner and Danny DeVito as his overzealous student Owen Lift.
The plot in both films involved the theory that if you eliminate the motive, you can get away with murder. In other words, “You kill mine, and I’ll kill yours.”
The sub-plot in the spoof rang loud and clear. Despite Larry’s severe case of writer’s block, which is magnified by a murder charge against him, the basic lesson to his students is: a writer writes, always. So, if the words won’t flow, take Larry’s advice AND follow my seven “Rs”.
1. RESURRECT: Work on more than one writing project.
If you hit a roadblock while working on a story, just move to another. Allow your creativity time to process what you have written. In the meantime, continue writing. I keep several projects in the works: a proposal, an article, a blog posting, or even an old-fashioned letter to a friend. This allows me to log-in several hours a day and feel like I’ve accomplished something.
2. REWRITE: Edit what you’ve already written.
As a writer, you may like to ignore the left side of you brain, but that anal, petty, and unrelentingly critical part of your brain is your friend. While the right side of your brain allows that creative stream to flow unencumbered by rules of the English language, you do have to polish those gemstones.
I set aside my first drafts to let the smoke clear. When the time is right, I let my left-brain do the dirty work.
3. RESEARCH: Spend more time gathering information.
Being at a loss for words might mean you’re out of ammunition. There is no better way for me to get those juices flowing again then to delve deeper into my subject, searching for facts and anecdotes that add dimension to the piece.
While working on my article “Digging for Ancient Treasure: Agatha Christie in the Middle East,” I read Christie’s book, Come Tell Me How You Live, a humorous account of her life with her husband, archeologist Max Mallowan. I had difficultly with one particular anecdote, but by rereading this autobiographical story, I gained a new perspective and added a twist to my story.
4. REGROUP: Join a writers’ critique group or enroll in a writing class or workshop.
I believe a good writer, like a good teacher, is always willing to learn. Groups and workshops increase my motivation and benefit my writing creatively and financially. Isolating myself with my thoughts and computer might be comforting, but I cannot live on my words alone, I need feedback.
An effective critique group is made up of colleagues, not best friends, and objective criticism is the goal. Don’t react like Larry did in the film when his nemesis gave him the perfect word he was seeking. “The night was wet” might be accurate, but sultry rolls off the tongue and adds more depth to Larry’s description, setting the tone for his story.
Learn from your peers. The day a writer feels that he/she has learned everything there is to know about the art and business of writing is the day that writer should retire.
5. RESOLVE: Solve problems that interfere with your concentration.
Well, at least make an attempt. You might not be able to convince your mother not to call during your writing time, or guarantee that your four-year-old will not fall off his tricycle, but you can arrange and organize your day to ensure fewer distractions.
Maybe you can drop off your kids at your mother’s (she won’t have time to call) for the afternoon, or turn off your phone or even let your e-mails go unread. Just remove some obstacles so that your path is clear.
6. READ: Read your favorite author.
I have several books that I call my inspirational jumpstarts. They vary from the poetic prose of Beryl Markham’s West with the Wind, to the comic dialogue of Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody series, to my favorite poetry book Nine Horses by Billy Collins. Reading a great book or story inspires me to write. Likewise, if I am writing an article and am having trouble with that first line, I peruse magazines and read the first sentences of a few articles. This gets my mind off of what is not working for me and allows me to focus on what works for other writers.
7. RELAX: It might be time to let your mind wander.
Slide in the video Throw Momma from the Train. While you relax, your brain is still processing. As with the movie, everything works out in the end given enough time and a change of scenery. Larry’s wife is found alive, rescinding the charge of murder, Owen’s mother dies a natural death, giving him freedom, and both writer and student publish a book.
The moral of the story: whether you are running from the law or hiding from your mother, no matter if the night is humid, moist, wet, or sultry, a writer writes—always.
(A variation of this article appeared in the Writer’s League of Texas newsletter in 2001.)
For a different perspective on writer’s block, read Maria Konnikova’s recent article in the New Yorker.