Because I’ve spoken to writers clubs on editing and appeared on two editing panels for the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society (GLAWS), the president of GLAWS and I had a conversation recently about doing a presentation on healing writers block. “It’s simple,” I told him. “You just start writing.”
I don’t think I’ve ever had writers block. Of course, there have been times in my life—like when I was a new mother or so besotted in love one time that I couldn’t think of anything else—that I haven’t been interested in writing, but even going through an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in English, I never had much trouble with term papers, my thesis, or my dissertation. Like most writers, I suppose, I just walk around in the world with words spiraling in my head and building first lines of blogs, essays, stories, and poems. My challenge is finding time to write those lines down somewhere. Then I have to find more time to type them on my computer. Typing takes more time than thinking.
If you’re a writer, you write. If you think you can’t write or you’re afraid to get started—just write! Sit down with a pencil and paper or at your keyboard and start moving your hands and fingers. Although I love sports writer Red Smith’s famous quote—“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein”—writing is not quite that painful. I think it’s partly a matter of muscle memory. When I was learning to play the doumbek, I drummed the beledi rhythm (DOUM DOUM tek-a-tek-a DOUM tek-a-tek-a-tek—this is the most familiar belly-dance rhythm) over and over until my arms, hands, and fingers could do it without being directed by my mind. That’s muscle memory. I think learning to type on a QWERTY keyboard works about the same way. As I type this, I’m not thinking individual letters—A-S-I-T-Y-P-E-T-H-I-S, etc.—but whole words. My fingers know where to go. I don’t have to tell them. Of course, I’ve been typing for a long, long time. I learned to type on a standard, nonelectric typewriter. And I remember my grandfather’s typewriter, an ancient Remington with action so stiff you practically had to hit each key with a hammer. (His typewriter was like the one Hazel uses in Upstairs, Downstairs.) Electronic keyboards are certainly easier to use.
So to cure your writers block, start writing. I can hear you protesting. “I can’t think of anything to write!” “How can I write if my mind is empty?” “But what do I write?” “I’ll never be able to write again.” Phooey. Type the first pages of War and Peace if you want to, or the opening of a novel by Charles Dickens. Type the first page of the first Harry Potter book. Type the first verses of the Gospel of John. (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.) Type nursery rhymes. Type a lyric by W.S. Gilbert or Bob Dylan, type a poem by Emily Dickinson, W.S. Merwin, or Philip Levine.
But DO NOT COPYAND PASTE. Don’t copy and paste for two good reasons. First, you really do not want to commit plagiarism. Second, and more important, copying and pasting does not build muscle memory in your fingers. The reason you’re typing is to get your fingers moving, which should get your mind moving again. If you’re reading what you’re typing, you may also learn something about good writing, how words can be put together. It never hurts to read good writing.
Get those fingers moving! Keep typing. I’m pretty sure you will not retype all of War and Peace, but the typing will bestir your mind. It’s like sparks will shoot out from Tolstoy or Rowling or Mother Goose and smash through the make-believe barriers in your mind. Words will crash together. Strings of words will start marching across your synapses. Words will tap dance over your corpus callosum. Ideas will sprout out of your right brain and start flowering in your neurons and spread like green grass down your arms. You might even get imaginary flowers on your fingernails. (Have I taken this metaphor too far? You get it, right?)
When your own ideas start coming, as they inevitably will, hit enter two or three times and start typing what’s coming out of your head and flowing down through your arms. Don’t judge it. Don’t edit it. Don’t worry yet about spelling or punctuation. Don’t even read it very closely. Just type. YOU’RE WRITING.
After you’ve got a paragraph or a stanza or two (or more), then you may want to slow down for a minute. Go back to the top of the page and delete what you copied. Now, if you want to, read what you wrote. Maybe it’s just rough draft. Rough drafts exist to be changed. Edit a little bit if you want to, correct obvious spelling and punctuation errors, make notes about where this is heading. Can you keep going? A writing teacher I once knew said the best way to keep going is to stop in the middle of a sentence. You’ll be irresistibly drawn to complete that sentence the next time you sit down to write.
Finally, it might be useful to distinguish between procrastination and writers block. This may be almost a Jesuitical distinction, but let’s assume it’s valid. When you’re procrastinating, you’re just waiting to write because you’ve got other things to do. Feed the cats. Vacuum the living room. Wash the car. Buy this week’s groceries. But keep this in mind—even if you’re procrastinating, you can’t stop your mind from writing. As you walk around in the world, let the words keep forming paragraphs and stanzas in your mind. And be sure to take the time to get them down on paper or your screen.
Here’s a list of Barbara’s books: