As writers, we’ve all been there: sitting in front of a computer, watching the cursor flash on the white screen – disappear and reappear – like a lifejacket bobbing in the waves. Or sitting with a pen poised precariously over a blank page, like a swimmer reluctant to dive into deep water. Of all the ways I’ve sought to overcome writer’s block, continuing to sit and stare into nothingness until something comes to save me isn’t usually the way it’s overcome.
Rather, I don’t overcome it. Instead, I get up and do something else.
I wrote those two opening paragraphs earlier this week, and afterwards, stared at my own computer screen for more time than I care to recall. I was trying – and failing – to write a post called “How I Overcome Writer’s Block.”
This was not the initial post I had planned to work on that day. But in an act of desperation, I decided to write about not being able to write. And there I was, struggling again. You might say I had lost my footing, was floundering, and was being swept out to sea.
And so? Did I heed my own tried and tested advice by stopping and doing something else?
I knew what I needed to do. But I obstinately continued to stay there, waiting for inspiration to come and rescue me.
As I look back now, I think, How absurd that I thought I could withstand the oceanic force of writer’s block. How ironic that I thought I could disregarding my own previous experience, and persevere against writer’s block through the very act of trying to write about it. It was as though I thought I was somehow immune to it, could somehow muscle my way through it, like a professional swimmer against a riptide. Because even professionals get caught in riptides, I remind myself.
Riptides don’t suck people under water. Rather, people drown by exhausting themselves trying to swim against them. Their pull is too strong, even for professionals.
A riptide will bring you out to sea until it circles you around again, near shore, hopefully. You can actually ride a riptide, potentially doing several circuits, around and around again.
From my understanding, there’s really only one successful way out of a riptide, and that’s not by riding it out, or by trying to swim against it. Rather, to escape a riptide, turn so you’re at an angle to the current (usually parallel with the shore), and swim out of it.
A deliberate decision to escape writer’s block is different from the gnawing weight of procrastination, which increases like interest stacked up against you. And it isn’t an abandonment of a resolve to write altogether.
Rather, the trick to get out of writer’s block is to do so sideways.
I don’t know how much time I’d wasted after writing my initial two paragraphs, still sitting in front of my near-blank screen. I’d been fighting hard against the current for some time, forcing myself to think of something good to write. Then, after the exhaustion, I stopped trying, and let myself be swept along with whatever thoughts were swirling around. I could write about this aspect, or that, I thought, simultaneously giving into self-doubt, which kept me circulating.
Yesterday, after another unsuccessful attempt at writing, I finally decided to take my own advice. I stopped. I got up. And I did something else.
I went to a part of the city I don’t usually go to. I explored. I gave myself permission to do something different, and to not worry about my writing.
When I came back, I decided to write about literary riptides. This post is the result.
I’d sidestepped my way out of writer’s block.
Question: How do you escape writer’s block?