Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer's Block

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Macmillan, Oct 19, 2003 - Reference - 241 pages
None of us is immune to writer's block. From well-known novelists to students, associates in business and law firms, and even those who struggle to sit down to write personal correspondence or journal entries -- everyone who writes has experienced either brief moments or longer periods when the words simply won't come.

In Unstuck, poet, author and writing coach Jane Anne Staw uncovers the reasons we get blocked - from practical to emotional, and many in between - and offers powerful ways to get writing again. Based on her experiences working with writers as well as her own struggle with writer's block, Staw provides comfort and encouragement, along with effective strategies for working through this common yet vexing problem.

Topics include: understanding what's behind the block * handling anxiety and fear * carving out time and space to write * clearing out old beliefs and doubts * techniques to relax and begin * managing your expectations as well as those of family and friends * experimenting with genre, voice, and subject matter * defusing the emotional traps that sabotage progress and success * ending the struggle and regaining confidence and freedom by finding your true voice - and using it.

Writers of all levels will find solace, support, and help in this book, leading them to an even deeper connection with their work and more productivity on the page.

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About the author (2003)

1 The Right to Write Every semester, at the first meeting of my creative nonfiction workshop, I ask the students what they hope to gain from the course. There are always a few who say that they are there because they can''t write without external pressure. "I need the structure of a class," one student said recently. "I don''t write unless I know someone expects me to write and is waiting to receive what I have written," another newcomer confessed. "I can''t think of what to write on my own," somebody else admitted. While these students certainly don''t sound like some of the most severely blocked writers I have worked with, anyone who meets up with this much resistance to writing on their own is blocked. Their block may not loom as high as Pike''s Peak. It may not even be as substantial as a Sierra foothill. But something lies in the way. An obstacle large enough that they can''t scale it or navigate around it arises whenever they think about sitting down at their kitchen table or at the computer in their bedroom or study and trying to write. On their own they are helpless. It is only within the formal structure of the classroom that their words find their way to the page. Set these students on the open highway, and they stall, needing instead the safety of the parking lot where they first learned to drive. Writing block presents many faces. Blocked writers do not necessarily struggle mightily each time they attempt to collect thewords in their heads and form them into phrases, sentences, paragraphs, full pages of text. This is the highest degree of blockage, the near-paralysis of movement--of thoughts, ideas, even single words--from head to hand. It is as if a circuit has been broken, and although energy exists at the point of origin, the pathway for the waves to travel has been destroyed. This is the face of the block I struggled with in college. When I think of writing as an undergraduate, I see myself alone in the lounge of 99 Brown Street my sophomore year, seated in front of my typewriter, which is set up at a card table I have dragged in from another room of the residence. All around me--in the lounge, on all three floors of the old brown shingle house I live in, in the dormitories on the tiny campus of Pembroke College a block away, as well as in those surrounding the quadrangle at Brown University several blocks farther--it is quiet. Everyone is sleeping. But I am awake. I sit in the tiny lounge, in the skirt and sweater I dressed in that morning before breakfast, the ceiling light glaring down on me. I sit there typing--and retyping--tearing sheet after sheet of paper from the roller, crumpling each one and tossing it onto the pile on the floor beside me, then sliding yet another clean sheet into the platen of my IBM electric typewriter, rolling the carriage until one inch of pristine paper is exposed, then poising my hands above the keyboard and preparing, once again, to type. I am trying to finish a paper due the next day. The subject of the paper doesn''t matter. I might be writing an essay for my Chinese history class or a term paper for a class in religion. I might have something to turn in for philosophy or sociology. For archaeology. For psychology. And it doesn''t have to be my sophomore year. It could be as early as my freshman year. Or as late asthe end of my junior year, when I became passionate about the history of religions and took a sequence of courses on the Old and New Testaments and then on Hinduism and Buddhism. Despite appearances, I have not waited until the last minute to begin writing this paper. No matter when the professor assigned it--a month, two months, before its due date--I set to work immediately, researching, outlining, researching again. Writing a thesis statement. Then another. And another. Sitting down to put actual words on paper. Typing in the first sentence. Stopping. Reading it aloud. Frowning. Pulling the page out and inserting another. Typing yet another first sentence, one or two words at a time, reading the sentence from the beginning each time I stop to think, to search for a word, an expression, a spelling. This time I might complete the first sentence and move on to the next. But I will inevitably stop mid-second-sentence and yank the paper out of the typewriter, throwing it in the general direction of the first. By the end of several hours, perhaps I will have one intact paragraph. And so it will be, each time I sit down to work on this paper, for five days in a row, or for three weeks or a month or two months. And the day before the paper is due, I will still be writing, not just to the end, toward my summary and my conclusion, away from the tension and indecision of the first words, but once again from the beginning. Yes, from the beginning. For each time I write I take it from the top, refining what I have already written, word by word, sentence by sentence until the early paragraphs--and often more, much more--are as ornate as a Faberge egg. Luckily, most blocked writers do not suffer to this degree. For many the pathway between head and hand exists but is no longer intact. Or the signals encounter interference as they travel outward.As a consequence, their words come slowly and with difficulty. Or the sentences do not flow, one from the other. Or what appears upon the page is not at all what the writers meant to say or even thought they were saying. These damaged pathways create their fair share of unhappiness and frustration. And it''s not difficult to imagine how the unhappiness and frustration might escalate over time. After all, not only do these writers experience no reward in writing; each time they write, they are left with an unpleasant aftertaste. "Can you help me say what I''m trying to say?" a prospective client asked me on the phone the other day. "I mean, I don''t seem to have trouble writing. I sit down and the words flow. But my writing never turns out the way I want it to." Another client, who made an appointment because she wanted to work on her style, arrived for our first meeting and announced, "The truth is, it takes me much too long to write. And I don''t just mean important documents. You should see how many drafts I compose of a silly thank-you note!" Other writers, with no history of difficulty, find themselves blocked for the first time the last semester of their senior year in college. Or in the middle of writing their dissertation. Or their first tenure article. I once worked with a university professor who had accumulated quite a bibliography of academic publications. Then he decided to try something different. He wanted to write a more personal piece. Not a completely personal piece. But an essay that combined his research with observations and stories from his life. And he found himself mute! Here he was, a full professor known for his eloquence, his curriculum vitae studded with awards and laurels, and he couldn''t write a word. Or what about the stay-at-home mother who received praisefor her writing throughout college, and who desired to write a short story she had carried in her head for years but never seemed to get around to actually writing it down? By the time I met her, she was furious at herself. "After all, I should be able to set aside an hour a day to write. I''m lucky enough not to have to work, and I don''t have all that many obligations. And my God, my kids are in school all day. What''s wrong with me?" The most elusive of writing blocks masquerades as writing to deadline. We all know people who wait until the night before a term paper, a legal brief, a business report is due to sit down and begin writing. If asked, most of these writers would claim, "I write best if I wait until the last minute." Most people who write to deadline don''t realize they are blocked--until they face a writing project that simply can''t be completed the night before it is due. For a long time I thought that journalism nurtured this adrenaline-filled, roller-coaster relationship with writing. After all, you can only write about news once it has broken. Then I became a member of a writing group that included a journalist who had moved from news to feature stories, and no matter what her topic or how far in advance she received the assignment, she continued to write to deadline. With disastrous results. Watching this woman panic about not being able to finish each piece that was due, I realized that my logic might have been backward. Newswriting doesn''t necessarily nurture writing to deadline; instead, it might attract writers who are most comfortable waiting until the last possible minute. I''d probably be safe in claiming that at least 25 percent of the students in my workshop classes write to deadline. "I love writing, and I want to write. But I don''t seem to get anything done unless I''m faced with a deadline," one might say. Or, "I alwaysturn in my assignments. The problem is, I don''t get to them until the midnight before they are due." While these last-minute writers seem at first to have a lot in common with the writers who need structure and assignments to write, over the years I have discovered an important difference between the two. Deadline writers don''t usually blame themselves for not getting around to writing; they blame their schedules or their jobs or the other people in their lives. "I know I have to eliminate one or two of my activities if I want to write, but I can''t seem to figure out what to drop," a writer told me last semester. Another student asked the class to help her figure out how to say no to at least part of her social life. "My friends don''t seem to understand when I tell them I want to stay home and write," she said. Many of my clients struggle over the writing-versus

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