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Marginal Notes

Diving into Writer's Block


Years ago I attended a charity fundraiser involving the Coney Island Polar Bear Club Ė a swim club that takes a dip in the ocean off Coney Island Beach every New Yearís Day. At the event, the charity used a chainsaw to open up a small pool Ė maybe five by ten yards Ė in the six-inch-thick ice of a frozen lake. Then the Polar Bear Club hopped in and paddled around while the charity sold hot chocolate and chili to sympathetic onlookers.

One of the polar bears told me the trick. If youíre afraid of the cold, if you fight it, your body assumes that youíre freezing to death. Even if you try to ignore the cold, your body wonít buy it and pulls blood away from your skin to keep the important stuff Ė heart, brain, lungs Ė going. Thatís what makes the cold so painful. But if you embrace the cold, if you welcome it as a friend, then your bodyís good with it, too, and sends the blood out to your skin to keep you warm. This is why the club members swimming among the ice chunks were bright, lobster red.


Itís only natural to fear writerís block. When youíre staring at a blank page with no idea what to type, or when you type a page then delete it ten minutes later because you canít stand to look at it, you might feel like youíll never write again. Itís terrifying.

A lot of articles on writerís block will tell you that itís often nothing more than fear, feeding on itself. Just suck it up and power through, and it will go away. Or take a break and walk away, then come back to your novel after youíve calmed down. This approach sometimes works. But it would be even better to embrace your writerís block the way the Polar Bear Club embraces the cold.

Writerís block usually hits after youíve been writing for a while Ė people who get blocked when they first start out generally donít become writers. So youíve already known the joy that the initial surge of creativity can bring, the thrill of watching a story unfold under your fingers. And then itís gone, and you donít know how to get it back.

Maybe the blockage is telling you to reassess where you are as a writer. Not whether or not youíre any good Ė that kind of obsession is never helpful. But where you are in terms of your growing skill. Your first novel Ė or your first few chapters, if youíre stuck in the middle of your first novel Ė is often born of a creative surge, when you can see the work whole and entire in your mind and simply need to get it down on paper. Later novels are more crafted, more deliberate, and your writerís block may be telling you that you need to develop your craft.

Novels are a balancing act between a lot of different variables Ė pace, tension, plot twists, character voice, dialogue mechanics, and so forth. It takes practice before you can work all of these moving parts at once. If you still havenít developed the skills (many of which eventually become automatic), the size of the job alone could make you freeze up. So maybe the way around your writerís block is to focus on one or two aspects of your story and forget the rest for the moment.

For instance, start writing a daily journal for your main character. This could be an inner journal, tracking how they feel about whatís happening around them, or it could simply be a record of their day-to-day activities. Dealing solely with your main character without worrying about plot and pace and all the rest may help you focus your attention enough to overcome the sense that you canít get anywhere. And as you get to know your main character better, and get used to writing from inside their head, it gives you one less ball to keep in the air when youíre ready to go back to your novel.

You can also focus on other specific aspects of your story Ė outlining your plot, for instance, or writing the history of your settings. But since most good stories spring from character, your main character is usually the best place to start.


Or your writerís block may be telling you that, even if youíre competent at your craft, youíve fallen into a rut. Iíve seen a lot of clients whose first novels were solid, effective storytelling. Then their second novels looked suspiciously like their first, with the same sorts of characters, similar plot twists, and familiar pacing. They werenít identical, but the family resemblance was clear enough that no DNA test was needed. And when you feel like youíve written it all before, itís hard to keep going.

One way to break out of your rut is to read books that are unlike anything youíve ever read. If youíre fond of literary fiction, read some massively popular trash Ė Dan Brown, say, or The Twilight Saga. And read sympathetically Ė these books are popular for a reason. If youíve always looked down on romances as frivolous and formulaic, crack a Harlequin and see what all the swooning is about. If you prefer popular beach reads, maybe itís time for Thomas Pynchon or Umberto Eco (not The Name of the Rose Ė itís atypical).

Reading books outside your normal scope may not be fun Ė your taste is your taste, after all. And Iím not necessarily suggesting you kill off a character and turn your literary novel into a whodunit. But reading outside your comfort zone will expose you to writing techniques and types of characters and settings that you may not have encountered before. And the fresh ideas may be enough to get you writing again.

The New Year is, of course, the time when a lot of writers make resolutions to crack down on their writing Ė to cover a set number of pages, or to write for a set time, every day. These arenít necessarily bad plans. But if you do get hung up, donít hate or fear your writerís block. Treat it like a friend. Listen to what itís trying to tell you. It may be helping you to become a stronger writer.

Then take the plunge back into your novel, no matter how cold it may seem.