Block That Block

Hi, it’s Sarah Graves coming to you from Football Central, otherwise known as our house in Eastport, Maine. And today when so many blockers will be charging across TV screens, I thought I’d talk about that other kind of block.

You know the one I mean. We’re not even going to mention its whole name on account of not wanting to jinx ourselves, but it’s big and scary just like the ones on the football field.

How to, er, block it? Here’s 10 scraps of red meat to throw when all else fails.


1) Ignore it. Just…write something. Anything. Write a word, then a sentence, then — woo-hoo! — a paragraph. Momentum isn’t just key, here, it’s everything. (Hint: it doesn’t have to be good, or even make sense. Anything at all will do. Once you’re over the hump things will improve…sort of. But then, see #2.)

2) Stop editing. Honestly, if I had a nickel for every hour I have wasted being hard on my writing while I was doing it, I’d have — well, lots of nickels. Onward! No dilly-dallying!

3) Imitate Indiana Jones. Remember when he stepped out onto the invisible bridge over the chasm on his way to the Grail? It was there because he stepped out onto it. Go thou and do et cetera.

4) Read something lousy. Read something you know you can do better than. This is not only very helpful, it’s also immensely cheering if you are, like me, a jealous and dark-hearted… well, it’s helpful, is what I’m trying to say.

5) First, deliver the marble. This was told to me by a famous sculptor named Michael Lantz when I asked him how he did it. Turned out it was a huge undertaking to get marble pieces the size he needed into his studio. Only after the marble was delivered and hauled inside — ie, the first draft was written, get it? — could he sculpt the huge figures for which he was well-known.

6) There is no ‘try.’ (Yeah, another pop-culture film reference, what can I say, you won’t get much highbrow stuff out of me.) (Except sometimes.) Yoda says this to Luke Skywalker after Luke says he’ll ‘try’ to master a difficult feat. Let go of ‘try’ and grab onto ‘do.’ And — see #7.

7) Doing instead of trying will be a lot easier if you also let go of your ego’s requirement that the result must be fa-a-abulous. At this point, the only requirement for the result of your doing is that it exist. All else is the responsibility of the rewrite department.

8) Trust yourself a little, for pete’s sake. Do you really think that your writing is better when you’re all squinched up over it, straining and sweating to be a ‘good writer?’ Personally I don’t want to read your ‘good writing’ anyway. I want to hear your voice. Warts and all, please. Plots are great and everything, but I will kill for an authentic voice, one I can hear when I’m reading. (If you want an example, see Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper or anything by Shirley Jackson.)

9) I used to say when all else fails, copy the phone book. You’ll do anything to be able to stop doing that, including write your own stuff. In my own case I find just the threat works well, too, though, so just copy a page or so to get inoculated, and then the threat will probably work for you, also.

10)  Remember that there is a rewrite department. You’re it, but not until later! And you will be all-powerful in it, able to leap tall chapters and so on. But for now your only job is to put-put along, word after word, page after page. Nothing else, nothing so very daunting.  One foot — or word — in front of the other.

And remember, it could be worse. You could be out there on that football field getting blocked by a real blocker, all many, many pounds of him. Repeatedly. Personally, I’ll take combat with a blank page — or even 375 of them — any day. 


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10 Responses to Block That Block

  1. A great list! I wish I’d read it five years ago when I was stuck in endless editing mode with my first novel. Where are those nickels, anyway?

    • Sarah Graves says:

      Editing mode — oh, yeah. Been there, etc. Maybe we should start a business selling editing hats. You are only allowed to edit when you are wearing your guaranteed-to-be-Maine-made editing hat.

      As for the nickels, I’ve been getting nickel-and-dimed for so long that…well, you know.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Timely post, Sarah! Right now I’m coping with family health issues … and a looming deadline … and the pages are sputtering out of me, not flowing. Good reminder that spuittering is better than nothing. Until I can get those faucets open full blast again! Happy January!

    • Sarah Graves says:

      Yikes. Hope health issues improve pronto. And yes — sputtering is 100% better than nothing. If moving forward? = yes, then no problem, imho.

  3. Beth Camp says:

    Dawn Goldsmith sent me your way, and she was right. Your list on blocking writer’s block definitely cheered me up on this cold and snowy Tuesday morning, especially that hambuger ugly. Now, write on!

  4. C.K.Crigger says:

    What a great post. If no one minds, I’ll copy it and hang it over my computer for days when nothing I write seems to work. Carry on!

    • Sarah Graves says:

      Don’t mind a bit! I have Dorothy Parker over my desk: “All I’ve got is a big pile of pages with the wrong words on them.”

      Ain’t it the truth.

  5. M. Rups says:

    “I used to say when all else fails, copy the phone book.”

    Have you ever read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (who also wrote 101 Dalmations)? Eccentric family buys a castle with the money from the father’s best seller; unfortunately, he’s now suffering from an enormous case of writer’s block and is producing nothing at all while the family finances are slowly going south. They finally end up locking him in a tower room with his typewriter and refuse to let him out until he starts writing again. But what shall I write?! he wails. Doesn’t matter, even if all you write is “The cat sat on the mat” a thousand times … And, indeed, that does break through the block.

  6. Sarah Graves says:

    Oh, that sounds wonderful, I’ll have to look for it. Wasn’t there also an Italian poet whose sister had to lock him in the cellar to get him to write? And there he wrote “molti belli sonetti?” But forgive me, I’m probably bungling the story and the Italian, too…

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