How Famous Writers Overcome Writer’s Block
7 strategies that will help you reawaken your creativity
Some writers argue that “writer’s block” isn’t real. It’s just an excuse to use when we’d rather procrastinate than get to work on our writing projects.
There’s a quote attributed to William Faulkner: “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
Similarly, in Jack London’s 1905 essay on how to become a published writer, London observed, “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”
London believed that writing daily was the best way to rouse the sleeping Muse. He advised, “Set yourself a ‘stint,’ and see that you do that ‘stint’ each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year.”
And, yet, many other famous authors wouldn’t have found London’s advice very helpful. Franz Kafka, for example, once lamented in his journal,
“How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is successful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am powerless.”
(More quotes from famous writers lamenting writer’s block here.)
Maybe you’re like me and sometimes feel more like Kafka than Faulkner and London. You sit down at your computer to begin writing, but instead you find yourself having a stare down with the blank screen. You may type a few lines, but after several minutes you delete everything. You just can’t seem to find the right words to continue.
It’s as if your inspiration inkwell has suddenly dried up. What can you do? How can you get back in your creative flow?
Thankfully, many famous writers have shared their methods for how they reawaken their creativity.
Read on for several different strategies seven famous authors have used to overcome writer’s block and keep writing away.
1. Maya Angelou’s “Just Write” Strategy
Writing is like any art or sport. Practice makes perfect. As we have seen, many authors argue that inspiration will only come if you push yourself to keep putting pen to paper each day.
The trick is not to overthink it. Write nonsense if you have to. But keep writing, no matter if you’re pleased with the final result or not.
Maya Angelou explained in the book Writers Dreaming:
“I suppose I do get ‘blocked’ sometimes but I don’t like to call it that. That seems to give it more power than I want it to have. What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’ you know. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”
2. Anthony Trollope’s “Timed Writing” Strategy
Similar to Maya Angelou’s “just write” strategy is Anthony Trollope’s “timed writing” strategy. One of the most successful novelists of the Victorian era, Trollope figured out a daily writing routine that had him churning out books with astounding speed. Over the course of 35 years, he wrote 47 novels as well as many short stories, nonfiction books, and plays.
Even more impressive, he did all this while working a demanding job as a post office inspector. His job required him to travel often and keep a busy schedule.
That meant that when he sat down to write, he needed to make sure he met his daily word count goal.
In his autobiography, he described the strategy that he used:
“It had at this time become my custom, — and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself, — to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour.
I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went…
This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year.”
Trollope’s timed writing strategy was so amazingly effective because he committed to turning off all distractions during that time period. He forced himself to concentrate on only the ticking of the stopwatch and his words. I dive into how to implement Trollope’s timed writing strategy in my article here.
3. Neil Gaiman’s “Hibernation” Strategy
Sometimes strategies #1 and #2 don’t work. Maybe you’ve been working excitedly on your novel, but suddenly have absolutely no idea how the story should end. Or you’ve been writing a blog post, but can’t figure out how to write the conclusion.
Neil Gaiman offers this advice:
“Put it [your writing] aside for a few days, or longer, do other things, try not to think about it. Then sit down and read it (printouts are best I find, but that’s just me) as if you’ve never seen it before. Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.”
4. John Steinbeck’s “Write to One Person” Strategy
If a bad case of perfectionism is causing your writer’s block, you might find this strategy helpful. In a 1962 letter to his friend Robert Wallsten, John Steinbeck advised,
“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person — a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.”
Indeed, it’s exhausting and intimidating (and often downright paralysing) to try to write a story or a blog post that will please everybody. There will inevitably be someone who doesn’t agree with your position or who doesn’t like the fantasy genre or the thriller genre or whatever type of story you are writing.
Instead, when you write to a single person, it gives you a sense of purpose and direction and will help you get your creative juices flowing. I also find it motivating since I am now eager to share my completed work with that person.
5. Ernest Hemingway’s “Hoarding” Strategy
If you’ve suffered from writer’s block but suddenly find all of that inspiration flooding into you again, don’t exhaust your resources! Always make sure to keep some inspiration in reserve.
Ernest Hemingway explained,
“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”
Essentially, this strategy attempts to outmaneuver writer’s block. End your writing sessions mid-paragraph while you still have a clear idea of what you want to write next. That way you’ll maintain your momentum and avoid showing up to a blank page the next day with no idea how to move forward.
6. Toni Morrison’s “Writing Ritual” Strategy
Toni Morrison and many other writers emphasize the importance of writing rituals: a set sequence of actions that you perform before you sit down to write. It could be as simple as making a cup of tea or playing one of your favorite music CDs. A ritual helps you mentally prepare yourself to start writing.
Toni Morrison observed,
“Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was — there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard — but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write.
I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark — it must be dark — and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular…
I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?”
I’ve written more about different writers’ rituals in my article here.
7. Hilary Mantel’s “Get Away From Your Desk” Strategy
If none of the previous strategies work, sometimes the best way to conquer writer’s block is to get away from your desk and clear your mind. Writer’s block often happens because your mind is overwhelmed by all of the thoughts about your daily life that are crowding your brain.
You need to create a space for your inspiration to fill.
Hilary Mantel offers this advice,
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
Writer’s block can be quite discouraging, but the bottom line is don’t give up. Look for creative ways to inspire yourself out of the doldrums. When you finally do start writing, don’t judge yourself too harshly. Just let your creative juices start flowing.
Once you’ve found your lost inspiration, make sure you examine your creative process to see why you ran into writer’s block in the first place. Make changes to your writing process if you have to. This will help you avoid writer’s block in the future.