Writer’s Block: Who Doesn’t Sometimes Have It?

By Jack Limpert

Starting out at UPI, where they liked to say there was a deadline every minute, we never talked about writer’s block. At a wire service, you didn’t have to be great, just accurate,  and you had to be fast. Anyone claiming writer’s block would have been laughed out of the bureau.

When I got to The Washingtonian, a monthly, there it was. One of our first staff writers—a Princeton graduate who had worked with the eminent historian and writer Daniel Boorstin—was really smart and he could think and write as well as anyone we ever had. But after about a year, he began to lock up. The missed deadlines became more frequent, and finally he just couldn’t finish a story. One day he came in and said, “Jack, we’ve figured it out. I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist and he says it’s either fear of success or fear of failure.”

He left us, ending up in New York City as an editor, a very successful one, but not at a monthly. If he had less time to worry and think, he was okay.

Lots of other Washingtonian writers had bouts of writer’s block but I never figured how to best help a blocked writer—maybe each one is different. My own approach as a writer was just to get the keys moving, even if I was writing the equivalent of “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back.”

One successful writer recently told me how she did it, crediting a teacher, Blanche Boyd at Connecticut College, with the tip:

“She gave us wonderful readings–Joan Didion, Susan Orlean–and she also gave us a tip for writer’s block that I still use: Pick up the work of a writer you admire and start typing out his/her words and paragraphs. Something about that takes the edge off the blank screen syndrome. It gets you closer to hearing the rhythm of the way someone good writes.”

Have a strategy for getting through a bout of writer’s block or helping a writer get through it? Add a comment or send me a note at [email protected]

Comments

  1. Anjanette Riley says:

    I developed a strategy while I was a reporter at a weekly in Arizona that I have been able to use successfully in many other genres. I turn on my caps lock and just start writing everything I know about the story and everything I want to be able to say. The all-caps writing reminds me that this is not “for real,” that I don’t have to be worried that something doesn’t sound right just yet. I have tried writing in other colors or hitting enter several times to be working from the bottom of the page, but all-caps works the best for me. What I end up with is a hodgepodge of almost-usable sentences and notes to myself with warnings and reminders. This gives me something to work off of, which seems to make all the difference for me.

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