How I block writer’s block – Heidi Mastrogiovanni

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By Heidi Mastrogiovanni

I do have to confess, at the outset, that I write comedic novels. And so I want to start with the caveat that my thoughts on writer’s block might not necessarily translate well to the realm of serious fiction. With that having been stated, I do hope that I can offer some inspiration for many writers who are laboring under the dreaded block. Herewith, my tricks for getting myself back on track with my writing, gleaned from years of trial and error.♥

1. I give myself permission to write shitty first drafts. It’s a first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect. No one has to see it except you. No pressure at all. Just get some words down on paper. That’s all you need. It can be absolute crap. You’ll rewrite it. It has often been commented that writing is in the rewriting. Just write. Because you love to write. Seriously, no pressure at all.

I know that looming deadlines might negate that entire statement about there being no pressure. But, for me, when I work with specific deadlines, I do still remind myself that I have put myself in a position to have those deadlines looming because I absolutely love to write.

Honestly, I’m not sure I can think of a reason to write other than because you love it. The writer’s life doesn’t promise riches. It doesn’t promise acclaim. I’m reminded of a quotation by the great writer Dorothy Parker (who was quite brilliant at making people laugh with her prose):

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style (on a side note, Parker is absolutely right about this). The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Uhhh, no. I am loath to disagree with the great Dorothy Parker, but you can be happy as a writer, if, in my forever-less-than-humble opinion, you’re doing it because you love spending time with stories, with characters, with words.

2. Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (actually, I’m assuming you’ll be re-reading it, because every writer – and here I go again being quite-a-bit-less-than-humble in spouting my opinions – should have read this superb book at least once). You’ve got a copy kept by your desk for easy reference, yes? If not, go out and buy a copy right now. Because Lamott is brilliant at reminding us all why we write and she’s brilliant at inspiring us to keep going. Here are some gems from her:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

My corollary to that is, if I wrote only one double-spaced page a day, by the end of a year, I’d have a first draft of a manuscript. Anyone can sit for 15 minutes and write one double-spaced page. Just sit down and do it. Because you love to write, right?

And I’ll be willing to bet that at the end of the 15 minutes, you might find yourself writing for another 15 minutes…and then another…and then another…but even if you don’t, that’s fine, too. Just get that one page written, once a day.

Anne Lamott tells us that she has a one-inch picture frame on her desk, to remind herself that she doesn’t have to feel overwhelmed:

“I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

These thoughts, to me, are among the best ways to avoid feeling overwhelmed by a writing project, and that, in my experience, is a great way to avoid writer’s block.

3. I think there’s another segment to writer’s block, and that’s the part where you can’t think of any ideas. That’s a tough one. It’s one thing to have your wonderful idea in place, to have your wonderful outline for your story/novel/article in place, and to then get yourself to writing it. It’s quite another to confront a dearth of concepts.

I’ve found that the idea muscle in my brain is similar to the muscle that tones my biceps. I need to keep both in shape through exercise, and, to remain committed to staying in shape, I need to find exercises that I enjoy doing (at the gym, I read while I’m working out, so I end up looking forward to my exercise sessions). I’ve found – again, through trial and error – that I get my best ideas by always watching and listening.

It’s another perk to being a writer; we get to observe the human condition and then comment on it. I have a file on my computer with snippets of dialogue, with beginning ideas for stories, with character sketches, with anything that might inspire an idea in the future. If I’m ever feeling unclear on what my next project will be, I usually find something to get me back on track from my file labelled IDEAS. Not many days go by when I don’t contribute something to this file. Because there’s just so much going on in the world, isn’t there, and there really are so many stories to be told.

4. And, finally, and I know I’m going to risk sounding like a broken record (an image that might need to be retired, though I hear that vinyl is making a comeback…) with this, but I do think it bears repeating: Ultimately, there’s only one reason to write. Because you love writing. Because you’re a writer. Do it because it’s fun. Do it because you want to. Do it because you love to write. No pressure, just joy. Don’t worry about writer’s block. It’s not a problem. Just write.

Heidi Mastrogiovanni is a graduate of Wesleyan University and was chosen as one of ScreenwritingU’s 15 Most Recommended Screenwriters of 2013. The comedy web series she writes and produces, Verdene and Gleneda, was awarded the Hotspot on the Writers Guild of America’s Hotlist. Her new novel, Lala Pettibone, Standing Room Only, is out now.

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