Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for Unlocking Writer's Block a guest post by Sandy Nathan

Unlock Writer’s Block: What You Need to Know When the Words Won’t Flow 
Sandy Nathan 

I'm going to illustrate this blog post with a simple tale springing from ranch life. This is a true story, obviously, since the illustrations are photos. This is The Day Corcovado Learned to Load and Unload from a Horse Trailer. Note that the horse is not freaking out, pitching a fit, or tramping his handlers. No, Corco is doing something more effective. He's adopted The Mule Technique. My mind utilizes Corco's technique as I contemplate rewriting my novel’s sequel.

A few years back, I blogged about the rewrite, the re-vision, of the sequel to my multi-award-winning book, Numenon.
Shortly after that blog, we put a Kindle version of Numenon out for 99 cents. Sales went crazy, Numo hit # 1 in Mysticism, and then cruised near the top of the Religious Fiction category. It ended up being #1 in three categories of Mysticism and floating near the top of Kindle sales for a year.
This was a problem.
Why? Because Numenon is the introduction to the series. It bristles with hooks to make people want the sequel. It can create desire verging on lust in fans. Numenon's readers were asking for the sequel; some were getting downright grouchy about it. How long would they wait before dumping me entirely?
The rewrite should have been simple: The draft was completely written. All I had to do was open my computer files and toil for a really long time to get the manuscript cleaned up. Then I would hand it to my editor and other literary professionals, necessitating months and months of hard work before a publishable book existed.
As the owner of an Indie press, after I had done all the above, I would get to manage the design and publication process, and then marketing and sales. This is fine. It’s what indie authors and press owners do.
But I couldn’t open the manuscript's files. I would have sooner dismembered my firstborn child than whack away at that overwhelming, 240,000 word draft.  (That’s right. It was the size of three books.) I couldn’t begin the job, much less finish it.

An undisclosed amount of time later and the guys have the task in hand. All they have to do is get Corco from where he is into the trailer. All I had to do is get the sequel, Mogollon, into print.

Essentially, it’s psychological resistance. Usually it’s about the writer's ego: "My work is so important . . . The world needs my masterpiece. But I’m blocked. I can't write. If I can't write, I'll die, and the world will be left without my brilliant words . . ."
I realize that sounds judgmental and mindless of the pain of the condition, but remember that the blocked-up person I'm talking about is me. I exhibited almost every causal attitude I'll discuss below.
The desire to write the Great American (Latvian, Lithuanian, or Other) Novel can shut a writer down faster than that. (I snap my fingers.) "I have this HUGE idea. Can I possibly express it? Am I big enough? Good enough?" Hand wringing. Angst. Pain. “I have to write this masterpiece. Only I can do it. Nothing less than a masterpiece will do.” This sort of blockage is based on an inflated image of one's importance in the Grand Scheme of Things.
If you regarded finishing your novel the way ranch people regard mucking out the stalls, would it be so hard? So wrenching? Would you stay awake nights because you couldn't finish the job? No. When writing becomes a job of work, histrionics leave and you can get the thing done.
Writer's block also can be associated with positive things. Sherman Alexie, the bestselling Native American author, reminds us that success can block you up good. How can you write when your last book was a national bestseller and your publisher is leaning on you for the new one? And grumbling about your contract and the advance you got for the three-book deal?
Heart breaking, isn't it?
Just plain fear is behind a lot of this. It's the terror that arises when one faces in front of a blank screen or empty page. (My eyes widen and I suppress a scream  . . .)
Real progress: both front hooves are on the ramp. Corco continues to exhibit the Mule Technique. These photos were taken over several hours of intense human-equine negotiation. Notice the carrot in Barry's hand. Sometimes positive reinforcement doesn't work.
Laziness sometimes lurks behind the inability to finish a tale. Writing a novel is pretty much the hardest kind of authoring imaginable. (Though I think a surgeon friend's rewrite of his textbook on arthroscopic ankle surgery ranks up there)
You may begin your manuscript and discover that completing it requires the discipline to sit down and bang it out––to sit for days, months, and years. Despite your earth-shaking, sure to be a bestseller idea, your book won't exist unless you write it.
"It's just too hard . . . I can't do it." Another tragedy.
So you go to a writing group or writers’ confidence  for support and encouragement.  The group’s feedback about your cherished production can block what remnants of creativity that remain in your soul.
And, the rest of humanity, household pets, inanimate objects, and lousy viruses and bacteria can rise up and stop a writer's progress. Life intrudes.
"Marge, there's a truck in the living room. It just came through the wall."
Call it resistance or an errant Mack truck, writer's block is writer's block. A cure exists. I have written about it: The Ultimate Cure for Writer's Block. If you get what I say in this article, block will not trouble you, unless it wants to. (It hinges around my doctor telling me that I had cancer. There’s a motivator.)
* * *
On the other hand, you may not be able to finish your manuscript because the time isn't right. You and your book idea might not be cooked enough.

In a revolutionary move, Tony has picked up Corco's hoof and placed it further onto the ramp. Notice that nothing else has changed in the horse's stance. True resistance, perfectly executed. Well done, Corco!

The process of teaching Corcovado to load and unload illustrates the lesson in this article:
                   You cannot make a 1,200-pound animal do anything. It has to want to do it.
                   You can't make a writer spit out words, either.
                   Writer's block is like the Berlin wall:  you can't go around it, over it, or under it as long as it's standing and the gates are closed.
                   Recall that the Berlin wall (which some of you may not remember) came down when the time was right.
Resistance is like that: it seems like a solid wall, but it's got invisible cracks. As time passes, doors open, and close. Keep your eye on the wall, and go through when an opening appears. (that means write like crazy when you can.)
While you're waiting, do something else.
Things to do while waiting for an opening in your resistance:
READ. You can read all sorts of stuff. You can read my blog, Your Shelf Life.  You can read my books, which are linked below.  I’ve got an ancient on-line magazine devoted to changing the world, Spurs Magazine. The most interesting articles are on my website, except for a few, comprising the Spurs' Writers' Corner. The Writers' Corner is there with many, though dated, articles. My favorite is "Do You Have to Suffer to Write Well? Yes, and It Helps If You're a Manic-depressive." This contains everything from Zen wisdom to shrinks's analyses of the incidence of bipolar disorder among writers.

Advanced training technique: Tony waves his hat while Barry pulls on the lead rope. Corco remains unmoved. Some people resort to offering buckets of carrots and grain at this point. When that doesn't work, they escalate this to use of nasty motivators like whips. We don't do that. The inter-species negotiation process intensifies as and the sun drops on the horizon …

SPURS' WRITERS' CORNER contains a bunch of articles relevant to writer's block. These articles walk through the process of writing as experienced by me and many others. (Lots of references & links.)
                       DO YOU HAVE TO SUFFER TO WRITE WELL? One of my favorites. Uses Kay Redfield Jamison MD's writing on bipolar disorder and creativity.
                       THE ULTIMATE CURE FOR WRITER'S BLOCK If this article doesn't get through your Block, take up golf.

Tony and Barry attempt to force Corco into the trailer. Barry is inside the trailer, pulling hard, while Tony applies muscle at the other end. Does it work? What do you think? You can no more force a horse into a trailer than your brain to kick out the right words. (Note: Do not do what you see above at home. What's shown in the above photo is extremely dangerous and very bad horsemanship. Corco could kill either man if he lunged forward or bolted backwards.)

More things to do to distract yourself when you can't write:
                   clean the house
                   roller skate
                   go to your shrink and talk about your writer’s block
                   blog about your block
                   entertain your fellow writers
                   take a nap.
Mostly, contemplate the situation until you realize the real reason for your blockage/stoppage.
Writing this article made me realize that:
                       I'm tired.
                       I need a break.
                       A real break where I do NOTHING, NADA, ZILCH.
                       NO book marketing, planning the next move, scheduling book signings, reading blogs on marketing, sales, the latest Net techniques.
                       Take the box of books out of the trunk of the car "just in case."
                       I need to stop doing what I'm doing and allow my personal process––my soul, if you will––to call the shots.
                       When The Universe wants me to finish Mogollon, I will.
I'm taking that break, goin' to Santa Fe for three weeks. Santa Fe, New Mexico, is like catnip to me. Where we stay, there's no Internet, no phone, no TV, no roads. Just wind and sky and a few snakes.
About a minute after the photo, above Corcovado walked into the trailer with no fuss. He'd decided that he wanted to.
When your soul/brain/heart/body/hands decide it's time to write, you will. You'll write good stuff that deserves to see the light of day.
Tony leads Corcovado out of the trailer. Note how relaxed the horse is. He never had a problem going into or out of a trainer from this day forward.

Hasta luego, amigos! I have a date with a dirt road and cactus.
Sandy Nathan

Sandy Nathan is the winner of twenty-one national awards, in categories from memoir, to visionary fiction, to children’s nonfiction. And more.
Two sequels to The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy are in production with early 2012 publication dates. If you liked  The Angel you’ll love Lady Grace and Sam & Emily.

Copyright Sandy Nathan 2012 All Rights reserved. (c)


  1. This is fantastic! and very, very true. Mad props for your Sherman Alexie reference (he was my "A").

  2. Lots of useful advice here, Sandy.