Defeating Writer’s Block

So a time comes, eventually, when the writing isn’t going well. It happens to all of us. We stare at the computer screen, or the page, and we don’t have a clue. It’s like words have become bricks we try to lift with our tongues, or maybe language, tired of our ineptitude, has packed up and moved in with other writers, the ones who right now may be happily typing away—clackety, clack, clack, clack—while we sit in silence. Maybe we’re unable to get a piece started, or maybe the piece we’ve been working on is refusing to cooperate.

Norman Mailer said, “Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.” So let’s shake things up and restore our confidence. Here are a few things you can try to get the words flowing again.


The Jack Webb School of Writing: Just the Facts

Try evoking a specific world (either the world of the piece you’re working on, or any world that comes to you by making a list of details). What is there to be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, touched? Don’t worry about making sentences; just daydream on the page. Often, the sensory details will start to make characters come alive. You might actually start to see them moving and speaking, and, if you do, you might find yourself in the midst of a scene. Usually, sensory details draw out an emotional response from us, and if they do, then imagine what they might mean to your characters. I wrote my novel, River of Heaven, by first imagining the sensory details of two men building a doghouse in the shape of an elaborate sailing ship. The things of the world matter. Play around with them and see where they might take you.


The Serena and Venus Williams School of Writing: A Volley of Dialogue

Let two characters do nothing but talk. Do it fast. Bop, bop, bop. Back and forth. Don’t try to plan the exchange, just let it roll. Disengaging the rational part of the mind might just free you. You might get more playful, more serious, more outrageous, more whatever. Play large. Exaggerate. No easy lobs here, only blistering shots, again and again. Rapid-fire dialogue might hit upon something that will make you say, “hmmm, now I have to write about that.” The pressure of the fast exchange might open some aspect of what you’ve been working on that you haven’t considered, or, if you’re trying to start something new, it might lead you into material you wouldn’t have found otherwise.


The Sidney Poitier School of Writing: “They call me Mister Tibbs!”

So many writers tell me that titles are hard. Okay, then, why not get the title out of the way from the git-go. Brainstorm. Anything is fair game. Memorable things you’re heard people say, clichés, adages, other titles, place names, anything that makes you say, “Hey, I’m going to use that as a title someday.” If you’re lucky, something on your list will start to suggest material. You can always change the title later if you want; the important thing is to find something that gets you started. Not too long ago, I wrote two stories for which I had the titles before I had anything else. They happened to be titles like the ones common for still life paintings: “Drunk Girl in Stilettos” and “Cat on a Bad Couch.” I found that having these titles first gave me the interesting challenge of writing stories to fit them. The titles gave me a canvas, so to speak, and the impetus to fill it.


Which brings me to some thoughts about using other art forms. Look at photographs, paintings, sculptures. Read poems. Listen to music. Let the work of someone else touch something within you. I often think of writing as just one part of a larger conversation among all sorts of artists. I truly believe that I first began to write because I read, saw, or heard something that moved me and caused me to want to respond. Do whatever it takes to keep the words flowing even if that means leaving your desk and getting out into the world. Go places you wouldn’t ordinarily go. Do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do (within reason, of course). Let the world in all its glorious forms touch you, and then, write, write, write!








  1. Thao on January 20, 2014 at 10:51 am

    What a helpful post, Lee. I especially loved the last point about writing being part of a larger conversation with artists. I found my way back to some of my material recently by way of photographs tossed in the back of a desk drawer. Thanks for continuing to encourage us (in some cases, well beyond the MFA :)!

    • Lee Martin on January 20, 2014 at 5:21 pm

      Hi, Thao! Well, if anyone should understand the way the visual arts connect with the literary arts, it would be you. Glad to hear that you’re still working on what I know will be a wonderful book! Thanks for the comment.

  2. sarah corbett morgan on January 20, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Yes, I second that thank you from Thao. All of these are great and especially that last one; staying engaged is key. Read read, read, read. I find that picking up a memoir opens some closed doors of creativity for me. Reading American Chica right now. Such beautiful writing.

    • Lee Martin on January 20, 2014 at 5:23 pm

      Sarah, I’m so glad you remind us to read, read, read! The voices are all around us, and if we let them they can take us back to our own voices, our own material. Thanks for the comment.

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