Writer's Block: Getting Out of Your Character's Way

Two words which inevitably ruin any writer’s day: writer’s block.   

Aye, yi, yi! I hate even writing them down.

Maybe you can’t get yourself to sit down and write, or you’ve made it to your computer only to stare at a blank screen, the white of the wordless page causing your eyes to ache. You close your eyes, rub them, hoping when you reopen them words will be on that blank screen. You hope for a miracle. Nothing.

The thoughts won’t come. You’re in a state of creative constipation. You pace, make a second pot of coffee, scream, throw something. Hopefully, something soft, like a pillow. You debate throwing your computer or notebook out the window. I knew someone once who actually did toss her laptop down two stories. Not recommended.         

There are many things which can cause writer’s block:

-  You’re not sure what you want to write about

-  Your thoughts haven’t percolated long enough

-  You’re distracted by other things (close down the Internet!)  

-  Perfectionism: thinking you don’t have a right to write unless it flows out smoothly and flawlessly

-  Doubt and Fear

-  Hearing your own voice, instead of your character’s

As a writer and a psychologist who works with a lot of artists, I have come to believe that doubt and fear underlie all the others. They are the fundamental culprits, robbing you of your creative space.

When we write ideas pour out of us, emotions surface and spill onto the pages. Feelings and thoughts we didn’t even know we had stare back at us from those pages. We imagine what others will think about what we have written and suddenly, we become anxious. Our heart and mind are ripped open and if we want to publish, our deepest self will be on public display.

This is exposing; when we write we are vulnerable. Of course, this is terrifying. It’s hard enough to be exposed and vulnerable in an intimate relationship, never mind having your whole self out in the world, open to examination by others. Innumerable others. If your goal is to be a published author, or have a million blog followers, you are putting your heart and soul out there for countless strangers to read. This can paralyze people. It can cause an otherwise talented artist to be in a state of arrested creativity, which is both awful and painful.

Hence, my aforementioned friend who threw her laptop out the window.

This is why writing like no one is watching, pushing thoughts and self-judgments out of your head, is imperative. Easier said than done, I know.

But it is possible. When I was in graduate school I learned to work through doubt and fear because I had to. Papers had to be written, presentations had to be made. There was no negotiation. Write or fail, basically. So I wrote, sometimes long papers and often times I worked on multiple writing assignments, simultaneously. Writing is a big part of psychology graduate school programs. So the pressures of graduate school taught me to push through the doubt, and that I could. Of course, with a paper, or even my dissertation, the exposure was nothing like writing for a larger audience. But on a small scale, your work is judged and critiqued; academics can be a challenging group to satisfy.

So, sit down and write, right? Write a few sentences, a paragraph, write in a notebook or journal, just write. Do it for yourself, at first. No one ever has to see your crappy drafts. And they will be crappy. Write for a little while every day. But write every day. If you hear the doubt, push it aside. Pretend that you have to do it. Eventually, you will feel like you do.

Doubts can be sneaky.

And so...

There is another more insidious way that doubt creeps in and slows or halts writing, and that’s character voice. This applies to fiction writing. It’s something I have been thinking about, as I observe my own writing process, as well as, from talking through these blocks with others.

I write my fiction in the third person, and I shift perspectives offering multiple points of view. When I do this, I hear different voices. My posture changes, my facial expression changes, and the way I feel changes, based on which character’s head I am in.

I would go as far as to say that it’s based on who’s writing, because as the thoughts and feelings pour out, it doesn’t feel like it’s me. I have felt things I have never felt before. Associations pop into my head and I’m like, “Wow, where did that come from?”

When I finished writing the third book in my Close Enough to Kill trilogy and it was being edited, I started a new novel. All new characters. All together (in the three books of the series combined), I had written close to eleven hundred pages. I had spent a year and a half with my series characters. I knew them intimately. Sometimes I would toss and turn at night because I couldn’t quiet their voices.

So when I started this new book, the voices of the characters from my series were interfering with hearing clear voices for my new characters. Talking about having your head spin. Thing was, it affected my writing process. I was able to write, but it felt harder, forced. The flow felt stifled. Ugh!

I didn’t toss my computer, not to worry.

When I returned to my series for rewrites, it was like coming home after a long journey in an unfamiliar land. Ah! The voices were there. I didn’t even have to try and the words poured out effortlessly. It was hard to write as fast as my thoughts, even.

Since finishing the rewrites, I completed the first draft of a novella about Jacob Temple, the murder victim in the second book of my series, Circle of Trust. (I will be returning to the other novel after I’m done with a series of novellas). Although also written in the third person, it is almost exclusively from his perspective. I had to do that or I never would have been able to keep it novella length. So, my protagonist is a man. About two pages into the book, I heard his voice. A man’s voice. And then the whole story gushed out. Jacob Temple wrote his story through me.  

So I started thinking about character voice and how it relates to writer’s block. When we suffer with doubts and fears, we have a voice in our head, our Doubt Voice. It is our own voice going through a litany of reservations, uncertainty, self-deprecation: Can I do this? Is it any good? This is total crap. Will anyone even want to read this? What will people say when they do? These are a few examples; the list of doubts is endless. The things we do to ourselves.

Our characters are trying, even screaming to be heard, but we aren’t able to listen because our own voice (our Doubt Voice) is in our way.

With many things sometimes our biggest obstacle is ourselves. Sometimes we have to get out of our own way. In this case, getting out of our own way also means getting out of our characters’ way. Step aside, and let their voices be heard. Because once you do this, the narrative will flow out onto the pages. The blank document or empty notebook will be filled with words.

Your words, their words.

Your story, their story.

Recognize the doubt, recognize the fear, and write anyway. There is no way around this, only through.