Chewing a pencil. Flipping channels aimlessly on TV. Checking email for the zillionth time. These are all proven remedies for writer’s block that do not work. Take a cue from famous and uncelebrated writers alike in adopting one of these unusual cures for writer’s block that do (or at least did for the writer in question) actually work.
1. Naked need
Victor Hugo had his manservant take away his clothes and leave him in a room with only paper, pen and ink. There was nothing to do there but write, and escape was impractical. A set number of hours later, the manservant would return with his clothes.
2. Acting it out
Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine and other novels, also needs the door to her writing studio locked, but for a different reason. She needs to walk around the room acting all the parts out loud.
3. Rotten Luck
Friedrich Schiller needed a particular smell to get into the mood for writing. He kept rotten apples in a drawer in his desk.
4. Rain on the Brain
Maxwell Anderson, a playwright, wrote best when it was raining. Even in foggy San Francisco, where he was living, it doesn’t rain all the time, so he installed a sprinkler system on the roof of his writing studio to keep inspiration coming.
5. Four score
A woman attending one of my writing workshops told me that when she was stumped about what to write next, she would sit down at the keyboard and begin typing the Gettysburg Address, which she had once committed to memory. Invariably somewhere around sentence four or five, she would segue into what she actually wanted to be writing.
6. The Monet method
A man in one of my workshops took his cue from Monet, who would set up half a dozen canvases in front of Rouen cathedral or elsewhere, working on first one or the other as the light changed. My student bought ten notebooks, which he arrayed on a bench, and started a story in each of them. The odds now were that at any given time, he’d feel inspired to continue writing at least one of them.
7. Strict limit
Psychologist Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit, spent several years working with graduate students who were not able to get any writing done on their dissertations. He asked them to promise not to spend more than two hours on any day. Bewildered because they were not writing at all, they would agree. After just a few days, the ban got them not only itching to write, but itching to write more than the two-hour limit.
8. The no-brainer start
Ernest Hemingway always stopped writing for the day in the middle of a sentence so that when he arrived at his desk the next morning he would always be able to get started by finishing that sentence. The momentum that created was usually enough to keep him writing on smoothly.
9. Letter perfect
Tom Wolfe accidentally started a stylistic trend when he couldn’t figure out how to start an article he was assigned for Esquire magazine. His editor suggested he instead write a letter saying what he would write if he could write the article. The editor took off the “Dear Byron” salutation, and the New Journalism was born.
10. Random page
An author whose name I’ve forgotten likewise didn’t have a clue how to start his novel. Instead, he rolled a piece of paper into his typewriter and labeled it page 57. He wrote a scene and sent it to his friends as a sample of his work in progress. They liked it and he repeated the process with a random page labeled page 73. That earned the same enthusiastic response. He soon was deep into his plot and characters and no longer needed the random device that got him started.
One of the exercises I’ve taught for writer’s block that students enjoyed most is the instruction to write the worst possible version of the thing you’re stuck on writing – something so bad you’d be embarrassed to have it be published. Not only does this get keyboards and pens going right away, a few people seem to find that their worst effort turns out to be not bad at all.
Which of these methods works best for you?