How to beat writer's block

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I've got a lot of stuff on my writing plate these days, and as such I deal with my fair share of that dreaded -- but not usually fatal -- affliction: writer's block. I'm certainly not alone. Some of our greatest writers have battled the block, but every one of them had their own quirky way of dealing with it. Here are some of my favorites.

When Victor Hugo wasn't writing Les Miserables, he was miserables -- from writer's block. His cure? He instructed his servant to take away all his clothes for several hours, during which time he would only have access to a pen and paper. That way, he reasoned, there was nothing else he could do but write.

Graham Greene wrote exactly 500 words per day, even stopping mid-sentence if necessary.

Novelist and journalist Alan Furst had an unusual set of conditions he imposed upon himself early in his career, writing "with one eye closed, my feet tied together, left-handed, with a dull pencil."

Playwright Maxwell Anderson claimed he could only write while it was raining, and to make sure he was productive even when the weather was clear, he had a sprinkler system installed on the roof of his studio.

Film legends The Coen Brothers found themselves struggling with writer's block halfway through the script for Miller's Crossing, and rather than press on, they decided to work on a different script: Barton Fink. Three weeks later, it was nearly finished, and Fink -- I think it's their best work -- became a movie about a screenwriter struggling with writer's block.

Sherwood Anderson quit his job as the manager of a paint factory and left his family in 1906 to devote himself full-time to writing. Assuming he was a good investment, his publishers sent him checks each week until he asked them to stop, explaining "It's no use; I find it impossible to work with security staring me in the face."

Perhaps the most tragic of all writer's block stories is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's. By most accounts, he produced his best work in his mid-twenties. By age 32, he had begun to despair of his own diminishing abilities, writing in his journal "So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month! O sorrow and shame ... I have done nothing!" Coleridge wasn't the only one who felt he was wasting his life: his friends implored him to write again, but he insisted that the very idea filled him with "an indefinite indescribable terror." "You bid me rouse myself," he said to an incredulous friend. "Go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together, and that will cure him!" If Coleridge looked into any cures for writer's block besides smoking opium, none of them worked.

As for me, I have a number of strategies I employ to beat writer's block, though none are sure-fire cures: a brisk walk can be helpful; endless soloing on the guitar I keep near my desk; cat-petting; compulsive email-checking and/or web surfing (this definitely doesn't help); listening to music with no lyrics. How do you beat writer's block?

October 17, 2007 - 3:07am
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