How to beat writer's block

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?

Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.


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