Orson Scott Card knows a lot of really useful things about writing, and he's both willing and able to write about and teach them, so I hope I'll be excused from occasionally echoing some of his writing opinions when I'm convinced he has a key insight.
OSC was the first person from whom I've heard the opinion that writer's block is a mainly imaginary affliction
. This is a little bit shocking to assert, since after all, many respected writers have spoken of having writer's block, and interviewers for television and radio and magazines often ask about it as though it were some kind of disease with a natural pathology, like cleft palate or syphilis.
If it really existed, writer's block would be the inability to write. If we look at this idea for a moment, we begin to notice that it doesn't make much sense. Is a person with writer's block physically unable to put words on a page? If they are, it's not called "writer's block," but rather "paralysis" or "death" or "extreme drunkenness." So people with writer's block can clearly write. Presumably what a person's saying when she or he talks about having writer's block, then, is the inability to write anything good.
But how in the world can you determine whether or not you're able to write something good unless you write something in the first place? You can't. For all you know, you might get rolling and write the best thing you've ever come up with. In other words, writer's block can't really be defined as the inability to write anything good, either. It is possible to write and for it not to be good, of course, but that's not writer's block: that's just bad writing, which can be cured in a variety of ways, of which more in a moment.
So here's what I think we're talking about: writer's block isn't the inability to write, or the inability to write something good, but rather a code name for being afraid of not being able to write something good. But since people who don't write aren't really familiar with the process, it's much easier and more comfortable to say "I have writer's block" than to say "I wrote something terrific last year, and ever since, I've lived in terror that it was the only good thing I'll ever write and that if I keep writing, I'll be exposed as the hack I really am."
So the only real cure for writer's block is to write something. If it's bad, that's fine: we'll spin that by calling it (and here I'm borrowing one of OSC's phrases) an "exploratory draft." The virtue of writing that doesn't meet your standards is that it provides material for more writing that you might like very much. What if you rewrote it from scratch, but changed _____? Or maybe that just helps you see that the real story isn't the one you just tried to write, but something that comes before it, or after it, or instead of it.
Well, but what happens if you plow through your non-existent writer's block and start writing, but it really all does turn out to be garbage, and none of it is even useful as an exploratory draft? Well, then it's time to turn your attention to your craft. For a while, you may need to fall back on doing short exercises rather than full-blown pieces meant for publication. There are any number of excellent writing books out there (which would be a topic for another post, although OSC's Character and Viewpoint and, if applicable to you, Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy are exceptional), or you could work with a good writer's group or take a good workshop or what have you. The only caution here is to avoid books about writing by people who don't know what they're talking about, and classes taught by people whose fiction you don't enjoy.
The other thing someone might claim as a meaning for writer's block is that they have no ideas. Again, on even a brief examination this turns out to be silly, because we all have ideas. You can turn around and steal one from another story (Shakespeare did that brilliantly, time and time again) or use any of a number of means to come up with fresh ideas. You could look out the window and write about the first thing you saw. Would that make a good story? Maybe not, but there are means of coming up with ideas that will yield a good story, and I'll mention some of them in a moment. For best results, though, I strongly recommend aggressively thinking up or seeking out new ideas until you find one you're really excited about writing. Not "this might work" but rather "oh man, I have to write this one!"
OSC talks about working with ideas by looking at a situation or a possibility and thinking things like: What else might happen? What happens next? Why did this come about? What kind of problems could come up? I highly recommend applying these techniques to whatever ideas come to mind. In terms of coming up with those ideas in the first place, here are a few methods. What you're looking for in these ideas is some kind of stress or conflict or problem, because good stories are almost always about some kind of trouble.
- Go somewhere where you'll hear people having conversations and listen until you hear one that interests you
- Think about an event that interests you and imagine how it could have been different
- Think over your own history or your family history.
- Flip through an encyclopedia
- Read a book about a factual subject that interests you
- Combine aspects of two interesting people in your life
- Take any situation and ask yourself what would be the worst thing that could happen
- Take a plot from a book or story or movie you've really liked and envision how it might play out in a very different setting, or with different characters. (Warning! Don't borrow feeling from books or movies: characters should feel and say things that you get from life, not things that you're used to hearing other people write about. Just ask yourself: Would a real person do that? Would someone really talk that way? We can make some allowance for artistic license, though.)
Of course, there's one more possible kind of writer's block: having trouble writing because you don't really like to write, and don't feel compelled to. Some writers talk about not enjoying the process of writing, but they're compelled to do it anyway. Either compulsion or enjoyment will work, but if you don't like to sit down and write and you don't feel driven to do it, then you can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing you don't have writer's block: that just means you're not really a writer.
As for the rest of us, let's get back to work!