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Marginal Notes

Diving into Writer's Block


Years ago I attended a charity fundraiser involving the Coney Island Polar Bear Club – a swim club that takes a dip in the ocean off Coney Island Beach every New Year’s Day. At the event, the charity used a chainsaw to open up a small pool – maybe five by ten yards – in the six-inch-thick ice of a frozen lake. Then the Polar Bear Club hopped in and paddled around while the charity sold hot chocolate and chili to sympathetic onlookers.

One of the polar bears told me the trick. If you’re afraid of the cold, if you fight it, your body assumes that you’re freezing to death. Even if you try to ignore the cold, your body won’t buy it and pulls blood away from your skin to keep the important stuff – heart, brain, lungs – going. That’s what makes the cold so painful. But if you embrace the cold, if you welcome it as a friend, then your body’s good with it, too, and sends the blood out to your skin to keep you warm. This is why the club members swimming among the ice chunks were bright, lobster red.


It’s only natural to fear writer’s block. When you’re staring at a blank page with no idea what to type, or when you type a page then delete it ten minutes later because you can’t stand to look at it, you might feel like you’ll never write again. It’s terrifying.

A lot of articles on writer’s block will tell you that it’s often nothing more than fear, feeding on itself. Just suck it up and power through, and it will go away. Or take a break and walk away, then come back to your novel after you’ve calmed down. This approach sometimes works. But it would be even better to embrace your writer’s block the way the Polar Bear Club embraces the cold.

Writer’s block usually hits after you’ve been writing for a while – people who get blocked when they first start out generally don’t become writers. So you’ve already known the joy that the initial surge of creativity can bring, the thrill of watching a story unfold under your fingers. And then it’s gone, and you don’t know how to get it back.

Maybe the blockage is telling you to reassess where you are as a writer. Not whether or not you’re any good – that kind of obsession is never helpful. But where you are in terms of your growing skill. Your first novel – or your first few chapters, if you’re stuck in the middle of your first novel – is often born of a creative surge, when you can see the work whole and entire in your mind and simply need to get it down on paper. Later novels are more crafted, more deliberate, and your writer’s block may be telling you that you need to develop your craft.

Novels are a balancing act between a lot of different variables – pace, tension, plot twists, character voice, dialogue mechanics, and so forth. It takes practice before you can work all of these moving parts at once. If you still haven’t developed the skills (many of which eventually become automatic), the size of the job alone could make you freeze up. So maybe the way around your writer’s block is to focus on one or two aspects of your story and forget the rest for the moment.

For instance, start writing a daily journal for your main character. This could be an inner journal, tracking how they feel about what’s happening around them, or it could simply be a record of their day-to-day activities. Dealing solely with your main character without worrying about plot and pace and all the rest may help you focus your attention enough to overcome the sense that you can’t get anywhere. And as you get to know your main character better, and get used to writing from inside their head, it gives you one less ball to keep in the air when you’re ready to go back to your novel.

You can also focus on other specific aspects of your story – outlining your plot, for instance, or writing the history of your settings. But since most good stories spring from character, your main character is usually the best place to start.


Or your writer’s block may be telling you that, even if you’re competent at your craft, you’ve fallen into a rut. I’ve seen a lot of clients whose first novels were solid, effective storytelling. Then their second novels looked suspiciously like their first, with the same sorts of characters, similar plot twists, and familiar pacing. They weren’t identical, but the family resemblance was clear enough that no DNA test was needed. And when you feel like you’ve written it all before, it’s hard to keep going.

One way to break out of your rut is to read books that are unlike anything you’ve ever read. If you’re fond of literary fiction, read some massively popular trash – Dan Brown, say, or The Twilight Saga. And read sympathetically – these books are popular for a reason. If you’ve always looked down on romances as frivolous and formulaic, crack a Harlequin and see what all the swooning is about. If you prefer popular beach reads, maybe it’s time for Thomas Pynchon or Umberto Eco (not The Name of the Rose – it’s atypical).

Reading books outside your normal scope may not be fun – your taste is your taste, after all. And I’m not necessarily suggesting you kill off a character and turn your literary novel into a whodunit. But reading outside your comfort zone will expose you to writing techniques and types of characters and settings that you may not have encountered before. And the fresh ideas may be enough to get you writing again.

The New Year is, of course, the time when a lot of writers make resolutions to crack down on their writing – to cover a set number of pages, or to write for a set time, every day. These aren’t necessarily bad plans. But if you do get hung up, don’t hate or fear your writer’s block. Treat it like a friend. Listen to what it’s trying to tell you. It may be helping you to become a stronger writer.

Then take the plunge back into your novel, no matter how cold it may seem.