Friday, April 22, 2011

What Writer's Block?: Inspiration from Kimberly Willis Holt

I know, we're not supposed to have writer's block. You're just supposed to put your butt in the chair and do it, but sometimes you can sit there all day long and stare at a blank computer screen. If you've been writing for any amount of time, there have probably been times when you just aren't feeling it.

A couple months ago at the Austin SCBWI conference I attended Kimberly Willis Holt's small group session, "Back to the Porch: Breaking Writer's Block and Returning to the Creative Life." How could Kimberly Willis Holt speak about writer's block? It seems like she always has some amazing new book coming out. But she herself lost the will to write for five months.

So it happens to the best. Here are a few tips from Kimberly about moving past the blocks and start writing again:

  • Set a timer for a certain amount of time you will sit down and write
  • Write out the problem: draw a diagram showing what would happen if you removed a scene, for example, or changed your character's age. These might not be scenes you'll use, but it'll get you back into the story. 
  • Write about anything. It can help to set the story aside you've been working on and write about something different for a little while to get into the writing habit again.
  • Webbing: draw a story map or a web about the chapter or scene you're having trouble with. This is a tip from Writing on Both Sides of the Brain that I wrote about here when I was taking forever to finish one chapter.
  • Start small. Write a list of words you like, or write some ideas on an index card. During the session we each took an index card and wrote about a place that was important to us. Then for a few minutes we brainstormed a list of words, feelings, and details that reminded us of that place. The memories you write about could work their way into a story or lead to new ideas. Kimberly pointed out, "A lot of stories are connected to the words on that card."
The turning point for Kimberly Willis Holt was when she read an interview her daughter did with a musician. Seeing the passion he had for his work inspired her to go out to her front porch where she first started writing, with a pen and paper. 

She added that sometimes you'll discover that the story you're working isn't yours to write and you'll have to let it go. Other stories are yours, and they won't get written if you don't write them yourself. But you have to write to find out.

Some other books recommended during the session were Writing Down to the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, and Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury.

I know that for me, setting the computer aside and freewriting with a pen and paper help me come up with new ideas or figure out a scene when I feel stuck. Other people can't think that way, and have to be in front of the computer screen.

Let us know what's worked for you--how do you get past the blocky times?


  1. These are wonderful strategies - thank you so much for sharing them!

    I have two tricks, one old and one new. My old one is just to have a rule that on a writing day I have to write for one hour in the morning. If at the end of the hour I want to stop, I do. But very often, the relief of knowing that I only have to write for an hour frees me up creatively and I spend the whole day at it!

    My newer trick I read on another writers' blog, but I can't quite remember which one just now. She bribes herself by not allowing herself to check her emails until she's completed a certain amount of time writing. It's a fantastic discipline for addicts like me :)

  2. I'm always working on multiple things at once. I find it keeps me from getting writer's block. My novel always takes a front seat, but if I feel a block coming on, I close that document and write a short story instead. It clears my head, and usually within about twenty minutes, my novel is back open and I'm typing away.

  3. Anna, the email one would help me a lot! Love the one-hour idea too, similar to setting a timer for a short time like Kimberly suggested. I'm sure that once I get going I'd keep writing after time was up.

    Great idea, Kelly, to set it aside and work on something else. (Also good to do after a submission, to keep your mind on something else!) Seems like anything that gets the words flowing again will help us with the original work that we were having trouble with.

  4. When I'm stuck, it usually means that I need a new element that I haven't discovered yet in my story -- another twist, another character, another SOMETHING. So sometimes I do best to walk away from the screen and into life to find inspiration.

  5. Thanks Guys very useful, I will be starting a blog!