Letter to Girl Group: coming unglued and getting unstuck

You met the Girl Group on Blog Day 1, but I’ll remind you that they are Geralyn, Barbara, Ali, Lynda, Melissa, and Jennifer, and that I call them the GG in solidarity with the Motown GGs, not because these accomplished women are girlish.  Never that.  When I write to them I always address them as what they are: writers.


Hello, writers–

I wish we could ditch the label “writer’s block.”

This is an allegedly serious condition in which writers can’t do their work. No work possible! Progress halts; paralysis follows. Two problems there: First, what happened to painter’s block?  Or chef’s block?  New mother’s block?  Shoe salesperson’s block? Writers don’t own paralysis. And second, assuming the writer (painter, chef, mother, shoe guy) isn’t in need of immediate medical treatment for clinical depression, writer’s block is just another name for getting stuck.

What feels like BLOCK is almost always STUCK. Stuck is a much less dire condition, and that’s probably what you have if you’re having  the world’s worst time trying to get your work going or growing or even onto the page.

And getting stuck, even badly stuck, even badly stuck for months, is an inevitable but temporary occurrence for most writers at some time in their writing lives. You can slap a little drama onto it and go around wailing about how you can’t write a word and you’ll never write another word, but what a waste of time that is. You’re likely to end up doing a chatter, chatter, chatter about the stuck without making any progress toward ungluing yourself.

This is not to say you shouldn’t talk about the problem of being stuck. But talk about it in our writing group, a good venue for getting information and reassurance.  And keep in mind that you’ve been stuck at some other time(s) in the past and you’ll be stuck at some other time(s) in the future–and by definition that makes your stuckness temporary.

What is stuck about?

Stuck can be about resistance: You’re edging close to something deep (or scary or sad or disturbing) and you don’t want to go there. You’ve taken on something complex and you don’t know how to solve it. You’re sure it’s much more important for you to be gardening or going to the movies or getting a tattoo.

Stuck can be about flatness: You’re bored. You’re tired. You just don’t feel like tackling the work. There’s too little going on in the piece and you can’t seem to get interested enough to add more. You’ve rewritten it so many times that all the oxygen has gone out of it.

Stuck can be about being overwhelmed: You’ve run out of ideas and you’re panicked.  You don’t know how to make the plot work. There’s too much going on in the piece and you can’t figure out how to control it.

Stuck can be about writing something you don’t want to write: You started it and now you feel you have to finish it. You hate the characters. There’s another story bouncing around in your head but you think you can’t take it on until you finish the one you’ve already put six months into. You promised yourself you’d write this essay, but…

Stuck can be about being distracted: You’re worried about something that has nothing to do with your writing. You’re constantly being interrupted (by kids, parents, relatives, friends). There’s too much noise or too much silence.  You can’t get your to-do list out of your head.  The phone keeps ringing and the e-mails keep coming.

All these reasons for being stuck (and there are lots more, including self-limiting self-criticism) amount to the same thing: your work is temporarily going nowhere.  For this we have options and remedies.

Let’s back up a little: Our group is a writers’ group.  You’re in it because you want to be writing. After all this time, the content of our meetings can’t be whether you should write, but what you should write.  You’re writers.  You write.

So I’ll remind you: if you’re stuck in one area, one chapter, one section, try another.  Rewrite the middle. Write the ending. Pick one scene and make it better. (You’ve all, now and then, reassessed what you’re writing, changed direction, explored different approaches.) Don’t wait for inspiration: inspiration may happen, but it has nothing to do with the job of writing. Writing is work; do your work.

Except when you actually need a break.

There will be occasions when stuck means “the best thing I can do for myself today is to get away from my work.” Your unconscious is telling you that you’re trying too hard, that you need to back off, get some air, get some perspective, and give your brain a chance to rest. You can’t force yourself to solve a writing problem, but you can take a step away from the work so your brain has time to shuffle your ideas around and show you a better solution.

Here’s another reminder: none of you is a one-trick pony. If you can’t make progress on this thing, write a different thing. Write a short story. Write a character sketch. Write a one-act play. Write about something that happened to you last week. Write a cycle of letters between a parent and a child, or a dead parent and a child. Write about whatever or whomever you’re angry at. Write about your best friend, your dentist, your lover, your therapist. Dip in, dip down–find the topic that gives you energy, and abandon (perhaps only temporarily) the topic that drains your energy.

Changing lanes may at first seem like an annoying interruption–as if making a change is unacceptably off the track. But getting out from behind whatever gigantic psychic truck is slowing you down or stopping you is exactly what you must do. Once you’ve gotten a little distance from Big Truck, you can get back into your original lane and speed ahead. If you want to. You might find that you actually prefer to be driving in some other lane. Take the risk. Good writing is about risk. It’s also about doing the work.

Best trick of all: Leave your work not quite finished when you stop for the day. When you come back to it tomorrow, you’ll have a built-in starting place.

This is the sign I have above my desk: Life is short. Write hard.


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Wellesley Books, Wellesley MA

The Twig Bookshop, San Antonio TX

Arcade Books, Rye NY


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