Ivey: Swerving Around Writer's Block

Having worked as a newspaper reporter, I don’t technically believe in writer’s block. When there was a regular paycheck, small as it was, and an editor scowling at my back, I could always, always write. It might not have been great literature, but it filled the column inches.

Now I don’t have an editor on constant watch, tapping at me through the glass window of her office. No one can guarantee me a paycheck of any size. I want this writing to be something more than tomorrow’s liner in a parakeet cage, as one of my editors lovingly referred to our newspaper.

Now more than ever, I can find reasons not to write. It’s the holidays, I’m tired, the youngest has an ear infection, there are the Paris Review interviews to read, and … I might fail. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s true – writers want more than anything to write, but the last thing on earth they want to do is actually write.

So I have to trick myself. I get the engines roaring and hit the gas before I realize I have no idea where I’m going. Here are a few things that have worked for me, and God willing will work again:

• Go for a walk, a hike, a run, or a drive. I am busy enough steering or staying on my feet that I can’t do much else, but my brain is left to its own devices. Things start to happen. Characters start to talk. Plots begin to map themselves. It’s like magic, and it’s worked for generations of writers and artists.

• Disconnect my phone line. After a recent wind storm, our lines were down for three days. We don’t have television or cell phone reception. Without the phone, we had no calls, but also no internet. No email, no blogs, no Paris Review. Without even intending to, I found myself at my computer writing because, well, there was nothing else to do. I’ve made fun of Franzen’s sensory deprivation room, but now I’m wondering …

• Go on a fiction fast. It seems contradictory, but nonfiction and poetry fuel my fiction, but if I read novels, I risk satisfying my craving for a story. Most times, I devour novels, but when I’m having a hard time staying focused on my own writing, I cut myself off.

• Ban all other creative endeavors. It’s embarrassing, but I’ve been derailed by knitting, interior decorating, violin playing. Even the most disparate of crafts can fulfill my creative needs, and then I don’t need to write. Which is fine. Fiddling is fine, unless I ever want to finish another novel.

• Publicly commit to writing. I don’t mean talk about the specifics of my current project, but by identifying myself as a writer and attending events with other writers, I’m chagrined when I realize I haven’t actually written a word in three months.

• Set deadlines. Like my grandmother says of herself, it’s not that I work well on a deadline – that’s the only time I work. Sometimes I follow John Straley’s lead and set a daily word-count deadline. I’ve committed to turning a chapter into another writer each week (more on this in a later blog post.) Other times I’ve entered short story contests mostly because they had deadlines and I had to finish the story in order to enter it.

• Imagine someone beating me to the punch. I know it’s silly and unlikely, but it would be horrible if another writer, especially someone not from Alaska, sold a novel with a story idea similar to mine to a major publisher. Even if it wasn’t the exact same idea, or written the way I would have done it, I’d be out of luck. There is no way they are going to publish two Gold Rush apocalypse vampire novels in the same year.

• Sit. Down. And. Write. It’s so obvious. And yet I forget it. The one way I can be engaged with my story is by working on it. The words might not flow, and the first tries may be crappy, but this sentence will lead to that one and then this one, and before I know it I might have written something. That’s the one true, cold-turkey, slap-in-the-face cure I’ve found for my writer’s block – sit down and write. Damn.

Of course, sometimes these tricks don’t work. Anyone have something new for me to try?

Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel THE SNOW CHILD is set to be published next winter by Little, Brown & Co. She is a bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer.

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