One time, Christos Tsiolkas told me how he dealt with blocks, passages he’s having trouble with. He walks. He told me how he used to go out and smoke cigarette after cigarette till the sentences became clear through the smoke haze, but then he quit smoking. So now he walks. He walks all over the suburbs where he lives, just taking everything in, observing, thinking things through.
Everyone has their own way of dealing with writer’s block, or not even ‘blocks’ so much (because ‘writer’s block’ is like ‘Voldemort’ to writers – we just don’t mention it), but those points where the sentences don’t flow. When everything’s working, the words flow into each other like drops of water, washing through your head, and it’s beautiful, but with everything I work on there is at least one point where I need to re-think it. Usually I write something, then I leave it for 24 hours (if not more), then I’ll go over it with fresh eyes, see it much more like a reader would come to it, then I’ll move things around, sort out what’s not working, tighten the sentences. And in that stage there’s always a few things that I need to go over – words that don’t feel right in the sentence flow, ideas that aren’t incorporated properly. Those bits that you know don’t quite work.
When I need to think, I go out and shoot baskets in my backyard. I can sit out there for an hour, not really thinking about what I’m doing mechanically, but going over sentences, rolling them over in my mind, even speaking them out loud (not too loud), working out what fits best. I do the dishes, the washing, mundane tasks that require no real engagement from my brain, things that will just occupy me and allow me space to clarify my thoughts and get the ideas to magnetise.
The worst is when I can’t stop thinking about it. If you don’t already have one, you need a notepad or some way to note things down at all times because it’s a killer if you forget that perfect sentence. I’ve had so many great sentences and paragraphs come together in my head just before I’ve fallen asleep (interestingly, studies have shown that you’re more creative in those moments before you fall asleep, where you’re slipping between reality and dream) then I’ve totally forgotten them when I’ve woken up in the morning. Even ideas that I’ve thought were so perfect, fit so well into the piece that there’s no way I could forget them – gone. You need to keep a notepad, or your phone, nearby so you can write a note. I’ve got heaps of barely legible scribbles, hand written in darkness. They’re normally enough to recall the idea, at the least.
It’s really important that writers be out in the world. You can’t create without ideas and inspiration to mould into stories, and the best place to get them is outside of your study. Reading, too, is crucial, but you need to get out and see things, feel things. So if you’re ever feeling blocked, ever re-reading and getting to that point where it feels like it’s all cardboard and the words barely seem to link up at all, just turn off your monitor. Get out of the house. Even if it’s the middle of the night. You need to get out, get away for a moment, think it through from a distance. And you need to experience life, feel it flowing against your skin.