It started with a simple question on Brian Michael Bendis’ Tumblr:
what advice do you have for someone that has had writers block for the past 6 or 7 years?
His response was terse:
this will sound harsh but you’re probably not a writer.
writers write every day. it’s ok, not everyone is.
but if you consider yourself one, get off your ass and get back to work!! write about why you haven’t been writing . anything. just write.
… and then it made its way around Tumblr, getting blogged and reblogged and commented on. Here’s a pretty good string of responses and responses-to-responses at Warren Ellis’ Tumblr, and Paul Constant compiled more Tumblr responses in a post at The Stranger, which then accumulated a pretty long comment string of its own.
This particular discussion resonated with me because I was in a similar situation: I wanted to be a writer for years before I actually wrote anything worth reading. It’s true, a writer writes, but when you are just sitting there all alone in front of the keyboard, it can be hard to know what to write or if what you are writing is worthwhile. I wrote great articles in my head but they seldom made it onto the computer, and when they did, I never seemed to be able to finish them. I picked at different things, but with no deadlines, I had no urgency to wrap anything up, and with no one to read my unfinished bits, I got no feedback. It’s one thing to write when you have assignments and deadlines and editors yelling at you; it’s another entirely when you’re sitting there in a vacuum.
So here’s the advice I would have given Bendis’ inquisitor:
1. Find something to write about. When I was trying to write for myself, everything was sort of vague and formless. Once somebody asked me to write a specific story, everything fell into place. Narrowing down your focus in a very concrete way is one way to banish writer’s block. Presumably someone who is writing to Brian Michael Bendis wants to write comics stories. Fine. Pick some characters and a story, but also think about where that comic would fit in — Marvel, DC, Image, Fantagraphics — and write as if you were writing for publication. Think about page counts and story arcs. Or make a minicomic — again, this will force you to think concretely. If you want to write nonfiction, start a blog about a specific topic or volunteer to write for a nonprofit. The key is to give your writing a form and a purpose.
2. Don’t be afraid to write something imperfect. The best book I have ever read on the topic of writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, and the most useful piece of advice, for me, was to embrace what Lamott calls “the shitty first draft.” I always seemed to be carrying around a brilliant article in my head, but when I wrote it down it would become stiff and awkward, and I would get discouraged and give up. What I learned from Lamott is that most writing starts off terrible and gets better when you revise it. So lean in and just write, then set your work aside for a little while and return to it with an editor’s eye.
3. Finish the damn story. I see a lot of starting points and character designs on people’s blogs, but if you’re serious, you have to go beyond that and write a complete story. Even if you think it’s not very good, go ahead and finish it just for the experience. It’s easy to while away all your creative time on preliminaries, but real writers finish their projects and move on to new ones.
4. Make the time. Most writers who have day jobs do their writing on the fringes of the work day — in the morning, in the evening, during their commute. I get up at 5:30 and write for at least two hours every day. Schedule your writing time, and make it a priority. The longer you have that habit, the more conditioned you will be to write during that time.
5. Get a writing job. Money is a great motivator, but beyond that, if you’re being paid to write, you probably have a deadline and an editor as well. A good editor can help you become a better writer by pointing out omissions, unnecessary passages, and verbal tics that you might not be aware of. A deadline forces you to finish up and move on to the next thing, rather than spending years polishing and re-polishing the same piece. That paying job doesn’t have to be your dream job—many fiction writers started out as newspaper reporters. A good non-paying gig can provide many of the same benefits, if you and the other parties are serious about it and you don’t feel you are being exploited.
6. Write, dammit!: Don’t wait for the mood to strike. Sit down at the keyboard at your allotted time and write. Do some free-association, respond to something you read on the internet, or just bow your head and write that shitty first draft, because even a shitty first draft is better than no first draft. That right there is the difference between being a writer and a dreamer: A writer writes, even knowing that what she is writing is terrible, because writing is better than not writing.