Breaking through Writer’s Block: Crayola or the Loo?

Reading in the New York Times Magazine how Burt Bacharach breaks through his writer’s block got me thinking about how I dealt with this affliction some years ago. I was working on a novel at a three-week residency at the Ragdale Foundation and was positively stuck, paralyzed, idea-less. In a word, blocked. Fellow writers, I am sure you know the feeling. Blank page, paralyzed mind, inert fingers loathe to reach for pen or the keyboard. There I was gifted with a glorious block of time and nothing was flowing. Except anxiety.

Every morning I would awaken and it seemed so simple: lift my hands from my lap; move them a measly inch from the desk to my keyboard. But that one-inch distance felt like leaping across mile-high chasm. What was I going to do? Returning home with the same number of pages I arrived with was out of the question. How could I break through the paralysis?

Then I thought of what the yoga teachers always reminded us in class—yoga really begins when you take it off the mat. The postures we practice on the mat are just that—practice for the real world. So I thought, what if I drew a picture of myself leaping across that mile high one inch gap? Would drawing myself in action, conquering that impossible-to-traverse space with paper and colored pencils help me pattern it for the real world? Worth a try.

SONY DSCThe next morning before I got out of bed, brushed my teeth or performed any other morning ablutions, I grabbed my colored pencils and drawing pad and set to work. I drew the mile-high cliffs. I divided them by a one-inch gap and placed the to-be-written novel on one side of the cliff. Then I set to work sketching myself leaping across the divide. Michelangelo I wasn’t. It didn’t matter. Somehow, drawing myself achieving on paper what I hadn’t been able to manage in my waking life, worked. Drawing on the non-linear, wordless part of my brain patterned for me what I dearly wanted and needed to do. Bingo! When I was done, I got out of bed, brushed my teeth etc, had breakfast and set to work. The words began to flow like water.

That first drawing, which I ended up titling 1″ Abyss, set the pattern for the rest of my stay. I began each morning still hazy with sleep, not totally conscious, yet drawing whatever part of the novel I wanted to accomplish that day. And although the (completed) novel never made it past a few agents’ initial request for review, I learned a lot in the process: I’d rather write non-fiction than fiction; I wasn’t really interested in doing the work that it would have taken to perfect the novel; it’s OK to let go of a project, even one 400+ pages and two life-years long. But the most important thing I learned was how to trick that old writer’s block into submission. I prefer my way to Burt’s. To each his own. But maybe I should send him a set of colored pencils?

And … the Loo?

From the NY Times Magazine section on How to Break Through a Creative Block by Burt Bachrach: When I’m stuck with musicians in the studio and don’t know what’s wrong, I will break and go into a stall in the men’s room. I will sit on the toilet seat. Nobody talks to me there and I get no advice from any musician. I work it through in my head and four out of four times, I come out a winner. (As told to Spencer Bailey.)

1" Abyss

1″ Abyss

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7 thoughts on “Breaking through Writer’s Block: Crayola or the Loo?

  1. Rodney

    You know Debra, you could combine Burt’s and your technique by taking your sketches into the bathroom. Potty pencils?

  2. Manny Kalef

    I really enjoy your articles. Plain talk, interesting subjects, just long enough to read on the screen without my eyes getting glossy. Keep going Debra.

  3. Debra Post author

    Thank you, Manny! It’s one of the things we’re striving for with the new redesign — easy on the eyes, intriguing for the mind!

  4. Stephanie

    What a great idea! Battle creativity block in one area by exploring a completely different area of creativity. It’s like exercising—you have to switch things up once in awhile, breaking up the “in a rut” routine once your body hits the plateau. Thank you for the wonderful idea! I’d love to try it sometime!

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