Last time I wrote about overcoming perhaps the most common variety of writer's block: mental inertia when confronted with a blank page or screen. This time I want to look another common form.
Every person involved in a creative endeavour – writers, photographers, composers, film makers, painters and so on – can probably relate to this. It happens regardless of age and regardless of experience. It is the situation in which you come up with something that you think is pure gold: a picture, a riff, a subplot, a subject idea. For writers it might be a magical metaphor, a perfect premise or simply a beautiful paragraph, sentence or even phrase.
You don't know where this 'gem' came from – it feels like there was some form of devine intervention involved – but you do know that it is awesome. (Often these can often come out of 'free writing' sessions like those I described in part one.) It will rock your readers; it will become the centrepiece of your article or book.
Your gem inspires you. With renewed vigour, you charge ahead with your writing. This will be a masterpiece after all.
Then, imperceptively at first, you start ... to ... slow. Gradually your writing grinds to a complete halt. It's as though you've raced headlong into a forest and suddenly realised you have no idea where you are or where you're going.
You retrace your steps a little way, perhaps deleting the last handful of paragraphs, and try to plot a new way forward. When this leads nowhere you try again. And again. You go further back, but to no avail. No matter what you do, you cannot find a way out. It slowly dawns on you that this is not a forest ... it's a swamp. And you are in it up to your neck.
Kill your darlings
Nine times out of ten you will find that the problem in this situation is your 'gem' – the idea or masterful piece of writing that 'just has to stay'.
These gems have a habit of sending us down a wrong path. And because they are so precious to us, we dare not mess with them. The gem becomes the heart of the piece. We start to mould our story or article – even our whole book – around our masterstroke. It is untouchable. We will do anything ... change anything ... if it means retaining the gem.
Unfortunately the only way ahead in this situation is, more often than not, the most untenable.
You need to 'kill your darlings'.
You may have heard the expression 'kill your darlings' (or a common alternative, 'kill your babies'). It's not a great mental image, I grant you. But this expression should always be at the back of the writer's mind.
To kill your darlings is to take a scalpel to your work and excise the 'gem'. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor.) It means acknowledging that in this instance, for all its beauty, your gem just doesn't fit – and trying to force it to fit has become another form of writer's block.
Very often, you will find that setting your gem aside frees your mind. (You don't really need to kill it – just put it in the next room; one day it might find a home.) Now you are focused on your article or book as a whole rather than on keeping the gem in place. Suddenly the writing starts to flow again.
Recognising a 'darling'
Gems of the type I'm describing here can be hard to recognise. You won't usually see them for what they are until you're well down the wrong path. This is where a strong dose of self-discipline and self-confidence is needed. And remember that throwing a piece of your writing away doesn't need to be permanent.
If you find yourself 'defending' a section of your writing while also not knowing 'where to go from here', try setting the gem aside temporarily. You may well be able to reinstate it later on (though that rarely happens) – what's important here is giving yourself permission to remove it so as to see whether doing so opens things up again.
To paraphrase a former Australian prime minister, writing wasn't meant to be easy. Understanding that writer's block, in all its forms, affects even the most experienced writers from time to time, can help you be less hard on yourself when the words aren't flowing.