On Writer's Block

By Alexander M. Bailey

    Writer’s block fucking sucks, and that is an understatement. There is nothing more stressing for a writer than not knowing what to write, being unable to transmit what is in your head to the paper in front of you, especially when the thought is as simple as tying your shoes.

    As an aspiring novelist, my moments come most often when I have not figured out where the story should go; as an English Major, writer’s block hits me like a brick wall during the last three weeks of any given semester, when there are more papers assigned than there is time to write them. We all have our moments. You sit and you stare and you wait, but nothing comes to mind, and nothing ends up on the page. Hell, you could write the biggest flop of a paper in the history of shitty papers, and that would still be better than that empty page—you cannot clarify ideas or edit the nothingness that resides on a blank page.

    Would it surprise you to know that the cure to writer’s block is to write? No shit—if you want to break the cycle of bad ideas or incomplete thoughts, you have to learn how to work through the mental blocks—by writing. But what do you write about when you do not know what to write about? Anything. The process is called freewriting, but it is also known as automatic writing.

    A professor of mine introduced me to freewriting my freshman year of college, during one of those many I-may-just-drink-myself-into-an-early-grave-because-fuck-college moments. She sat me down, gave me a pen and paper, and told me to write. Just write. But that I was not allowed to stop until she told me to. It felt mundane, but I had no idea that I was learning a skill that would improve my writing so drastically.

    In Writing Without Teachers, English rhetorician Peter Elbow preaches the idea of freewriting as the best way to improve on one’s writing. He says that “the idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing.” The goal is to freewrite multiple times a week, and, in doing so, to develop the ability to work through the block, like an increase of water breaking down a dam.

    Freewriting is best done freehand, so, as hard as it will be for some, you will have to close the laptop for ten minutes while you do this. Take that oversized smartphone out of your pocket and throw it across the room, “bae” can wait ten minutes. Grab a pen and some paper, set a timer, and just write. While you can write about anything for ten minutes, it is suggested that you pick a topic, word, or idea to work off of. Of these three, I recommend a word to start with; if you can write for ten minutes about the word button, for example, then I do not think it would take long for you to be able to write your way out of any hole. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of consistency with this exercise; you will need to keep doing it multiple times a week, or you will find yourself at a loss for words, down the road. But commit to this, because this shit works. Two years ago, I was just some student at some college with some crappy writing habits. Today, I am some student at some college with some good writing habits, and I have an article on Detour--if that is not an indicator of success, than I do not know what is.

    If you need prompt suggestions, below is a list of some of the free-writing prompts that I have found useful over the past few years:

    Write about the word:

  • Button

  • Creativity

  • Dreams

  • Yellow

  • Time

  • Cheating

  • Family

  • Tie


  • The happiest moment of your youth?

  • Does gender inform culture, or does culture inform gender?

  • When is it okay to lie?

  • What do you see when you look in a mirror?

  • Why does your professor love twenty page papers?

  • Why is your favorite book your favorite book?

  • If you could change one thing about the world we live in, what would it be?

  • If you had one nonconventional superpower (ex. Spaghetti vision, the ability to make someone shit himself with your mind) what power would you have, and how would you use it?

The link that follows is a website that may have some more decent prompts: www.dailyteachingtools.com