From the newsroom


Raji Chacko

When the idea well runs dry… You don’t need to call the plumber; a few DIY tricks might get the creative juices flowing again

Writing is not my strong suit.

I am very grateful I discovered that early on in my professional life.

I might be able to wring a short article or two once or twice a week from my reluctant brain, but that’s about as far as I will get. As an occasional writer, I don’t grapple much with writer’s block, but not all my current writing assignments are born of flying fingers on the keyboard. My thoughts stutter and falter frequently, but I have figured out some techniques to deal with the problem. I would like to share some of these with you. Hopefully, it will help you figure out some coping mechanisms ideal for you.

Blocked? Get your plumbing in order!

Philip Pullman is a prolific author. In addition to his popular His Dark Materials trilogy and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman has authored numerous bestsellers. He is rather dismissive of the idea that writers might find themselves devoid of ideas. Publisher Random House attributes this quote to Pullman on their website, “Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day? The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business… Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP… Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing.”

While admitting that there is a grain of truth to Pullman’s opinion, I also believe that not all of us are gifted with the mind that The Times described as ‘one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945’.  So, for us, it is a bit of a struggle to produce something scintillating. Besides, the fact that you are reading this probably means that you are not using writer’s block as an excuse.

Take a break

When I find myself stymied by a blank MS Word document, I like to switch gears. Writing for The Guardian, UK, in 2010, Hilary Mantel, the first woman to win the Booker twice (for Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring up the Bodies), advised, “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem.”

If I find my fingers hovering over the keyboard in search of an elusive word, I like to go to the dictionary. Sometimes, I get lucky and find the word I am looking for and sometimes I get luckier and set off an etymological journey that fires the synapses in the brain and conjures up a dozen other ideas. At other times, I play word games that keep my line of thought centered on words and eventually energize me enough to find the ones that have been hiding from me. Games, on the whole, are very stimulating in my opinion. They sometimes lead you on a tangent that ends in a discovery that might fuel a different piece from the one you were laboring over. Once you’ve got that out of the way, you can go back to the one that’s being troublesome.

Sometimes, I practice my pranayama exercises. It calms down the hysterical panic I feel when a deadline is looming and all I have to show for my effort is a blank page. For the same reason, I sometimes look for solace within my music collection. I have, on occasion, found that the music gives me ideas as well. The lyrics conjure an image and the brain’s relay team carries it forward, often in a direction I hadn’t even imagined.

When I am tired and cannot force the document to sprout words in spite of staring it down, I give up for the day and move on to something else. A new day brings a fresh perspective and hopefully, fresh ideas.

Keep at it

Of course, there is a school of thought that advises keeping your nose to the grindstone. Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing by Dinty W Moore quotes American author and poet Maya Angelou: “When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come’.” I cannot attest to its validity because I find that forcing myself to write shows in the quality of the final product, which is stilted. However, I am a sometimes writer and I write because I am expected to not necessarily because I want to. So, it helps to figure out a technique that would work for you.

I think, though, that as writers, the endeavor should be to put in place a routine that will prevent the writer’s block before it fortifies itself. A quote on the Internet attributed to Lilith Saintcrow, a lesser-known but prolific fantasy author says, “Discipline allows magic. To be a writer is to be the very best of assassins. You do not sit down and write every day to force the Muse to show up. You get into the habit of writing every day so that when she shows up, you have the maximum chance of catching her, bashing her on the head, and squeezing every last drop out of that bitch.”

A few more techniques for avoiding writer’s block

There are a few other things that I find helpful when it comes to establishing a routine for writing:

  • setting aside a time and a space dedicated to writing

  • drawing out a plan for what I want. So, when I am working with a topic, I research, scribble out a sketchy order on a convenient piece of paper, research some more to strengthen my framework and then get down to the business of writing.

  • researching for more than what I think I will need. That way, when I am stumped, I have alternative routes to take

  • editing what I have written helps me start afresh. So, going back, scratching out, making additions, rewriting, all helps me get into the groove

  • start well in time. With the deadline hanging like Damocles’ sword over your head, your ideas might be more tempted to play truant.

  • If you have time, then a break and other such indulgences are also possible.

Many writers concur that getting started is the toughest task. Once that is accomplished, the rest will come. So, if you are convinced that you are meant to be a writer and want to achieve that goal, believe in the magic and rush at the wall and you could find yourself at Platform 93/4.

“Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.” — Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing

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