How to overcome writing inertia

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Silk’s Post #117 — This is the “how-to” post that I wish someone else had already written, because I really need to know the answer. Having waited in vain for enlightenment on this topic from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, I have reached the inescapable conclusion that this will have to be a self-help effort.

It’s a hard topic to nail down. Google “writer’s block” and you’ll be rewarded with 7,890,000 results. Wikipedia states the blindingly obvious, as only Wikipedia can, by defining it thusly:

Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work.

A site called io9 is a little more creative, describing 10 types of writer’s block. (Isn’t it amazing how many difficult or enigmatic issues in life seem able to be reduced to a list of exactly 10 bullet points?) Unfortunately, I think the authors of this one got writer’s block somewhere around item 7, but I do give them credit for illustrating it with very nifty old covers of Astounding Stories magazine.

Flavorwire beat them out by three when they celebrated NaNoWriMo 2012 with quotes from 13 Famous Writers on Overcoming Writer’s Block, from Maya Angelou to Ray Bradbury.

One of my favourites of these quotes is by Anne Lamott, who says that “Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck.”

Ray Bradbury claims that “I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year.” Good for Ray, a lucky man indeed. But how he achieved this state of grace is unexplained.

Barbara Kingsolver is all business and no nonsense. “I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.”

But the odd thing about me – and maybe about a lot of writers, or perhaps wannabe writers – is that I don’t actually have “writer’s block“. Once I start writing, I can write like a woman possessed. I can hardly stop myself. It’s one of the only activities in life that I’ll skip meals for and not even notice.

I’ve written before on procrastination in my post Wasting Away in Mañanaville, which appears to be the most popular topic I’ve ever blogged about, attracting over 1,400 comments to date in the LinkedIn Books and Writers group. (This is a sure sign that there are a lot of other procrastinators out there who haven’t resolved this problem.)

But what I’m talking about here – writing inertia – is subtly different, I think. It’s a state of low energy, like a run-down battery or a pendulum that needs rewinding. It feels like one of those dreams where you try to run and you can’t get your legs to move.

Writer’s inertia isn’t just another variety of procrastination. It isn’t incurable laziness. It isn’t some kind of complex character flaw, or lack of confidence, or fear of failure. In fact, maybe it’s less psychological and more mechanical than one might think.

The most useful advice I read in the 13 Famous Writers piece came from the most practical and plainspoken among them: Mark Twain. I’ve read entire books on writing and productivity that take 100 pages to get at the simple truth he nails in two sentences:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.

I would call this secret “simple momentum”. Isaac Newton’s famous First Law of Motion.

The innate force of matter is a power of resisting by which every body, as much as in it lies, endeavours to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly in a straight line.

Or, more familiarly, the principle of inertia says that a body at rest tends to stay at rest, while a body in motion tends to stay in motion. The obvious implication of Mark Twain’s advice is that the only way to build momentum is to get started, then keep going.

Well, duh.

No wonder writing “propelled” Ray Bradbury, joyfully, through life. He was an exemplar of the writer in constant motion.

Can the cure for writing inertia really be this simple, or perhaps even simpleminded? Maybe we creative types just take ourselves, and our sometimes fragile psyches, too seriously. Maybe we look for deep reasons to explain lack of artistic productivity, assigning all sorts of tortured meanings to the dreaded “writers block”, when elementary science offers a much clearer and more practical model.

Just start. Then keep going. That’s momentum.

For you writers who find all this totally obvious or maybe even laughable, who have been consistently writing on a regular daily basis, who never suffer “writer’s block” or battle with procrastination, who always manage to find the time to keep up your writing momentum no matter how busy you get with other things – sorry to take you back to boring old square one. I salute you.

For the rest of you who are more like me, I think the enemy has a name, and it’s “inertia.”

The goal also has a name, and it’s not “get published.”

It’s “keep moving.”

4 thoughts on “How to overcome writing inertia

  1. I agree with all of this. As a writer, who has also worked for many years as a sculptor, I learned slowly and with difficulty, Barbara Kingsolver’s lesson, which is the same as Mark Twain’s really – just get moving, and the rest will eventually follow. Sometimes it’s more fun than other’s and sometimes you have to throw away a day’s work. My problem is keeping to any kind of schedule in which writing time has a secure place against all the other demands of life. I think it’s like smiling, if you do it even if you don’t feel like it, you will send feedback to your brain indicating you must be happy and you will feel happier.

    • I love the reminder about the effects of smiling. It’s a perfect illustration of why we sometimes need to reexamine our assumptions about “cause” and “effect”. Your comment is full of earned wisdom — thanks for sharing.

  2. I still haven’t found a sure-fire method for kickstarting my writing when I’ve slipped into inertia. But whether it’s a case of inertia or so-called writer’s block, I think sometimes they’re an outward manifestation of our creative mind needing a rest or trying to tell us that we’re going about something the wrong way. I just wish I could get a clearer handle on the message sooner!

  3. I know what you mean JM. Sometimes my inertia seems to have an actual personality … one of a 3-year-old crossing her arms and pouting “I don’t wanna”. I don’t know if she needs a spanking or a lollipop.

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