Friday, December 7, 2018

Facing Writer's Block: Words of Wisdom from George Saunders

Some writers don't believe in writer's block--that stall out, mind- and spirit-numbing experience that occasionally visits us when we're plowing ahead on a book deadline or trying to bring a new character to life.  But I do.  I've had it, I've coached dozens of writers through it, and it's a real phenomenon.  

Recently, I read a wonderful interview in Lit Hub on the writer George Saunders.  You might be a great fan of Saunders, as I am (his collection of stories, Tenth of December, is some of the quirkiest, most amazing writing I've ever read), or his fiction might be new to you.  His opinion about writer's block is equally inspiring.  It's a bar set too high, he says.  It's about the writer, not the writing.  Always.

Ira Glass, the well-known host and producer of "This American Life," speaks of it as the distance between our taste and our abilities:

Ira Glass on the Creative Process (
Ira Glass on the Creative Process (

We know what we love, we want to create something close to that, and when we can't quite--from lack of experience, skill, or perspective--we get stuck.  The only difference between the writer's block experienced by someone new to writing and someone who's published is perhaps the gap is less.  Or the bar is higher.

I often experience writer's block when I take risks in my writing.  When it opens up something vulnerable and my inner critic, that beautiful and irritating gatekeeper that all of us live with, gets anxious.  I can see this process in my clients and students more quickly than in myself.  A good teacher once told me to switch things out whenever that happens.  

This week, I was drafting a new scene from my current novel-in-progress and I ran out of ideas.  I kept pushing.  That's my nature.  The door refused to open.  I had a choice:  abandon the writing or switch to a different scene.  I switched.  It worked.  An hour went by, I got my momentum back, and ideas started coming for that first scene.  When I switched back, it was there.

If you're experiencing that sluggish, weighty, distracted feeling; if the holiday food hangover has taken you far from your writing, check out the Lit Hubinterview with George Saunders (if the link doesn't work, go to and search for Saunders), view the encouraging Ira Glass comments, above.  Or watch the Saunders video below.

George Saunders - On Story
George Saunders - On Story

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