by Sharyn Kopf
They just stood there, staring at each other. Two roommates, Uli and Jolene, had decided to drive to the top of Palmer Park in Colorado Springs and take pictures of the full autumn moon. Now, seconds later, they were frozen in uncertainty.
It’s my fault. I wrote them there. For days, all I could do was watch them, standing in the middle of their boring, cookie-cutter living room, unable to move, unable to speak.
I was, as they say, blocked. And I loved it. Throughout my career of putting words on paper, writer’s block has been very good to me.
To write is to throw yourself on the mercy of the page. Wading in the shallow end of the pool will get you nowhere. Writer’s block may be an indication you’re not diving deep enough.
You’re not being vulnerable.
Author Vonda Skelton sees writer’s block as a chance to exit her world and inhabit the one she’s created. “We’re on this side of the computer or paper,” she said. “We’ve got to get past that imaginary barrier and live it and smell it and feel it and taste it so we’ll know what our characters will do.”
While working on her novel Bitsy and the Mystery at Hilton Head, Vonda struggled to write a scene where Bitsy confessed to lying to her dad. At first it came across as stilted and distant. Finally, Vonda realized, “I’m such a daddy’s girl I had to put myself in the scene and admit to my daddy how I’d let him down.”
As soon as she did, the scene came to life. But first she needed to be vulnerable.
Sometimes, writer’s block is a sign you’re on the wrong track. We all know how we feel about killing our darlings. We also know we must do so like a drill sergeant: No mercy, sir! Writer’s block can indicate you’ve written yourself into a corner and the only way out is to obliterate your words or sentences or even paragraphs with the ruthlessness of an atomic bomb.
At other times, though, writer’s block slams into you with an even harder truth to face: You have to start over.
In 2007, I felt a tug to write a nonfiction book about grieving singleness after 40. I didn’t want to write nonfiction and I certainly didn’t want to write about being single, but I couldn’t ignore the many indications calling me to do just that.
For five years I organized my ideas, outlined the chapters, wrote and edited copy, and put together a proposal. But though one publisher expressed interest for a moment, nothing came of it. The manuscript floundered. Disappointment, frustration and heartache made it impossible to move forward. I didn’t feel merely halted; the book had hit a dead end.
Or so I thought.
It turns out I was merely on the wrong street. When I decided to start over and write the book as fiction, the blockade lifted. The characters and plot and point of view all unfolded like an atlas. And the nonfiction version helped ground me in the points and purposes of the novel. That novel, Spinstered, has been picked up and is now scheduled for a fall release.
Years ago, while working as a broadcast creative writer at Focus on the Family, my boss gave me an intimidating assignment: Tell the Christmas story in a fresh, new way. Weeks went by and I had nothing. I hit a roadblock before I even started the car.
During that month, I came up with numerous ways to not tell the story. Like Thomas Edison, who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” I discovered what I didn’t want to do. I kept chipping away at the ideas that were too easy. I waited for the hidden gem buried in my subconscious.
The most important thing you can do, according to author Deborah Raney, is not panic. “Everyone struggles at times with words that won’t come, but they always eventually return, and the more relaxed you are about waiting for the words to flow again, the quicker it usually happens.”
Like Edison’s light bulb, the idea for my Christmas script clicked on one Monday morning while I still hovered between sleep and awake. I had finally given it enough time to percolate. Three hours later, I had an almost-complete rough draft. It eventually became the twenty-minute radio drama “Nine Months in Nazareth,” which the organization still airs as part of their Christmas programming.
One of the great benefits of what we call writer’s block is it serves as an Idea Waiting Room. All your words gather there anticipating the moment when you’re finally ready to drop-kick them onto the page.
I’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty of writer’s block and see how it can work in my favor. As for Uli and Jolene, this particular freeze eventually showed me I needed to pause in the action and delve into Uli’s character a little more.
Everyone has advice for what to do when you’re blocked and it’s all good: work on something else, read a book, take Fido for a walk, bake a cake—and eat it, of course, or, if you’re desperate, edit your manuscript.
But if you’re blocked and would like to edit while, at the same time, getting back in the groove of your story, I have a suggestion that can knock out both birds with one big rock. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it but it’s very effective.
Type your manuscript again. Set up the first page of your document on one side of your screen and a blank page on the other and start transcribing. Not only will your eye catch mistakes you might have missed otherwise, but you’ll fly through your story, reacquainting yourself with your characters and plot and, before you know it, you’re fully immersed in your fictional world without the stress of wondering what happens next. Hopefully, like me, you’ll be surprised at where your imagination takes you.
It’s a great editing tool and a great way to break the block.
Meet the Author:
Sharyn Kopf knew she wanted to be a writer the moment she wrote her first poem at the age of five. She still considers it one of her best works.
After earning a bachelor’s in communications at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana, she spent several years working as a newspaper reporter, almost a decade serving as an award-winning radio writer/producer for Focus on the Family, and even took a job for six months penning a television show for an Ohio-based mega-church. Then, for two and a half years, she was the senior writer for the marketing department at Cedarville University (OH).
Most recently, Sharyn has made her living as a freelance writer and editor. Her work has included co-authoring/editing Coping With Traumatic Brain Injury: One Woman’s Journey From Death to Life (published by BookJolt, 2012), writing and directing plays for an annual Cedarville University event, writing and editing numerous web articles, and editing a 400-page devotional, which was published by Kregel in 2012. In February, she won the Write Integrity Press One Hope Contest in fiction. Her first novel, Spinstered, will be published by WIP this fall.
In her spare time, Sharyn plays the piano, makes the best fudge ever, rages against unnecessary uses of the Oxford comma, and watches too much HGTV. She lives in Jamestown, Ohio, but plans to move to Bellefontaine in April to be closer to her family, especially her amazing nieces and nephew.