How many years do you have to be a writer before writer’s block goes away for good?
Um … I’ve been doing this for a couple of decades, and writer’s block still sneaks up on me occasionally. It usually happens when a deadline is hanging over my head. The closer the deadline, the worse the symptoms.
My mouth goes dry, the back of my neck breaks out in cold sweat, then all logical thought flees my brain. Sitting motionless in front of my computer, I might as well be trapped in amber …
Can you relate?
The symptoms may be different for every writer, but the result is the same: work stoppage. Who can afford that? Not me.
When writer’s block stops me in my tracks, I use a simple trick that never fails to get me writing again. Believe it or not, I learned the trick from my high school debate team.
There was a legendary debater (and tournament winner) on the senior squad who was such a smooth talker we called her “Slick.” She always had some trick up her sleeve that she could pull out to guarantee a win. Her favorite trick was telling the “horse trading story.”
It was a plain but versatile story that Slick could use to illustrate any point in an extemporaneous speech or cinch any argument in a debate.
Her story starts like this:
“One day, a businessman drives by a farm and sees a beautiful horse, so beautiful that he decides to buy it on the spot. He finds the farmer and says, ‘I think this horse looks pretty good. I'll give you $1,000 for him.'
The farmer shakes his head and says, ‘No, this here horse don't look so good. Anyways, he ain’t for sale.’
But the businessman insists. ‘I think he looks just fine, and I'll double the price to $2,000!’
‘I’m telling you mister, he don't look so good,’ the farmer replies, ‘but if you want him that much, he's yours.’
So the businessman pays the farmer and makes arrangements to have the horse delivered that very day.”
Do you know how the story ends? Or where I’m going with it?
What if I told you to make up your own ending?
You could take it in several different directions … and that’s exactly what Slick would do.
The horse trading yarn was her go-to story whenever she was stuck for something to say and the debate clock was ticking. She could take that story anywhere — poverty, classism, prejudice, greed, semantics — practically any topic would fit.
The simple trick I learned from Slick is the go-to story. The go-to story outsmarts writer’s block every time. For any situation or topic, you have a go-to story inside of you — some experience, some memory, an image, a vivid dream — something you can use to inspire your writing.
When a deadline looms and your screen is blank, when your mind is running in circles, and you feel paralysis setting in, don’t panic. Just start with your go-to story. It will get you over the barriers to creativity and lead you toward what you really need to write.
Simply going through the motions of typing your go-to story relieves deadline stress and gets your brain out of neutral. Try changing the main characters, or the location, or the ending. Soon more ideas will flow in, and you’ll be over your writer’s block.
Here’s an example: I was writing a series of autoresponder emails for a client. In the middle of my project, the trade press published some negative articles about my client’s newest product.
I got stuck trying to think of a clever way to write around my client’s PR problem. The first half of the series was ready to go, but hadn’t been emailed yet. What could I say to customers who’d read the negative press? Should I write something apologetic? Sugar-coat the problem somehow? Should I write the second half of the series as if nothing bad had happened? Or, go back and rewrite the entire series? Could I still meet my deadline if I did?
And then my mouth went dry. I could feel sweat forming on the back of my neck. Uh-oh … time for my never-fail trick.
I methodically started typing the horse trading story. My client’s product had nothing to do with horses, but I had to stop my mind from endlessly circling. I had no time to waste on writer’s block.
Then, as I typed, it hit me. What if the farmer had said something else after the businessman doubled the price?
That new idea immediately restarted my writing engine. I rewrote the whole email series, in record time. And the client loved my new approach. All thanks to my go-to story. Instead of writing around the PR problem, I decided to address it directly, and new ideas came rushing in.
What if writer’s block stops you, and you haven’t found your go-to story yet? Go ahead and use the horse trading yarn. I’m sure Slick wouldn’t mind. By the way, here’s how it ends:
“The next day, the businessman comes back to the farm, raving mad. He stomps up to the farmer and shouts, ‘You sold me a blind horse yesterday. You cheated me out of $2,000!’
The farmer calmly replies, ‘I told you, he don't look so good.’”
I haven’t found the secret to banishing writer’s block for good, but I can outsmart it. You can, too. Just start typing your go-to story, no matter the assigned topic. The words you need will soon follow.
I should know. I used my go-to story to write this article.
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