A Creative Solution to Writer's Block from Novelist Augusten Burroughs
When you are experiencing writer's block, more than your writing is blocked, says memoirist and novelist Augusten Burroughs. Here is his creative solution to get you writing again.
Augusten Burroughs was born Christopher Richter Robison in Pittsburgh, PA on October 23, 1965 and raised in Western Massachusetts. Augusten's parents struggled with alcoholism and mental illness and they separated when he was twelve. Augusten stopped attending school and his parents' longtime psychiatrist became his legal guardian. At seventeen, he moved to the Boston area and graduated from Control Data Institute with a diploma in Computer Programming and System's Analysis and Design but never worked in the technology industry. Instead he moved to San Francisco and at 19 became the youngest copywriter in the city. His work attracted national acclaim and in 1989 he was invited by Ogilvy & Mather, New York, to work on their flagship American Express account. Augusten found great success in the Manhattan advertising community, eventually working for many of the top agencies where he created global ad campaigns for worldwide brands. Almost eighteen years after accepting his first advertising job, Augusten left the industry to pursue a career as an author. Two years later, his 2002 memoir, Running with Scissors, became a publishing phenomenon, spending over three consecutive years on the NYT bestseller list. It was made into a movie starring Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin. All of Augusten's subsequent books — Dry, Magical Thinking, Possible Side Effects, A Wolf at the Table, You Better Not Cry & This is How — were instant NYT bestsellers. In 2013, Augusten married his literary agent and best friend, Christopher Schelling, received a Lambda Literary Award, and was honored with a Doctorate of Letters from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Augusten is also a self-taught gemologist with a special interest in jade. He collects and sells vintage and estate jewelry, photographs people, and recently directed his first music video. Augusten and his husband Christopher live in a 200 year old house in rural Connecticut with their three dogs.
Augusten Burroughs: Is there such a thing as writer’s block? There are some writers who don’t have writer’s block and there are some writers who definitely do have writer’s block. In my experience the solution, the cure for writer’s block is to write about the writer’s block because you need to dissolve it. Writing can be like a corrosive acid. If you’re tense and you just don’t know why and you’re just in a bad mood and you’re just angry – if you write about that feeling what does it feel like? It feels like chopping at something made out of ice. It just feels very much like you will eventually get to why you’re angry. You’ll dissolve the feelings. You’ll corrode the sort of feelings around that anger and get to the reason why. So with writer’s block if you write about the writer’s block you’ll understand what it’s about. I think, you know, for some writers it’s like a symptom of your truest instincts, your very best nature trying to course correct you, you know. Trying to tell you you really don’t want to go that way. It’s trying to sort of say wait, something isn’t right about what we’re doing here. It’s your sort of creative unconscious or subconscious way of saying to you stop, stop, stop. There’s a reason why there’s a block. It’s just like a roadblock. The road is blocked for a reason it’s, you know, usually not just arbitrarily blocked. A road is not usually blocked because someone decided you know what, I think I’m going to block this road today.
So you’ve got to kind of trust that that same basic sort of logic is incorporated within the cells of our own body. And we’re probably not going to experience writer’s block unless some better part of us, some more knowing aspect of us knows the bridge is out up ahead. That road goes the wrong way, you know. So write about the writer’s block and figure out why you’re blocked. I was blocked on my last two books because I’m trying to write these two novels. I write one, I don’t like it. I write another one, it did not work. And I thought well I can’t write anymore. I can’t write. I would sit down to write and I would be for the first time in my life confronted with just blankness. And then I would write something and it would be just bad, no depth. And it was because I had decided what I was going to write next. I had already decided what I was going to write next but inside the deepest part of me it wanted to write something else. So there was sort of this like digging in of the heels, you know, where it was like no, I don’t want to write a novel right now. You’ve said, you know, it’s almost like I’m going to write a novel because I promised my publisher I would write a novel. Not a good enough reason, you know. Not really. What’s important is you’ve got to write something great. You’ve got to write something that has to be written. You’ve got to write something that you can’t stop. So writer’s block, you know, it’s like that’s – it’s something that I think is – it’s like physical pain. It’s your body telling you. Pay attention to this area. There might be something you need to look at here. The worst thing to do with writer’s block is kind of like the worst thing to do with back pain, you know. If you have back pain you don’t want to stay in bed for the next five years.
You need to stretch, you know. You need to begin physical therapy. You need to maybe do yoga or Pilates. You need to move. With writer’s block don’t stay away from the writing. Don’t put the writing aside and think well I’ll wait until the writer’s block goes away or I’ll wait until the solution comes to me because that’s not how it works for a writer. The solution comes to us as we’re writing. It comes mid sentence. So for a writer the answer, the solution to writer’s block is to write about the writer’s block. Why do you have it? Why are you not writing? Why does it suck? Really, why? Why do you think it should be? How should it be different? When I think about writing what is it that I feel? Do I feel angry? Do I feel afraid? Do I feel like I’m going to be judged? It could be a case of you know you’re off plot or off point. It could be that there’s something deeper and better, truer, juicier that you really need to write about that maybe you’re too embarrassed to write. Maybe you’re too afraid to write? Maybe you’re too self-conscious to write? All things you need to listen to. All erasers of writer’s block.
Writing is a "corrosive acid," says memoirist and novelist Augusten Burroughs, but in the best possible way. Blockages can be dissolved by writing — subconscious creative blockages — which puts our creative endeavors and the persistent menace of writer's block into a new context.
The worst possible solution to writer's block is to put your writing aside until the block "passes." Blockages occur for a reason, says Burroughs, and that reason isn't likely to go away if you just sit on your hands.
By actually writing about your writer's block, you'll uncover the real reasons you're unable to write. In Burroughs's case, he had predetermined what he wanted to write about, and ignored what was bubbling up inside him — he put his publisher's interests ahead of his own interests as a writer. In hindsight, it was a mistake, but one he uncovered by writing about his writer's block.
Burroughs's latest is Lust & Wonder: A Memoir.
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- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.