Writer’s block is so pernicious, it once prompted Ernest Hemingway (a war correspondent, mind you) to say that the scariest thing he ever encountered was “a blank piece of paper.”
From Mark Twain to Maya Angelou to Stephen King, writer’s block seems to afflict even our greatest literary minds. In Hollywood, Barry Michels has had an extremely successful career as a therapist for blocked screenwriters. He’s considered an open secret in the industry.
But let’s say you can’t afford to hire a Jungian analyst to help you through your latest block. What’s a frustrated writer to do?
“The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.” — William Goldman
Undoubtedly, starting is the hardest part when it comes to writing, with finishing coming in a close second. I’ve found that to be painfully true — but I’ve also found a method that helps me stop thinking (What should I write about? What if it isn’t any good?) and start writing when I’ve got a deadline to meet or I’m staring at a blank screen.
It’s a fairly well-known method called the Pomodoro Technique. Despite the commercialization of the name, the technique is free and it doesn’t require you to read any self-help books. Here’s the premise: You break down your work into 25-minute blocks. During that 25 minutes, you can’t answer your phone, check email, raid the kitchen for a snack, run out to grab a cup of coffee or play Words With Friends. (Yeah, I’m really good at procrastinating).
“Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” — Charles Bukowski
The deal is, you have to use your 25 minutes to write something — anything. Write about having writer’s block, if you have to. I often treat my first 25-minute block like a free-write or brainstorm session where I can throw away whatever I write. If I’m starting work on a piece, sometimes I cover my monitor for 25 minutes so I can’t edit myself or worry about making it perfect when I’m trying to get momentum.
Set a timer so you know when 25 minutes is up. I use a timer app that I keep open while I’m typing because for me, seeing the minutes count down spurs me into action (you can hide it, if you prefer). It works for me because it’s “just 25 minutes” — it’s not a novel, a screenplay, an article, or a dissertation. After 25 minutes, your timer app will ding and then it’s time to take a quick break, typically for 5 minutes. Get away from your computer — walk around your apartment or make a cup of tea. Repeat until you’ve done a string of these (take longer breaks as needed), and you’ll be surprised by how much you get done.
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” — William Faulkner
Critics say that this technique prevents us from developing the ability to focus over long periods of time when necessary — who’s going to hire a lawyer who takes breaks in the courtroom every 25 minutes? Personally, I think this criticism misses the point. The Pomodoro Technique isn’t supposed to apply to all aspects of life. But if you’re having trouble starting a project that you’ve always wanted to do (or HAVE to do), it can help you establish a sustainable routine to get it done. For example, “Today I’ll do 10 pomodoros.”
The sad reality is, doing a single task for 25 minutes without any distraction is actually a lot longer than most people are likely or able to focus nowadays. (If you want more detail on why that is, you should read “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr.) I’ve found that establishing the habit of working in a series of 25-minute blocks without interruption has actually been a great way to train my brain to focus for longer periods of time — and understand the importance of taking breaks and getting some perspective before you can truly finish major projects, whether they take hours, weeks or years.
Hey, if taking breaks ultimately helped Mark Twain finish “Tom Sawyer,” then the method’s good enough for me.