BLLC Review, Writing

Stephanie Andrea Allen on Writer’s Block and What to Do When the Words Won’t Come

This is a cross-post of a blog I wrote for The BLLC Review.

So, there comes a time in every writer’s life when she sits down in front of a computer screen or pulls out her pen and pad and nothing happens. Nothing. No matter how long she sits there, the words just won’t come. We generally refer to this as writer’s block and many of us have experienced it. The real question is what do you do about it? Well, there are few things that I do when I find myself in this predicament and I’d like to share them with you here:

  1. Read
  2. Read some more.
  3. Try to write again and fail.
  4. Read.
  5. Finish what I’m reading and start something else.
  6. Take a short drive through the country.
  7. Go back home and read.
  8. Play Candy Crush or Words with Friends
  9. Read
  10. Finish what I’m currently reading.

Notice a pattern? Just the other day I was chatting with a writer who was having a bit of trouble with her work-in-progress. I asked her if she’d read any of the books I suggested the last time we’d talked and she said she hadn’t had time. I distinctly remember saying “If you don’t have time to read, then you shouldn’t be writing.” That may seem harsh, but it’s not. Ask pretty much any working writer, and they’ll tell you the one thing that all writers MUST do is read and read widely. Just the other day one of my fave poets posted very similar advice on Twitter.

Why should writers read? How do you know whether or not your story has already been written if you haven’t read in the genre in which you’re trying to write? How do you know what good writing looks like if you’ve never read it? How do you know the conventions of your genre (say mystery or romance) if you’ve never read any well-regarded authors in that genre?

Mango, wondering why I’m writing instead of reading. 

For example, a few months ago I decided to write a bit of speculative fiction. I’d never written any, and I really wasn’t sure how to approach the story I wanted to write. The first thing I did was do a Google search on Black speculative fiction; I was already familiar with folks like Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Jewelle Gomez and a few others, but I wanted to know what else was out there. I found a few anthologies, namely Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Renee Thomas; and Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism and Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin. I also read Naomi Krizter’s collection of short fiction, Cat Pictures Please, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, and The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin.

Now, I didn’t read all of this at once, but as I worked on my story, I made time to read as much as I could so that I could have a better understanding of the work that was already out there, and how I could construct my story based on the conventions of this genre. I realized that I wasn’t doing any real world-building like in Jemisin’s books, (she’s really more sci-fi/fantasy), but her writing was some of the best I’d ever read. It helped me to think about what was possible in the world of speculative fiction/sci-fi writing, and I also detected notes of Butler in her work (clearly she’d read it).

I also read books in other genres as palate cleansers (when I’m switching from one genre to another). Or for edification. Or for shits and giggles. Or because I just want to. My point is that I’m always reading. Always. My TBR list has a TBR list.

What does this have to do with writer’s block? Well, everything. If you’re writing a story and your characters aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, find something to read; they’ll call you when they’re ready. If you’re trying to figure out how to make your multiple narrations story work, read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and take note of her seamless transitions between narrators. If you’re trying your hand at world-building and don’t know what kinds of details to include, read Jemisin, she’ll show you what to do.

My point is that the best way to overcome writer’s block or to get yourself out of a creative slump is to read. The best way to learn about writing and what good writing looks like is to read it, bar none. Again, if you’re not reading, you shouldn’t be writing.

So, tell me, what are you reading right now?


2 thoughts on “Stephanie Andrea Allen on Writer’s Block and What to Do When the Words Won’t Come”

  1. Great post, Stephanie! And, what a great reading list! I’ve gone the other way recently, diving into literary fiction (one of my loves, but haven’t been reading that much of it recently). I absorbed Colsen Whitehead’s amazing The Underground Railroad (interestingly enough it has a speculative element). Writer’s block for me sometimes is about feeling overwhelmed with ideas. But, you’re right, we have an arsenal of tools that we can employ to move forward.

    Liked by 1 person

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