July 8, 2013

Kill Your Blank Pages: Experience

This week, we begin the second part of my series on writer’s block. Here I’ll be focusing on some creativity-killers that don’t stem from your story: instead, they are problems that come from an unhealthy writing life. Not all of these will apply to each of you, and some take longer than others to achieve, but please read through them as they are important to be able to identify and counter for the long-term health of your writing career! 

In 1851, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

Honestly, I think there are few words that writers need to hear more. So often, our passion for writing consumes our lives, stifling our relationships, work life, school life, and everything else. We sit for hours each day at our computers or writing pads, the blinds pulled down and the phone line unplugged.

But this is silly of us. After all, our muse doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even if we don’t realize it, our creativity is unleashed by drawing in our experiences and pouring them out in a new medium. If we don’t live life, how are we to write about life? If we don’t develop our own emotions and relationships, how are we to create believable ones on paper? How can we write about triumph if we never triumph, or about suffering if we never suffer?

This section of my ten-part series on writer’s block may be the most discouraging, because I’m going to urge many of you to stop writing for a while. Obviously, this advice will not apply to all of you. But don’t dismiss it off-hand: if you experience writer’s block on a constant basis, it’s all too likely that you really need to hear this.

Is Lack of Experience Stifling Your Muse?

If you’ve read through all of the first five sections on writer’s block and nothing seems to get rid of your writer’s block, it’s entirely possible that your creativity simply isn’t ready to be unleashed. Have you ever done anything so hard, you thought it would be impossible? Have you been through the blackest night and come out alive? Have you ever conquered your biggest fear? Have you faced crippling criticism or hatred? Have you ever been forced to completely re-evaluated your priorities or worldview? Have you been forced you give up your biggest dream?

Have you made friends with a freak, or been betrayed by your best friend? Have you been humiliated beyond what you thought possible? Have you lost something dear to you that you could never replace? Have you been pushed to work so hard you ached every night? Have you ever cried yourself to sleep? Have you ever been speechless at the hugeness and complexity and beauty of the world?

If you’ve never experienced any of this, then you are not ready to write.

How Do You Get More Experience?

Let me begin by talking to my fellow youths. As a young writer myself, I know what it’s like to be told “you just need to wait until you’re older.” It’s not advice I appreciated. But I accepted it. I never gave up writing—I wrote children’s stories, and essays, and poems, and even some plot outlines—but I never attempted to write a full-length novel until I was eighteen years (still young by many standards.)

In the meantime, I dedicated myself to growing up. I joined a speech and debate club so I could expose myself to a wide variety of worldviews, and to learn the big issues in this big world. I learned about the rise and fall of countries by studying history and current events. I joined 4-H so I could learn practical skills (from cooking to consumer decision making to sewing to wildlife studies). I learned the sciences and mastered many art skills. I studied writing craft and grammar and other authors’ novels as hard as I could. Most importantly, I forced myself to survive the hundreds of difficulties, sufferings, and setbacks that faced me constantly. In short, I matured.

My patience paid off. The January after I turned 18, I sat down to write my first-ever full-length novel, and to my complete shock and amazement, I completed it in less than four months. Not only that, but my writing was infinitely better than I ever would have expected of myself. To all the young writers out there: please don’t feel like you have to give up writing while you are young—on the contrary, hone your skills! But in the meanwhile, challenge yourself to mature and grow up. If you want your writing to be mature and meaningful, make your life mature and meaningful.

Now. Despite all this special counsel to young writers, they aren’t the only ones who might be facing experience-based troubles. Anyone can be unprepared to write. So here is some advice for those of you who feel like they might just need to do more…


As any truly wise person will tell you, sometimes you need to simply do hard things. No matter what your goals are in life, whether they have to do with writing or not, to be a complete human being you need to develop all sides of you—mind, body, and spirit.

Develop your mind by studying a broad range of material. You’d be surprised at all the ways seemingly random fields of study can enhance not just your writing, but all areas of your life. Study politics and social studies, history, science, mathematics and literature. Learn about other cultures. Follow news and current events. Analyze events, both tragic and triumphant-- what mindsets/actions caused them to occur? Let your knowledge base grow deep like tree roots and broad like tree branches, and when you sit down to write, you will have an unlimited sea of ideas for your muse to draw from.

You also need to challenge your body. Use your muscles—make them strain and hurt and ache with exertion! Run a marathon for an important cause, canoe across your local lake, climb a mountain, hike a forest. Eat strange foods. Learn new physical and practical skills. For your writing to come alive, you need to experience physical sensations and be able to write about them.

Finally, have a healthy emotional life. Understand people and how they tick, and how to handle different personalities. Be kind to people you don’t like. Be compassionate—go out of your way to help someone every day! Forgive the ones you hate. Forgive yourself when you fail, and always, always, always try again no matter how many times you don’t reach your goal. At the same time, make sure your priorities in life are properly aligned. Discover whether God exists! Fight for an important cause, save a life, save a soul.

Your novel is an extension of your soul. It’s a re-translation of your experience. If you don’t breathe deeply of this life, your story will never breathe life. Remember Thoreau’s words! Challenge yourself to do hard things, and writing will become easy.

This is the hardest, longest step to defeating writer’s block, but it’s also how you overcome the most tenacious form of writer’s block. Hang on tight until next week with part seven of KILL YOUR BLANK PAGES: A TEN-PART SERIES ON WRITER’S BLOCK.

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