Writing

Dealing With Writer’s Block

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 14:15 min

Every writer faces times when they’re stuck. Neil talks about some of the difficulties of the writing life and gives ideas about how to get through them.

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Neil Gaiman
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When you're staring at a blank page or a blank screen, the biggest thing that you can do is just give in to despair, give into blankness. People love to talk about writer's block. And they love to talk about writer's block, because it sounds fancy. It sounds like a real thing. It also sounds like something that you can do nothing about. I have writer's block. I cannot write. And it is the will of the gods. Now, I must alphabetize my spice rack. Whatever, you can't do anything about it. And that, of course, isn't true. [MUSIC PLAYING] I have received long emails from people with writer's block. And I'm going, well, if you had real writer's block, how can you be writing me a long email? But what they're actually saying is, "I'm stuck on the thing. I don't know what's happening. It's dead on the page." And so what you do is 1, start one step away. First thing to do if you're actually stuck, don't just sit there staring at the page, staring at the screen, staring at your keyboard being angry. Go do something else. Chop wood. Go for a walk. Go for a run. Go for a swim. Go garden. Go play with small children. Go explore kittens. Go feed the chickens. Go do whatever it is that you can do. 2, come back pretending you have never read it before-- the old pretend you've never read it before technique. Start at the beginning, and read it through. Very, very often, once you do that, where the story should be becomes obvious. Where you went off the rails becomes obvious. And you did go off the rails. The problem is always earlier. Problem's always earlier than the place where the car goes off the road. And now, you're stuck there. You actually took a wrong turning a couple of streets back or a town or two back. But that's something that you can see. Normally, if you just come to it, and go from the beginning and come through, you'll suddenly go, "oh, well, hang on. Why are we with him anyway? She was much more interesting. And we should be with her, here. It doesn't matter what happens to him." And so I abandon half a chapter that had led me down a dead end and go back. And you can do that. Nobody but you ever gets to read your first draft. Nobody but you ever needs to know that you got stuck. [MUSIC PLAYING] I think the biggest things when you are stuck that you can do, and there's a whole bunch of things-- the biggest thing of all is remembering that you are stuck. Sometimes, it's just you're being shallow. Sometimes, you actually need to be a bit better than you are. Go a bit deeper. Get a bit more honest. Okay, why have I stopped writing this? I've stopped writing this because, if I have to go into it, it's a deeper, darker place. Maybe you've stopped because, if you wrote that scene, you would be writing a scene you don't want to write. Why don't you want to write it? Why is it painful for you? What happens if you do write it? I remember with "Anansi Boys," I was about a tiny bit, about halfway through, maybe a litt...


Unleash your imagination

Award-winning author Neil Gaiman has spent more than a quarter of a century crafting vivid, absorbing fiction. Now, the author of Stardust, Coraline, and The Sandman teaches his approach to imaginative storytelling in his online writing class. Learn how to find your unique voice, develop original ideas, and breathe life into your characters. Discover Neil’s philosophy on what drives a story—and open new windows to the stories inside you.



Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

astonishing to get a behind the scene glimpse of the work of a writer. very interesting.

The information and advice that Neil Gaiman offers was just what I needed to hear. I was even more impressed with his delivery. I could listen to him speak for hours on end and never get bored.

It helped me believe that I could actually do it. I've started writing. And as an extra, I find I have a better appreciation for the stories I read, I've discovered some really good new reading material. I can now name some of the problems I face when I sit down and write. I have faith I will continue to do it.Thank you!

I loved the class, every word of it. Inspiring, motivational and practical. It gave me a glimpse of the creative behind the scenes process.


Comments

JL N.

Watched this twice - and kicked myself up the arse and instead of giving into blankness... but i don't believe in writer's block anymore. I'm able to reignite the fire... THANK YOU

Sasha

I loved this lesson. Thank you. There was a tonne of practical skill-building information, and it also gave me Sandman #19 in a new way. A penny dropped, and I saw it as something my Shakespeare obsessed eleven-year-old needs now, not later, as another way in to plays she is already thinking about. We homeschool, so I can fish my copy off the shelf this week, and give it to her. Time passes in family life, and suddenly it's the right moment for something you thought might come later.

Giselda J.

Neil, I could listen to you for hours and hours and then some more....BTW I just burnt the Thanksgiving pumpkin pies because I was so lost into listening to this class....totally worth it!

Rhiannon B.

Just amazing - thank you, knowing that you’ve just taken a wrong turn, and that the trick is read from the beginning to find out where, is so liberating - and it works! I’ve picked up a few clues I’d apparently left myself along the way too 😊

Maribel V.

Once again this section was so eye-opening, and it's in great part due to how he explains things - I can't get over the spell of his storytelling. Doctorov's line, as Annie Lamott put it in Bird by Bird, is not only one of the best pieces of advice on writing, but on life. As for writer's block...I must painfully agree on the "maybe perhaps it's not good enough" reason behind it. Some times, at least ( I am choosing to believe that :D). Doing something else definitely works. Even if it's just going from home to the next door café and try to write there, in a different environment with a different vibe.

Sam

I've been editing my latest work, but some of it has required rewriting due to a continuity error that spans over a few chapters. I've been having a hard time getting through it and I've always disliked the idea of being stopped by writer's block so I kept trying to power through only to grow more frustrated with myself. So, like Neil says, I retraced my steps and searched for where the problem truly lay. And it helped. Deadlines are something I've always struggled with--they tend to stress me out until I can't even concentrate on writing, but I also noticed some of my best writing was done right before deadlines. I think when I'm confident in my writing, a deadline can be used as motivation, but when I'm writing something I'm not so sure about, I have to understand what's causing my doubt before I can concentrate on writing it again.

A fellow student

Thank you for reminding me to keep the headlight on regardless of the mist or because of it.

Ekin Ö.

Neil's ideas can be used in different contexts, as well. Moving ahead when blocked or doing the next thing you know are marvelously helpful with anything you're working on. It doesn't even have to be creative. It's more like procrastination; you need to keep executing. Then you can come back to whatever the thing you couldn't do, and I promise you'll have a fresher perspective. Deadlines don't work for everyone, though. Perhaps we can paraphrase it as framing. Frame the work within reasonable limits by either using time, place or any other meta and then you'll be more motivated to finish. Why? Because you'll know you'll not be dealing with it when you're out of that frame. With frames like time & place, you have only a limited amount of power to stretch.

joyce (moms) F.

Yep. But with me it's more like, "I'm sorry, I've got writer's block. I need to step away and regroup." Then I skip off somewhere and smoke a joint. It's almost as if I use writer's block like it's some kinda hall pass.

Alexandria S.

I have a pretty bad case of writer’s block. For my novels, they’re based on movies that I’ve come to love so its pretty hard to try and make my stories as original as possible while still adding in droplets of the film inspired by it.