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When words aren’t there

| Tuesday, April 2, 2019

I know what you are thinking. Whether you are the next Wordsworth and can compose soliloquies on the quad at will or whether you are an engineer who speaks in languages of calculus and differential equations and want nothing to do with the language of words, you think you are immune to it. I am invincible, you tell yourself as you look at the blank page in front of you, coffee and a swaying stack of primary sources at your side. Confidence unwavering, you settle down to write the essay that is due in a few short hours. And nothing happens. It is as if you are frozen under some kind of spell, and you have no idea how to break out of it. Thoughts begin to swarm in your head — an endless stream of consciousness of the song you are listening to, the voices of people speaking around you and the story your roommate told you last night. But above all, you have a sinking sense of dread that break is in the past and winter is coming.

Writer’s block is the king behind castle walls that guard your perfect essay. It is Odoacer and waves of Visigoths, Franks and Saxons that sack your empire each and every semester. But it’s more than that. It’s the danger and struggle of every student, especially at the end of the semester after a long break in paradise. You have fallen prey to the Greek fire of burnout, and there is simply nothing you can do to dowse those flames.

But don’t worry, bold traveler and college student. I am about to give you the keys to Troy, the secret to crossing the moats of indecision and storming the castle, the steps that you can take to putting a siege tower upon the walls and charging the gates. Hannibal faltered upon the steps of Rome. Napoleon wavered in Russia. Here is your chance to seize the day and succeed where those in the depths of time have not. Not only will you write that essay. You will make history in the process.

  1. The first step in your quest to conquer writer’s block is to recognize that you are not going to accomplish anything by staring at the frozen page. It looks so serene, like a winter landscape untainted by the footprints of sentences and words. Alas, the frozen, snowy, blank page is not one that is original to you. See the castle of indecisiveness in the fog of war on the horizon and boldly go out to face it.
  2. Don’t wait for the elusive and fickle writing gods to bring you inspiration. Many-a-traveler has waited for their word, waited for the perfect “spark” that will provide the inspiration to leap across the moat and meet your deadlines. As you patiently wait for their divine hand, you sit in one place, as daylight turns to night, and continue offering sacrifices to the writing gods. You change notebooks three times. You listen to your favorite inspirational song, the one that always seems to appease the writing gods out of their long sleep.
  3. You have heard it before — and when I say it, I guarantee that half of you will most likely roll your eyes in frustration — but hearken and do not leave my side. For I do not profess to rewrite history or the prophecies of old, and an ancient tome of wisdom called freshman Writing and Rhetoric with professor Erin McLaughlin showed me the value of process. Build up your plan of attack; do not simply charge into battle. Brainstorming, outlining paragraphs to oil the cogs of your imagination war machines, and piecemeal drafts that shape your ideas are the trebuchets, battering rams and infantry that will storm the castle of writer’s block.
  4. Don’t be afraid to scrap the battle plan and try a new one of attack. Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither was it conquered in one.
  5. Finally, I am going to tell you something that is out of the most ancient books of magic and legends, a word so profound that haikus and limericks, short stories and novels, series and works the depth of Proust have been composed. There is one way to conquer writer’s block, to sneak inside the fortress under a cold-hearted moon when everyone is asleep and let in the armies of paragraphs and pages in nightfall. It is a word so strong and simple, so powerful, frightening and humble that you may laugh when you hear it spoken. There is one way to end writer’s block and only one. Write. I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that instead of giving you the keys to Troy, this article is a Trojan horse itself, a cage for those who are doomed to wind up in the same endless cycle of indecision. But do not take it from me. A wizened prophet and author named Ray Bradbury once said the only way to break out of the grasp of writer’s block is to write your way out of it. It seems so easy it is almost ludicrous. But once you have a word, then two, then 200 upon the frozen, icy page, you won’t have writer’s block anymore. Once the smoke and fire of the wars of writing have cleared, you will see pages of words upon the once-frozen page, like a bridge over a pond inside a Monet painting.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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