Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews
Image: Karl Rogers

A friend of mine has a strip of paper tacked to his computer screen that reads: “The greatest inspiration is the deadline.” Certainly, there’s nothing quite like a looming (or, in my case, recently passed) deadline to start typing, even when you really don’t want to.

Why the reluctance? Sometimes, writer’s block strikes because you can’t think of what to say. But for me, more often, there are other reasons — it’s about not knowing how to say what you want to, or simply being too afraid to say it.

Sometimes, I get stage fright. If it’s a piece about something close to my heart, or an interview with someone I really admire, I’m often worried I won’t be able to do the topic or person justice.

Only more recently have I realised that the best way to overcome this fear, this doubt, is to plunge in headfirst — to fling words down on the page, even if they’ll be deleted later. I remind myself that it’s okay to create things that aren’t perfect; that it’s better to create something flawed than never to attempt it at all. When we create, the sentences that fall flat teach us as much, if not more, as the ones that sing. The more we do, the more we grow — and the less intimidating the process becomes. Writing — whether it’s firing off a tweet,texting a bereaved friend, or drafting a proposal, an article, or novel — is an act of vulnerability. Perhaps we’re not baring absolutely all — but we are still exposing ourselves, our values, our ideas. We are putting them out in the open where they could be contested and savaged, embraced and praised.

It’s okay to create things that aren’t perfect; it’s better to create something flawed than never to attempt it at all

Sometimes sharing comes easily — it’s a liberating catharsis, an exhilarating connection with others. At other times, sticking your head above the parapet requires all the bravery in the world at a time when perhaps all we want to do is hide. The poet Nayyirah Waheed once said: “The thing that you are most afraid to write. Write that.” And it’s true: often it’s the hardest things that bring about the greatest truth, the most exquisite liberation. It’s easier said than done, I know. Knowing that you should write is not the same as finding a way to carry on writing.

And so, here’s some encouragement. Over the past few years, my website, Aerodrome, has asked authors, editors, and illustrators what they do when they’re feeling stuck. This is what they had to say.

Craig Higginson, playwright and author of The Dream House: We usually get stuck when we don’t know what story we are telling. I don’t force things. If I’m tired or disconnected, I do something else. I aim to write for an hour or so each morning, but I often fail. But I try again and — to quote Samuel Beckett — I try to fail better.

Ian Rankin, author of the Inspector Rebus novels: I go for a walk. Or sometimes I’ll talk the problem over with my wife. Both of these can be very helpful.

Mark Winkler, author of The Safest Place You Know: I’ve come to believe being stuck is the brain’s way of begging for a rest, so I no longer try to force things when I’m stuck. Instead, I read, or try to do something I’ve never done before, or at least do very seldom.

Nnedi Okorafor, creative writing professor and author of Lagoon: One thing I do is give myself permission to be really bad at writing, to fail at it. Once I stop
trying to be brilliant by decree then I’m often not stuck anymore. What I’m writing might not be golden, but at least I’m filling the page.

Alison Lowry, editor and former CEO of Penguin Books South Africa: Go with it, rather than push against it. Trust that it hasn’t left me — whatever “it” is — but has just gone out for tea. It will return when it’s meant to.

Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, cartoonist: For me, the best thing to do then is to rely on left-brain, methodical, programmatic ways of doing things, and hope that the right-brain, creative explosion will kick in when I least expect it. I will write down subjects, words, link them, and do mind maps. I’ll try to unblock myself by at least doing a journeyman effort, which will be passable, and then quite often when I get up to do something else I get that extra spark that changes things.

Sebastian Barry, author of Days Without End: To try to shake the awful feeling that descends, I go into the mountains with the dogs, or seek out my wife for yet another cup of coffee, and our “parliament of nothing said”, which is the best sort of parliament, except when it’s for running a country.

Marianne Thamm, journalist and author of Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me: I always work with music on in the background. Music grounds me. What I listen to depends on my mood — I have a very large collection and I am a bit of a slut when it comes to music.

Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa and author of the Clare Hart crime novels: I fight with the people who love me. Then I go and write. Then I have to come out and apologise and be nice.

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