Tuesday 13 October 2009

The Myths of Writer’s Block and ‘Daily Pages’

DSCN0309 Writers’ pathways are interesting. Accounts of the writer’s lives in Writer’s Magazines and Sunday Supplements are compelling reading for interested readers and for those on a similar pathway towards publication or merely towards coherent and public self expression.

The inspiration, the daily writing habits, the search for a voice, the accidental meetings that make a difference, the early struggles … one could go on. Bedded in there are myths that are hard to shake off. Roald Dahl and Daphne du Maurier in their respective garden huts; JKRowling in relative poverty sitting writing in a café: these can inspire notions that ‘… if I have a a garden hut, if I write in cafés I too could produce, James and the Giant Peach, or Rebecca or Harry Potter…’ Dreaming of course. But it’s very proper for a writer to dream.

Another myth (or anti-myth?) is that of writer’s block – written about robust charm recently by 60 Going on 16. I’m known among my friends for believing that writer’s blocks are self derived myths based on physical or mental exhaustion, dearth of ideas, not enough reading, writing being given a low priority in a writer’s life or a writer’s deep lack of enjoyment in the writing process itself.

I have to admit, though, that in this last week this idea has given me pause for thought as for some scary days I have not been able to get to my day job – writing this new novel. To other writers I airily say Don’t worry, it’s not writer’s block – it’s a fallow time! your subconscious is working on it! your brain is shrieking for a rest! Not an easy thing to say to yourself , when you imagine you have literally lost the plot.

But yesterday to my great relief I got back to my story to discover the time had been fallow, the soil had enriched itself, my subconscious had been working on it, my brain had enjoyed its overdue rest. The plot was found again.

The other myth that abounds out there in Writingworld is the myth of ‘daily pages’, generated with honest intent by writing gurus such as Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. In this world, writing a few pages of anything each day is a panacea for all writers ills - ‘writer’s block’, lack of ideas, lack of self belief …

In fact it is a good idea gone wild. At it’s best it can bed down a habit of broaching your subconscious, and is a useful beginning down the writer’s road. At its worst it can be a compensatory activity which is self-limiting: the shell without the grit of discipline, structure, and purposeful imagination that can produce decent writing.

What it is, is a good idea to be used rather than to be a place of rest, as though your randomised internal language is a cosy arm chair where you can doze instead of waking to the original writer that you can be.

My own favourite guru source is Dorothea Brande’s 1933 book On Becoming A Writer. I discovered this through the recommendation of John Braine in the introduction to one of his novels. I managed to obtain a copy of her book (though it was out of print…) , to be transfixed by its contents. I must have been part of a turning tide, as it was reissued in the next year and remains popular.

On Becoming a Writer is a simple two or three hour read, inspirational in tone, American in style, which makes you immediately was to get out your notebook and write. She advocates writing early in the morning when you are still in the sleep-wake mode; she says writing anything that comes to your head for half an hour, even if it is only I don’t want to be sitting here writing I don’t want to be setting here writing. It works. And from this concept - borrowed effectively by Goldberg, Cameron et al - comes the concept, now widespread, of ‘daily pages’.

But the best part of the Dorothea B concept - her twenty one day exercise – is often smudged to the sidelines.

Here is my version of the Twenty One Day Exercise

  • write a single daily page for twenty one days. It’s important that you do not look back to yesterday’s page. Forge on.
  • For twenty one days you write on a fresh page and do not look back.
  • After twenty one days you make an hour or so at any time of day and read through what you have written with respect, as though your were reading someone else’s work.
  • Then you read through again and make notes, because here you will find clues to - the kind of writer - the subject matter that preoccupies you - your normal vocabulary - your fundamental style.
  • Take three paragraphs or sets of twenty lines from your daily pages and develop them into three separate pieces of writing. Could be a short story, first chapter of a novel, or a poem.
  • Now work on these to some kind of conclusion for the next twenty one days.
  • Work on. Return to the twenty one day cycle every now and then to refresh your inspiration.
  • Don’t get into an eternal habit of daily pages that taps off all your inspiration and motivation and stops you writing for real.

If I hadn’t ‘found the plot’ again, I’d have turned back to Dorothea B ….


I have seen this method turn tentative writers into proper writers and existing writers into more honest, original writers.

Give it a go. You never know where it may lead….



  1. Very interesting take on the subject, Wendy. And even though I wrote about writer's block, like you I'm not sure that it actually exists. If writing is what you do, you write, but when inspiration is lacking or you just don't feel like writing, it's fine to have a break, just as you said. (And do something completely different, if possible.)

    I did have a go at Julia Cameron style morning pages once - but I have never bothered since! However, I do have to give credit to Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) in helping to provide me with the courage to let my writing GO and not to feel constrained by the way I had been taught to write (at school, university etc etc). That said, it took writing with a real-life mentor for me to understand, truly, what this process was all about. (Working in a group weekly with Briony Goffin changed my entire perception of writing, helped me to find my voice, and enabled me to discover my strengths and what sort of writing I most enjoyed.)

    Funnily enough, I bought the Dorothea Brande book last year, didn't read it at the time, and then managed to leave it behind in Devon. However, I'm going down my old house on Thursday for a week so will make a point of bringing it back with me. But thank you for the potted guide!

  2. I love the photographs, metaphors for the paths your thoughts take you on?

    Oddly where I get "stuck" in my writing usually ends up being incorporated in that writing. Where I am developing some theme and I come to a creative pause, I usually move on to writing about another character in another sub plot.
    Then as often as not when I come back to the original problem it is its own solution. The break in my thought process usually ends up being incorporated for suspense, or as a change of pace.
    Does that make sense, I am writing this on a morning off after a good dose of insomnia.

  3. It makes sense. Al, and trust in post insominia inspiration...



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