When I do author visits at elementary schools and it's time for Q & A, some of the more sophisticated kids like to ask me, "What do you do when you get writer's block?" My stock answer has always been: "I don't GET writer's block, because I write for a short, fixed amount of time every day, first thing when I get up. It's not an intimidating task to write one puny little page. And writing it first thing in the morning means that I don't even have time to arouse my resistance. My page is written before I'm even fully awake!"
But then this year, I got writer's block. Previously I had secretly doubted that any such thing existed. Now I actually had it. I hadn't written a page since my heroic revisions on two books last August, if you don't count the equally heroic work I did earlier this month revising my scholarly paper on Eleanor Estes's 1943 children's book Rufus M. And I don't count work that isn't creative work. So for the past three months, the queen of the hour-a-day writing system has written precisely nothing.
I think the biggest part of my block has to do with, not jealousy exactly, but awareness that a number of my writer friends have been getting extraordinary critical attention for their recent books: four starred reviews for one, an unheard-of five starred reviews for another. I want four starred reviews! I want five! I want six! And in order to get six starred reviews, I knew I had to write a different kind of book from the sweet little chapter books I've been writing. If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. I needed to write a big book, a deep book, an important book. But I had no ideas for anything big, deep, or important. So instead I was writing nothing at all.
This had to change. Because if I don't write, I won't be a writer. And I love being a writer.
I started curing my writer's block by re-reading the scene in Maud Hart Lovelace's Heaven to Betsy, where Betsy has lost the freshman essay contest because she spent her winter in a doomed crush on Tony plus lots of parties with the Crowd where great quantities of fudge were made and consumed, rather than on essay preparation:
She looked back over the crowded winter. She did not regret it. But she should not have let its fun, its troubles, its excitement squeeze her writing out. 'If I treat my writing like that,' she told herself, 'it may go away entirely.' The thought appalled her. What would life be like without writing? Writing filled her life with beauty and mystery, gave it it purpose. . . and promise...
Then I made a plan, an excellent plan, if I do say so myself.
Yesterday I took myself on the bus to Denver, planning to spend the morning writing on a cozy couch at the legendary Tattered Cover bookstore, just steps away from Union Station. But when I got to Union Station, its cozy couches beckoned so powerfully that I ended up staying right there, on this couch in front of this holiday elf, which I decided must be a writing elf.
And then I wrote for two hours. I plunged right in, scribbling down the first page of a new book, which grew into the first chapter of a new book, not, I must say, a big, deep, important book, but one of my usual sweet little chapter books, in other words, the kind of book I love best to write.
So: if you have writer's block:
1. Give yourself Betsy's pep talk. Don't regret any of the things that have kept you from writing, but remind yourself that if you squeeze writing out of your life, you'll have a life without writing in it. Maybe that's okay for you. But if it isn't, you need to write.
2. Take yourself on some lovely writing adventure. Go someplace special, either with a writer friend or by yourself. For me, the place has to have couches and creamy hot beverages.
3. Then, well, write. You don't have to write a book that will get five starred reviews, or four, or any at all, or that will ever get published, or read by anyone else in the world. All you have to do is curl up, sip on your creamy hot beverage, take nibbles of a tasty muffin, and write something that you want to write. Remember, you like to write. You really do.
That's all. And if you can do it in front of the Christmas tree in Union Station, Denver, all the better.