Lessons in writing from literary greats to help you banish writer's block
Kill your darlings
Manto wrote in an essay, “I write because I’m addicted to writing.” I never planned on writing as a profession, but when someone offered to pay me for it, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s been a decade, and while I’d love to say that I’ve become quite a wordsmith, on most days (and deadlines), my fingers hover above my keyboard, itching to press a key. Any key.
Whisper creative block and see writers around you shudder. Staring at a blank page like it’s the Sphinx challenging us to crack its riddle but refusing to give us any hints.
For a long time, I used to let writer’s block take over like a pesky gremlin. I felt sucked dry, no muse visiting my window at night. On one particularly distressing day, I was scrapping the bottom of my creative barrel when Tweak India founder and author Mrs Funnybones herself rescued me. She showed me a notebook she carries at all times, filled with scraps of paper with scribbled notes, one-liners and random thoughts and observations she jots down as she goes about her day.
“Every writer needs a cupboard full of wool. My grandmother had a literal cupboard full of wool because she would, at the spur of the moment, decide to make something. All she had to do was open up this cupboard, take out what she needed and begin.
For writers, these balls of wool come in the form of notes. If you take extensive notes of extraordinary things that happen around you or even of the most mundane things, then you have a cupboard filled with thread of every colour and texture, and you simply have to go there and pull out the one that you want,” said Twinkle Khanna during the first edition of Tweak Storyteller — a 5-week digital writing workshop with some of India’s celebrated writers.
Not all writers agree with each other. One person’s writing advice may contradict another, but you’ll find something that speaks to you. Whether you write for fun, as a hobby or as a profession, and your brain feels like a tumble weed-filled ghost town, do what I did and journey through the minds of some of the world’s best writers and literary legends for their advice on facing the monstrous beast of writer’s block, and winning.
Writing advice from the world’s best writers to get you through a creative block
“You have to read a lot and read carefully. Read like a writer – looking at techniques, looking at how the character is built, looking at how the plot manoeuvres itself.” – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
In the second edition of Tweak Storyteller, best-selling author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni advised writers to rethink their reading habits. Sure, read your story for mere enjoyment, but if you’re looking to get over a creative block, then she encourages people to “read like a writer” – approach a book with a writer’s mindset, looking for and analysing the various writing techniques, how character arcs are built and broken, and more.
This way, writers can better understand storytelling mechanics and gain insights into how successful authors craft their works.
By studying and analysing the writing techniques used in the books they read, writers can learn from the strengths and weaknesses of other writers, adapt effective techniques, and avoid common pitfalls. This approach allows them to grow as writers and develop their unique style.
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” – Kurt Vonnegut
In the introduction to a collection of short fiction titled Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, eclectic bestselling author Kurt Vonnegut provides his rules for “Creative Writing 101”. He believed that subjecting characters to challenging and often harsh situations was crucial for revealing their true nature and allowing readers to connect with them on a deeper level.
It is through adversity that the full range of human emotions and qualities can be explored, allowing for more profound character development.
This provides readers with a more engaging and relatable experience, allowing them to witness how characters respond to hardships, how they overcome or succumb, and how these experiences shape their personalities and choices.
The result is usually richer and more compelling storytelling.
“When I write, I keep myself free from any other work. At different stages of my life, I have chosen different times of the day to write. Your schedule changes with the happenings of life.” – Perumal Murugan
During the Tweak Storyteller workshop, novelist and professor of Tamil literature, Perumal Murugan told us about the need to not only allocate time in the day for writing but also how that time slot has to be flexible given your life circumstances.
When his children were younger, he would do his writing at night. “I would spend my daytime and evenings being around and talking to them. Only during the night, I could dissociate from them. I would wake up at 12 AM and write for two to three hours.” Over time, that has changed; now he says he’s changed his writing time to what is more convenient – 6 AM to 9 AM.
“Never, ever write what you think the market wants. The market doesn’t know what it wants!”– Gillian Flynn
Writer of captivating thrillers such as Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn is known for creating complex female characters and diving deep into the uncomfortable aspects of human behaviour. She suggests that writers should resist the temptation to write solely based on what they believe will sell or what they think is currently popular. The market, in her view, is unpredictable and ever-changing, making it unreliable as a guide for artistic expression.
Flynn suggests that writers should not shy away from exploring themes, characters, and situations that may be considered dark, gritty, or taboo. By delving into these depths, writers can tap into a rich source of emotional complexity and create narratives that resonate deeply with readers.
“Don’t be afraid to experiment. Find your own unique voice and style. Don’t be afraid to try new things and break the rules.”– Arundhati Roy
If you’ve read The God of Small Things, then you know that nobody writes a symphony of words better than Arundhati Roy.
In a 2011 speech at the Jaipur Literature Festival, she advised writers to break free of traditional or predictable ways of expression that their English teacher in school may have hammered into their brains to excel at their Board exams. Instead, embrace experimentation and innovation. By taking risks with language, writers can push the boundaries of storytelling, play with words and explore the endless possibilities of syntax.
By doing so, writers can create a new voice, a harmonious blend of language that captivates readers while elevating the impact of their words.
“The best writing is rewriting.” – EB White
The man who gave us Charlotte’s Web wants you to forget about perfecting the first draft – just keep writing, so you can then rewrite. The initial act of putting words on paper is just the beginning of your journey. Writing is not a one-and-done task but rather an iterative process.
White urges writers to embrace revision as an essential and transformative part of their craft. It involves fine-tuning sentences, reorganising paragraphs, rethinking ideas, and polishing the language to create a more refined and compelling piece.
The first draft serves as a blueprint. The real magic happens when the writer returns to their work.
I’m a believer in reading, to see the wide range of what’s been written. I’m also a believer in reading what you dislike at least once, just to know…Most of all, I believe in reading for what you can learn in terms of not just craft and technique but worldview.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
For Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the power of storytelling lies in fostering understanding and compassion. Empathy in writing allows for the exploration of diverse perspectives and experiences. By understanding and representing characters from various backgrounds, writers can contribute to a more inclusive and understanding society, even the parts that they themselves may not like.
In an interview with Image, she explains that she gets students in her workshops to read things she doesn’t like. “I’ll tell you why I don’t like it. And, then, if you like it, I want you to tell me why,” she tells them. Such open conversations don’t just help us better engage and understand different people but also give us a wider net of inspiration to cast in the world.
“You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.” – James Baldwin
James Balwin said simplicity is king in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review. Create sentences that are stripped down to their essential elements, devoid of unnecessary clutter or ambiguity – precise and direct.
Achieving the goal of clean sentences requires careful attention to detail and a willingness to refine and streamline one’s writing. It calls for a commitment to honing the clarity and impact of each sentence, ensuring that it carries its intended meaning without any extraneous or confusing elements.
“I believe, in a funny way, the job of the novelist is to be out there on the fringes and speaking for an experience that has not really been spoken for.” – Donna Tartt
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Goldfinch says that as writers, you must explore the fringes of human experiences, delving into themes, characters, and settings that may be unconventional or outside the mainstream. By doing so, they can bring fresh perspectives, untold stories, and underrepresented voices to the forefront.
The novelist’s role goes beyond mere storytelling; it encompasses shedding light on untold stories, challenging societal norms, and giving voice to those who have been overlooked or silenced. And there, as she said in an interview, is where you just might find what you need to get over your writing hump.
“One isn’t, in writing, transforming the world into the world as it should be. That would be too much of a task if one undertook it every time. Grasping the world as it is, putting it within a certain frame, taming it to a certain extent that is quite enough of an ambition.” – JM Coetzee
Recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, JM Coetzee said in an interview that the role of a writer is not to completely reshape the world into an idealised version but, rather, to understand and portray it within the boundaries of their artistic vision.
Not everything you write is going to be life-changing or a major conversation starter, and that’s alright. It is not the writer’s sole responsibility to transform reality into a utopia through their writing. He goes on to say that such a monumental task would be overwhelming and impractical to achieve consistently. Instead, he proposes that writers should aim to grasp the world as it is, capturing its complexities and intricacies and presenting it within the framework of their storytelling.
He emphasizes the importance of balance between artistic ambition and the acceptance of the inherent limitations of language and storytelling when it comes to the chaos of life.
“My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.” – Italo Calvino
Not all writing needs to be serious or heavy to be taken seriously, even if the subject matter is serious. Italo Calvino believes in lightness.
We associate anything meaningful with being weighty and heavy on our hearts. We believe great books should be deep and profound. We’re wary of anything that seems too light or frivolous. We tell ourselves that to be serious in writing, thinking, and living, we must embrace this weight of being.
Calvino’s writing advice is to see things through the virtue of lightness by subtracting the weight. It can open up new perspectives for us. When we feel weighed down by the seriousness of what we’re writing, lightness can be a breath of fresh air.
You can bring levity to a serious matter and approach a dark subject with a lighter hand. It just takes seeing things from a different perspective and various angles and finding value in play, pleasure, and fun.
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” – Stephen King
In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says that writing needs to be a process of two stages. In the first stage, immerse yourself in your work without external distractions or influences. Write freely and uninhibited, exploring all ideas, characters, and plotlines. This approach allows writers to tap into their creativity and intuition, giving their ideas the freedom to flow without self-censorship or external judgment.
King says letting people in on your work is also important. It’s time to open the door and invite others, such as editors, beta readers, or trusted peers, to provide constructive feedback and insights. This needs openness, objectivity and a willingness to make necessary changes, cuts, or improvements to refine the work. King’s writing advice is to balance creative freedom and critical analysis. You may need to practice your active listening skills for this so you’re more open to differing opinions.
“I am not really that interested in what happened. I’m much more interested in what the narrator thinks happened. That battle people have with themselves about what they think they did or who they think they are.” – Kazuo Ishiguro
What’s ‘normal’ is always subjective, at least in Kazuo Ishiguro’s world of Nobel and Booker Prizes.
In an interview with The Irish Times, Ishiguro talks about the significance of the subjective perspective and internal struggles within storytelling. For a writer, the objective events or external occurrences themselves may not be as crucial as the narrator’s perception of those events.
In Ishiguro’s view, exploring the complexities of human psychology, memory, and self-perception is more compelling and revealing than simply presenting a series of events. By delving into the narrator’s introspection and inner dialogue, writers can create profound character studies and delve into the profound existential questions about self-identity, moral responsibility, and the unreliability of memory.