Dealing with a Broke-down Brain, a.k.a. Writer’s Block

I had a remarkable thought while hunting a pacifier the other day: If only scientists could harness the energy source that powers a squalling baby and eliminate dirty diapers, we’d have unlimited clean energy. The thought isn’t remarkable in the sense that it’s groundbreaking or even remotely plausible, just that it’s a thought and I haven’t thought much lately. 

I’m not sure what my brain has been doing, but mostly it hasn’t been thinking. It’s been trying to do anything possible not to think, even resorting to watching World Dodgeball Federation videos on YouTube. (Who knew semi-professional dodgeball was such a great spectator sport?)     

You might think that not-thinking would be the modus operandi for writers of a particular sort who plumb the depths of unsophisticated farm humor. To a certain extent, doing dumb things does provide plenty of raw material, but to craft that raw material into words requires neurons and synapses to fire, and lately my brain has been backfiring.

It always amazes me to read about writers who have the brainpower, or really willpower, to write no matter what, every day. One of my favorite writers is Annie Dillard, and she’s an advocate for sticking to a daily writing schedule. In The Writing Life, she says, 

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”

And Dillard practiced what she preached, writing every day, reasserting mastery over her manuscripts, so much so she won the Pulitzer Prize–by age 29. Another one of my favorite writers, Patrick McManus, spent two hours every day writing. He died a few years ago at age 85, having authored 23 books. 

Despite my best efforts to write some every day, lately I haven’t been mustering the brainpower. I’ve got a nearly-finished first draft of a manuscript that has, as Dillard put it, turned into a lion. I’m afraid to reopen the document and look at it, much less work on it again. It just seems untamable. The problem is I don’t really know what the book is–is it a semi-truthful memoir of my attempts at farming, a collection of loosely-related and ridiculous short stories, or a manual of what not to do for young farmers. Right now, it feels like a three-headed beast that needs two of its heads chopped off. 

Speaking of farming, I had a farmer tell me once that there are two types of combines: combines that are broke down, and combines that are fixin to break down. I think that accurately describes my writing process. Even when I’m writing every day, there is always the looming feeling out there that my brain is about to break down, not in a bonkers sort of way, just in the I-don’t-have-energy-to-think sort of way. And right now my brain is broke down, and I’m not exactly sure how to get it back up and running again.

For you writers out there, what’s your go-to solution for fixing a broke-down brain?

How my brain feels

30 thoughts on “Dealing with a Broke-down Brain, a.k.a. Writer’s Block

  1. Take a bit of a break, do some exercise, and read. That’s my remedy if my brain has broken down. If it’s more of a procrastination type thing, I force myself to write. 😅

    I hope you find the crosses wires soon and get back to writing! 😊

    1. That’s good advice. A lot of times I’ve noticed that when I stop reading, I stop writing, too. And lately I haven’t been reading as much, but I think reading really fuels my creative processes, so maybe I need to start with a good book.

      (Also, still waiting that post on high-paying humor markets😉)

      1. I’m the same way. If I’m not reading fiction, I’m not writing it. But I get that it can be hard at times to balance everything. Even more so with a farm to run and baby to take care of in your case.

        Lol. I’m working on it! Promise. 😅

  2. I wondered how you managed to run a farm, hold a job, deal with a baby, and write. That’s a lot of stress and very little sleep! But a broken brain happens to all of us. One story stalled halfway through, so I put it away a few months ago while I revise another. As it sits and waits for me, new ideas are percolating up from my subconscious. I’ve changed the gender or personalities of a few characters. The main character now has a better back story, and I have ideas to fix a few plot holes. I’m reading other books in that genre to see how other authors handle the issues I’ve run into. I’m relying on my subconscious to have tamed the story by the time I get back to it! But I’m unpublished, so take my advice with a grain of salt. For that matter, take all advice with a grain of salt because everyone writes differently.

    1. Running a farm is a bit of overstatement for what I do, lol. Mostly, I’m just fixing broke down equipment and chasing cows.

      I think pulling away and having multiple projects to work on is a good strategy. It’s weird too that sometimes it seems like my brain goes through editing phases and writing phases. Sometimes when I can’t write new stuff, I can still edit old stuff that has been sitting for a while.

      Look forward to reading your story! And you’re not unpublished, you’re soon-to-be published!

  3. I have not been writing. I have another novel, near finished, and it sits. I know how it ends. I know exactly what I need to do… it’s even a book that’s enjoyable to write. Go figure. And now, you’ve chastised me using the words of one of my favorite authors. Sigh. I really will get to it. And soon.

      1. I fully understand–though that book could have sent you in either direction. It remains, to this day, one of my favorite books. It taught me to look closely, wherever I was, because wonderful things were happening all around me, whether I was looking or not. I then read everything she wrote (which, were I not already deeply in law, would’ve made me an English major.) She wrote a novel, “The Living,” which was unfairly panned. Loved it. I still think of it on a regular basis, when I see history, and story, unrolling before me.

  4. Try this: Double Irish. (O’Shaunessey pour) A second double. Large Porterhouse steak, medium rare. Grilled potato. Broccoli (as a centerpiece for the table). Another double Irish. Recliner in front of the stereo: Clapton, Lightfoot, or Dire Straights. Or Ella, don’t be fussy. Won’t curephantom WB, but I find by Lightfoot’s second set, I don’t care. Let me know how it works.

  5. Taking a walk out in nature often helps me gets my thoughts together. If all else fails, I sit down at the keyboard (or my journal) and just start writing. It amazing me sometimes what flows out. But other times it’s gibberish. At least I’m writing.

    1. You’re right–the dreaded blank page. It can be so intimidating and yet so easily conquered by just a few words. Those few words lead to a few sentences, and then the brain is off and running!

  6. “Writer’s block” is an anxiety-inducing term, which I think needlessly adds to the stress of the experience. Personally, I think it should be thought of as a creative pause wherein the mind has temporarily exhausted itself, like a runner getting sore and out of breath in the process of stretching his or her limits of endurance. Like the runner, you must eventually rest and feed your mind, so it can get back on its feet and continue its training. The advice others have already given about taking a break to read excellent fiction, is excellent advice. That, and just go do stuff you truly enjoy doing for its own sake. Take your mind off the project for a while, whether it be a few days or a couple of weeks. I like black coffee when it’s time to write, too.

    1. Yep, it’s a downward spiral. The more pressure you put on yourself, it only gets harder. Speaking of running, that sounds like a good idea. Running with a good podcast or audiobook might help do the trick!

  7. Sounds like your impending book is like a song that doesn’t neatly fit into a particular genre. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad song – just harder to market!

  8. I don’t have any “advice” I can add here. Seems it’s mostly been covered. I can relate to your untamed manuscript however! I finished one in January that I had been working on for over 20 years. Talk about a beast. Have no clue what to do with it now. . .and I say all this just to commiserate with you. I tackled it in the end by just picking up where I left off and not worrying about the rest right then {Ok, so that reads a little bit like “advice.”}

    1. Commiseration helps too–misery loves company, lol. I think just picking up is, at times, the hardest part. Just doing something productive on it can get the motivation flowing, or at least that’s what I try to tell myself.

  9. I never could write every day either. I tried it and just couldn’t do it. Writing comes to me in bursts or moments. At the end of the day whatever works for you works. As far as I am concerned, whatever your process, you write stuff I like to read so thanks and good for you.

    1. Bursts and moments have always been how I operate, too, despite trying to get more disciplined about it. Extremely productive periods mixed with droughts of no writing. Kind of makes me feel good knowing that’s how you operate too, considering I really respect not only your work but the way you’re able to consistently come up with funny pieces every few days.

  10. I think Dillard got it right. You just have to do it. I say that in a “Do as I say, not as a I do” sense. However, when I was writing seriously (as in books that never got published [3 of them]), I did schedule writing time every morning, and it made a big difference. My problem was compulsive editing and re-writing what I’d just written, so progress was always slow. When it began to feel too much like a chore (all the time, not just some as you expect from any endeavor), and I STILL was unpublished, I chose to give up and stick to blogging, which I try to do only when I have something to say. Of course, my blog readers may think otherwise. 😊

    1. That’s why I really like your blog cause you do have something to say. I’m a compulsive rewriter too, for every one foot forward, I’m taking two steps back to rewrite beginning stuff. Maybe one day you might choose to give it another shot to market those books. It only takes one publisher to say yes, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

  11. Yes, the advice to try doing something else for a while is good. Subconscious thought about a problem often works better when the conscious mind is too busy to pester the subconscious for progress reports.

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