The Strange Ways Maya Angelou, Roald Dahl, and Other Famous Writers Beat Writer’s Block

By Julia Lynn Rubin July 11th, 2014

Writer’s block has been plaguing award-winning novelists and journalists for centuries, and recommended remedies range from the seemingly simple (“Just write whatever comes to mind!”) to the absurd (“Try standing on your head and writing upside down!”).

Here we’ll be exploring the latter, with absurd words of wisdom from some of the most prolific wordsmiths in the world. Perhaps their ridiculous suggestions will help you on your way to free-flowing ideas and maybe, just maybe, put an end to your writer’s block.

Maya Angelou and absurdist children’s poetry

Maya Angelou took the simple idea of writing whatever comes to mind to the next level. “I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff,” she said. “But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”

It’s hard to imagine the same person who wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings started out with the idea that a mat is not a rat, but every writer needs to find a way to tease out the good stuff, even if the first draft is more Dr. Seuss than Dostoyevsky.

George Plimpton and love letters

While we love Maya Angelou’s suggestion, it’s difficult to pen four pages of nursery rhymes with an editor breathing down your neck. That’s why George Plimpton heeded the advice John Steinbeck once gave him at a party.

Steinbeck told Plimpton to “pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” That advice didn’t seem too peculiar until Plimpton put it into practice.

At the time, Plimpton was head over heels for the actress Jean Seberg. His article, which had nothing to do with Seberg, ended up beginning with “Dear Jean…” and Harper’s Magazine published the piece, much to Plimpton’s surprise.

You may not want to turn every piece of your prose into a love letter, but directing your words to someone you care about will help you write more freely and honestly. And maybe get you into Harper’s. Maybe.

Laurence Sterne and 1760s swag

If wearing exercise clothing can subconsciously inspire you to hit the gym, why can’t your finest attire inspire literary greatness?

When Laurence Sterne was hit with the block in the 18th century, he quickly shaved off his beard, changed his shirt and coat, sent for a “better wig,” put on his topaz ring, and dressed “after his best fashion.”

So, dress for success. Or something like that.

Jonathan Franzen and sensory deprivation

To tune out noisy distractions, most people turn off the TV; Jonathan Franzen sound-proofs his brain. He actually wears noise-canceling headphones over earplugs and listens to pink noise while he writes. And if you thought that was a little much, he also disables games on his computer and seals the ethernet port. When working on The Corrections, he even wrote blindfolded.

These tactics are extreme, but if it meant selling millions of novels, most writers wouldn’t just work blindfolded, they’d probably trade away their eyesight altogether.

Roald Dahl and cocooning

When writing children’s classics The BFG and Matilda, Roald Dahl brought out his inner child. He would climb into a cozy sleeping bag before penning his masterpieces. And then, as Dahl’s biographer described, the routine turned oddly technical: “He steps into a sleeping bag, pulls it up to his waist and settles himself in a faded wing-backed armchair. His feet he rests on a battered traveling case full of logs. This is roped to the legs of the armchair so it’s always at a perfect distance.”

So whether you want to change a wig or live in a sleeping bag, just know great writers seem to have their own weird ways that help get creative juices flowing. You may be shaking your head now (since you don’t have to worry about your wig falling off), but if one of these methods becomes the key to your editorial success, you can always thank us later.

Image by Harold P. Matosian
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