Ayn Rand’s Advice for Conquering Writer’s Block

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More than a hundred years ago, a nine-year-old girl in Russia named Alissa Rosenbaum decided she wanted to become a writer.

After defecting to the US from the Soviet Union in 1926, Rosenbaum changed her name to Ayn Rand and starting penning novels. In 1943 she published The Fountainhead, which quickly became a bestseller and made her famous.

Remarkably, it took Rand another 13 years until she published Atlas Shrugged, her second (and last) novel, before she turned her attention toward writing nonfiction books and articles about the philosophical system she created, Objectivism.

As she describes in The Art of Nonfiction, an edited collection of lectures she gave on the craft of writing, part of the reason why it took so long to finish her second novel is because she often suffered from severe bouts of writer’s block. It’s an affliction she calls the “squirms”:

“The ‘squirms’ is a term coined by my husband, Frank, for a state of writing which is universal. It describes the following situation: you are writing, and suddenly, on a given sequence or chapter, you find yourself completely paralyzed mentally. This strikes at unexpected moments.

My husband called this the squirms simply by watching my behavior…It is probably the worst experience, psychologically, that I know of. But when you solve the squirms, it loses all reality and the final result is worth the effort.”

The book offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an iconic thinker and writer of the twentieth century, one whose influence is still felt today. Reading through the book recently, I discovered several powerful nuggets of wisdom about the art and craft of writing well , tips I plan to use for conquering my own bouts of “squirms”, which I encounter from time to time.

Here’s some of Rand’s advice for writers struggling with the “squirms”:

Trust your subconscious when writing your first draft.

While Rand suggests preparing an outline before you sit down to write, when it comes to punching out your first draft, disregard  (temporarily, at least ) your rational left brain, and let your subconscious translate the ideas in your head into words on the page:

When it comes to actually writing the draft…your subconscious must be in the driver’s seat. Your conscious mind ensures that you are in focus, know what you are writing about, and are driving in the right direction. But for the execution of your purpose, you rely on your subconscious.

Stop writing, but don’t stop working on the problem.

Yes, you should trust your subconscious to help you get your first draft done. Sometimes, though, the words just don’t flow from head to paper (or computer screen). But just because your subconscious isn’t delivering the words you need at this very moment, don’t jump to your favorite time-sucking activity, advises Rand:

Solving the squirms is perhaps the most painful part of writing. You must stop writing when they occur, but continue to work on the problem…The worst thing to do is to think that since it is a subconscious problem, you can take a rest, read a book, go to the movies – and let your subconscious resolve the problem. It will not. If you take a break of that kind, you prolong the agony. And the longer you postpone the problem, the less chance you have of solving it.

The problem can be solved, but it must be done consciously. You must sit at your desk and think about it, even when you feel you do not know what to think. For an exercise in free will and will power, this is the hardest thing you can demand of yourself, but it is the only solution.

Don’t edit until the words are on the page.

For years I turned every phrase over in my mind so I could find the right combination of words, and once a sentence was on the page, I would rewrite it several times before moving on to the next sentence. Rand says this is not how you should write:

Whenever your writing comes too slowly and you have to drag it out of yourself – sentence by sentence, or word by word – the error is that you believe a sentence exists in your mind or another dimension, and you can improve it before it exists in reality. But it does not exist.

So do not edit sentences before they are on paper; and for the same reason, do not immediately start editing a sentence once it is on paper. Do not go to a dictionary, or wonder whether you should cut or add something, or whether it needs clarification. You cannot judge that until you see the total.

Finally: Don’t take it personally.

Rand offers this final morsel of moral support that should provide consolation to writers suffering from the squirms:

I know consciously that this is a technical, professional problem, and not a reflection on my self-esteem. Therefore, above all, do not take the squirms as an indication of your intelligence or writing talent or self-esteem.

So far, there is no way known to avoid the squirms. But if you view them as a professional hazard and maintain your calm in the face of them, that is also the best way to foreshorten the torture. The reward, when it comes, is worth it.