Steve Martin on Writer’s Block

From his amusing New Yorker essay, “Writing is Easy!”: “Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol…”
dog with pen He offers this advice: “Go to an already published novel and find a sentence that you absolutely adore. Copy it down in your manuscript. Usually, that sentence will lead you to another sentence, and pretty soon your own ideas will start to flow. If they don’t, copy down the next sentence in the novel. You can safely use up to three sentences of someone else’s work — unless you’re friends, then two. The odds of being found out are very slim, and even if you are there’s usually no jail time.”

13 Responses to “Steve Martin on Writer’s Block”

  1. 1 Susan @ 2KoP July 22, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    So funny. I also bet it works. I mean, you would have to delete or alter the plagiarized sentences in your final draft, but if it helps you along the way, so be it.

    I had a writing teach once who suggested that you actually type in a chapter (or two or ten) from your favorite novel so you get the feel of great writing flowing through your brain and your fingertips onto the page. I’m working on a children’s novel (grades 2-5), so I typed in the first chapter of Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary. I think it did help me get the feel and rhythm that I wanted to recreate in my story.

    Of course, that could be pure hubris talking, as my book has not been published and I’m quite sure I’m the only one who would compare it to one of Cleary’s classics.

  2. 2 eatlivetravelwrite July 23, 2009 at 5:27 am

    What a GREAT post – and so true. Sometimes it just takes a little push to get rid of that block. When I am writing academically, this is what I need to remember.

    When I am writing my blog however, I have found the best tactic is to simply post loads of pictures and then people don’t notice if you write anything!


  3. 3 stranglingmymuse July 23, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    I’ve actually done this in the past. I went through a phase many years ago of taking a line from a novel or poem and using it to start a freewriting session. These occasionally turned into stories I liked, and I did go back and change that first sentence.

    Susan, that’s a wonderful idea, getting the feel of a novel you like before you start writing. I love Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books!

    Mardi, your photos are so mouthwatering you don’t need any text! But I’d miss it — your posts are wonderful.


  4. 4 slacker-chick July 23, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    So that’s why I drink!?! I was wondering. And I think I’ll take up Mardi’s idea of posting a lot more pix that way no will notice I haven’t actually written anything — clever.


    • 5 stranglingmymuse July 23, 2009 at 5:38 pm

      If you use the technique Steve Martin mentions in the New Yorker essay, you’ll have time to write AND drink:

      “It’s easy to talk about writing, and even easier to do it. Watch:

      Call me Ishmael. It was cold, very cold here in the mountain of Kilimanjaroville. I could hear a bell. It was tolling. I knew exactly for who it was tolling, too. It was tolling for me, Ishmael Twist. [Author’s note: I am now stuck. I walk over to a rose and look into its heart.] That’s right, Ishmael Twist.

      This is an example of what I call ‘pure’ Writing, which occurs when there is no possibility of its becoming a screenplay. Pure writing is the most rewarding of all, because it is constantly accompanied by a voice that repeats, ‘Why am I writing this?’ Then, and only then, can the writer hope for his finest achievement: the voice of the reader uttering its complement, ‘Why am I reading this?'”

      By the way, Mardi is very clever…she’s even managed to get other people to write her blog while she’s on vacation. Sweet!


  5. 6 Belly Acher July 23, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    If only it were that easy to get rid of that block…

    • 7 stranglingmymuse July 23, 2009 at 5:58 pm

      It’s different for everyone (one of my pet peeves: people who hold forth on the FACTS about how to write, how to plot a story, how to be creative…news flash: there are no rules when it comes to creativity!! Rules and facts are antithetical to the creative process…)

      Okay, I’ll end the rant and start over: It’s different for everyone, but I find that, for me, shaking things up in various ways gets the creative juices flowing again. Starting with someone else’s sentence is one way. Writing in an unfamiliar form is another. A lot of the techniques I talk about in this blog have helped me regain my writing mojo when it seems lost. Another thing that works for me is just writing for 10 or 15 minutes, anything at all. No pressure. Like “I don’t know what to write, I’m a terrible writer, I don’t know what to write…” over and over. If I make myself fulfill the entire 10-15 minutes, sometimes a good sentence or paragraph sneaks in. And if it doesn’t, I do it all over again the next day. Kind of like priming a pump…


  6. 8 Vegas Linda Lou July 23, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Great post! How brilliant is Steve Martin??? If you haven’t yet read his memoir, Born Standing Up, run out and get it. You’ll be in for a treat!

  7. 9 stranglingmymuse July 23, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Thanks Linda! I love Steve Martin — he’s brilliant as a writer, a comedian and an actor. And has remained brilliant for decades, which I find unusual and admirable. I haven’t read his memoir, but I saw a few of his promotional interviews when it came out, and he told some hilarious stories. If I decide I can wedge one more book into my apartment, I’ll run out and get it this week!


  8. 10 Chris July 24, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    this made me laugh so much. it’s totally true about drinking.

    • 11 stranglingmymuse July 24, 2009 at 1:31 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Chris. Checked out your website — I like people who make up new words. The old ones can be so boring sometimes.

  9. 12 notepple July 24, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    that is a great tip. Somebody could start a novel where somebody twists each sentence or adds onto it. this would make a chain of awesome and creativity. Interested?

    • 13 stranglingmymuse July 25, 2009 at 4:38 pm

      Hey notepple, that’s a great idea. I’m currently creating a “Readers’ Sandbox” area in this blog where people can post their own bursts of creativity and read each other’s work. One of the sandbox sections will be devoted to interactive writing. That would be a good place for the novel you’re talking about (or maybe a short story?)

      Why don’t you start a story with a sentence/paragraph and explain how other people should add on to it? I’ll participate and encourage readers to do the same.


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