Advice from Stephen King, Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami and Others on Overcoming Writer’s Block

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Stuck again, huh? We’ve all been there—words dangling in our mind like ripe fruit out of reach, leaving us and the page empty. Some call this a bad case of writer’s block, but in fact, I am writing with a “block” right now.

A blank page isn’t a symptom of this cliché literary disease—it is the result of a bad idea or at least an idea that the writer couldn’t give a damn about. Not all writing needs to change the world, and a sentence doesn’t always have to have a clear destination, but it must have strong impulse, pointing us toward something worth paying attention to: An idea, a concept, a feeling. Without conviction, why write at all? 

Writing can be a brave act, but for me, writing isn’t about overcoming a fear of failure—it is driven by it. Fear demands me to be more precise and befittingly provocative. Fear questions the core of my assumptions and ideas. Fear compels me to make sure I am getting it right and my reader leaves with that “Aha! ”moment. Fear is everything, but for fear to work as an ally, you must have the willingness to move forward. Ideas don’t gestate properly if the mind isn’t whirring.

So how do you jump-start a stalled brain? Some suggest reading as many books as possible to fill the gas tank. Others find that a nice, brisk walk on a summer day is enough to spark creativity. Whatever you have been told—or not told—a good place to find some inspiration is from a trusted source: Famous writers. 

Haruki Murakami: Build a Routine and Stick by It

Murakami’s voice on the page is so enthralling and beloved because it unfurls like a dream—enigmatic and subjective, yet uncannily familiar to us. His wandering prose frays the line between reality and the mythical, rendering anything and everything possible. 


So how do you craft such magical writing out of thin air? Surprisingly, all it might take is a simple daily routine to get yourself into that mental state. In an interview with the Paris Review in 2004, Murakami disclosed his regimen:


When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for 1,500 meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9 p.m.


I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

The repetition itself becomes the important thing.

- Haruki Murakami

James Baldwin: Edit, Edit, Edit!

James Baldwin was a polemic force, untethered to agenda and bullshit. It is why he is one of history’s greatest writers, producing some of the most gripping and transformative works in the history of black literature and the American canon, like If Beale Street Could Talk and Notes of a Native Son. 


As writers, the first draft can be a difficult creation to reckon with. No one wants to kill their darling, but decluttering our prose is essential to great writing. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1984, Jordan Elgrably asks Baldwin, "What are your first drafts like?"

Baldwin’s answer is a sharp reminder that keen editing and “show, don't tell” are two of the most useful techniques we have at our disposal. 

[My first drafts] are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers—take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.

- James Baldwin

Zadie Smith: Approach Your Writing as a Reader First

Stylistically fluid, Zadie Smith can adjust her fresh, witty voice to suit any genre. Not only is she a brilliant essayist who contributes regularly to editorials in publications such as The Guardian and The New Yorker, but she has also penned five critically acclaimed novels: White Teeth, The Autograph ManOn BeautyThe Embassy of Cambodia and Swing Time

Sometimes you might have an idea that you just can’t seem to make work on the page. Luckily, Zadie Smith has some profound insight on the matter:  

The secret to editing your work is simple: You need to become its reader instead of its writer.

- Zadie Smith

Toni Morrison: Failure Is a Natural Part of Life

Trying to write about the "new," or at least the grossly unspoken, can be difficult. The "new" can be treated unfairly and unkindly, rendered a failure when it deserves a great deal of praise. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison has spent her entire career writing from the fringes, championing the "new" in its many forms. 

"Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place to write from," she told The New Yorker, "It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it.” Morrison has never pulled her punches, and we can learn a thing or two from her perseverance and self-pride. 

As a writer, failure is just information. It is data, it is information and knowledge of what does not work. That’s rewriting and editing.

- Toni Morrison

Patti Smith: Push Through the Pain

Poet, singer, author, photographer…


Patti Smith is a rock-’n’-roll, New York Fucking City legend. That kind who...








Coming to Manhattan with nothing to her name at 21 years old, Smith is the embodiment of the hustle.


So grab a pen. 


Take notes. 


Learn to fight for your writing.

Sometimes I pretend I’m a prisoner and if I don’t write my one line I’ll be condemned to solitary confinement. Discipline is a beautiful thing.

- Patti Smith

George Orwell: Trim the Fat

Orwellian writing isn’t just about crafting stories about dystopian worlds. It aims to be concise, to the point and purposeful. 


In his essay “Politics of the English Language,” George Orwell shares his aversion for “meaningless words,” “pretentious diction” and “dying metaphors.”


Everyone has opinions of what constitutes good writing, but his six tenets have become holy scripture for all aspiring writers, serving as an elementary guidepost for how to formulate clear, powerful prose:


  1. Never use a metaphor, similor another figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific woror a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house

- George Orwell

Stephen King: Become a Bibliophile

Are you about to claim that you are a “prolific” writer on your Facebook bio? Don’t bother. Stephen King will put you to shame.


Have you written 58 novels yet? Sold more than 350 million copies? Penned over 200 short stories? Didn’t think so. So how do you become the next King?


Maybe that is too unrealistic of an ambition, but if you listen to some of his advice, you might get a little bit closer to completing that novel you’ve been dreaming of writing for years.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: Read a lot and write a lot

- Stephen King
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