Working through Writer’s Block
It happens to the best of us: halfway through a story you lose steam; the prospect of revision hangs over your head like a cloud; the excitement over a new story fizzles before your pen can hit the page.
As a writer, I’m a huge proponent of routine, because I believe that a writing habit creates space for inspiration to arrive.
But this also means that on the days when inspiration is off hiking mountains in Hawaii or enjoying a dip in Icelandic hot springs, I have to write.
Sometimes, when I tell my clients this, they look horrified. Why, they wonder, do I “force” myself to write when I don’t feel like it?
“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club” – Jack London
Before we go any further, I do want to say that when it comes to writing, it helps to know thyself. If you do well writing in short, concentrated bursts of fierce inspiration, that’s awesome.
For the rest of us, who either make a career from writing, or who aim to, or who feel frustrated with long bouts away from the page, or who are endlessly stuck in a holding pattern or writer’s block, this post aims to provide some ideas about how to keep going, even when you don’t really feel like it.
Some Tricks I’ve Picked up over the Years
When I’m really flailing, I pick up a craft book. Not with any particular intention, but just to let my brain switch gears. Sometimes reading up on plot can help you realize what yours is lacking. Sometimes another writer’s perspective on “round” characters might help you see how yours are flat. Oftentimes, when we’re stuck, it’s because our inner perfectionist is planted firmly in the middle of the road, blocking all through traffic. Sometimes, you just have to assuage her. Learn more about what you’re doing! You don’t necessarily need to apply it at the very moment you learn it. But the more you know, the more you’ll be able to work through any snags. I’ve got a list of craft books I love here. And another one that I return to again and again that isn’t craft related but is helpful nonetheless is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It’s full of short, clear, funny chapters with lots of no-nonsense advice on how to stick it out.
Every “get out of that rut” list I’ve ever made, for myself and for others, has included this piece of advice. Go for a walk. Sit on your front stoop. Stick your feet in a brook. Listen to the squirrels chatter. Watch birds swoop. Lie in the grass. Take a hike. Etc. Etc. Etc. Bonus points if you leave your phone inside while you do it. Fresh air and new scenery has a way of opening up the brain. Sometimes our blocks come from too much force—i.e., trying to hard—so give it a rest. Almost any knotty writing issue I’ve ever had has been solved by a walk.
Allow “Doors to Nowhere”
My family has a ski house in Vermont that has a random door in the third-floor loft. It is always bolted, and as kids, my brother and I would stare out it, wondering why it existed. (It was meant to have a deck built off it, which has yet to happen.) When I was 27, I moved into an attic apartment that had a random door in the kitchen. Again, it was always bolted, I was given no key, and beyond being a nice way to let some more light in, it had no real purpose. Sometimes, the things you write will be doors to nowhere. There will be possibility in them, but no real purpose. That’s okay. You should still write them. Sometimes you close and lock those doors and throw away the key. Other times, decades later, you’ll dig out that key, open the door, and build a deck, which you wouldn’t have thought to do, if that door didn’t exist.
Try a prompt.
I’m not a huge fan of prompts, mostly because they usually lead to throw away writing, but when you’re really stuck in it, and nothing else it working, and you’re beating yourself up as a worthless failure, just getting some words down on the page can shake loose whatever’s got you in its grip. The 3 a.m. Epiphany is great; a quick Google search will also do the trick.
Go big or go small (aka Switch it up)
If you’re a fiction writer, pen a poem. If you’re all essays all the time, how about a flash fiction piece? Mired in a plot problem? Refocus your lens on scene details. Got a character who’s giving you trouble? Take a look at your story arc. Revisions got your brain spinning? Write something brand new. I notice that I have a tendency spin out when I try to stay focused too long on any one thing. Give yourself a break, without actually breaking from writing. You never know what answers might appear to you when you shift your focus a little bit.
In the End
Sometimes, no matter what you do, the writing just won’t come. I’ve learned, in these situations, that unless I’m on a deadline, it’s good to give yourself a break. Take a day, or a week, and don’t write. Keep a notebook handy for those little ideas that are bound to pop into your brain, but don’t force anything. Just rest. And then, refreshed, return to the page. Writing, like anything else, ebbs and flows, and regardless of how stuck you feel, the words will return.
In a long-term rut and wondering what else there is to do? How about working with a writing coach? I’m currently taking on clients, and would love to talk more with you about your projects and how to get the words flowing again! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up a time to chat!