Tag Archives: overcoming writer’s block

When creativity fails #amwriting

Every writer has moments when creativity fails them. We sit before our computer and the words refuse to come, or when they do, they seem awkward. At times like this, we feel alone and isolated. After all, an idea is jammed in our head and words should fall from our fingers like water from the tap.

I have suffered this, the same as every author does. However, it never gets too firm a grip on me because I have several exercises that help me write my way through the block. Something we sometimes forget is that the act of writing every day builds mental muscle tone and keeps you fit and in the habit of writing.

Every author suffers a dry spell now and then. Even so, this job requires us to practice, just like music or dancing. Doing well at anything artistic or sports related requires discipline. Just like a retired football player, when we stop writing for any reason, we lose our momentum and our purpose.

We lose our passion.

If you are in the middle of a manuscript and you lose your ability to go forward, save the file and close it. Walk away from that manuscript for a while.

Before we go any further, you must delete nothing. You will come back to your manuscript later with a fresh viewpoint and will be able to use some or all of it, so file it properly.

Occasionally, we get distracted by a different project that wants to be written. When that is the case, I always suggest you go ahead and work on the project that is on your mind. Let that creative energy flow, and you will eventually be able to become reconnected with the first project.

But what about those times when you need to write, you have to write, but the words won’t come? Trust me, it isn’t the end of your career. This is true writers’ block.

First, we have the element of fear to overcome. You are suddenly afraid that you have written everything good that you will ever write, and anything you write now is garbage.

It isn’t the end of everything. You will prove to yourself that you can write. This is a small exercise, very short. It should take you perhaps ten or fifteen minutes each day. My solution for this problem is a combination of mind-wandering and a a few simple writing exercises.

I got the idea for this while in a seminar on the craft of writing essays offered by the bestselling author of Blackbird, Jennifer Lauck.

In that class, Jennifer gave us prompts and asked us to write to them. I have never been good at writing to someone else’s prompts. My ideas don’t flow that way. To make it worse, we were going to have to share them with someone else in the class.

I felt panicky, terrified I wouldn’t be able to write, and would embarrass myself. My mind was blank.

When I saw what Jennifer’s prompt was, it occurred to me that I could do that. I had one of those bolt-of-lightning moments, a tangent to nowhere that didn’t pertain to her class. But it seemed important so I wrote it down. When I got home, I pondered a little more about it and put my thoughts into a short essay.

In that class, I realized that most of the time, writer’s block is a result of not being able to visualize what you want to write about. If you can’t visualize it, you can’t articulate it.

It hits us in two stages, two emotions that are so closely related, it feels like one horrible emotion.

  1. If you can’t visualize it, you can’t describe it. This can create a brief flash of panic.
  2. Once you have experienced that moment of complete inability, fear that it will happen again magnifies the problem until it paralyzes us.

This is the writing prompt Jennifer Lauck used as the first exercise in her class:

  1. Open a new document. At the top of this document type: Where I Am Today:

This is going to be a literal interpretation and description of your surroundings:

  • Look around you and see the place where you are.
  • Briefly describe the environment you are sitting in, what you see.
  • Describe how you feel sitting in that place.

Just give it two or three paragraphs. For me, sitting here at this moment and writing this post, it runs like this:

I sit in the small third bedroom of my home. It’s my office, a cluttered storeroom, known here as the Room of Shame. A cup of cooling coffee sits beside my elbow, as does my cell phone. My desk holds many books on the craft of writing and also my computer.  

Stacks of cardboard boxes filled with things that were, at one time, deemed important to keep, surround me. Filing cabinets full of legal papers, tax forms, and research take up space, all stuffed with the debris of our business life.

I could easily clean this space. It would take no time at all, perhaps a day at most. It’s a mountain I put off climbing.

See? At the end of this exercise, you have written a small short story.

But, more importantly, you have written the setting for a scene. Those paragraphs are around 120 words and are nothing special. But they were words and I wrote them, which keeps my mind functioning in a writing mode.

  1. For your next exercise, go somewhere else and take your notebook. Write three more paragraphs detailing what you are looking at, and how you fit into it, and how it makes you feel.

You could do that on your porch, in a coffee shop, or the parking lot at the supermarket, but go away from your normal writing space. Just write a few paragraphs about the space you have come to, what you see, and what you sense.

The third exercise is more abstract:

  1. Where do you want to be? Visualize and describe it the same way as you described the places you could see, a few short paragraphs. For me, I want to be flying my kite on Cannon Beach.

Your practice work is for your eyes alone. No one has to see it if you don’t want to share it.

If you do these three exercises at the same time every day, describing the environments and your perceptions in a different space each time, even when you have nothing to say that is worth reading, you are writing.

It’s a weird thing but writing about nothing in particular is like doodling. It is a form of mind-wandering. It can jar your creative mind loose. With perseverance, you will be writing your other work again.

The important thing is to write every day, even if it is only a few paragraphs. These are the exercises that work for me and which I recommend for working through writer’s block.

Remember, if you are suffering from a temporary dry spell, you are not alone. We all go through those times. When you want to talk about it, you will find friends here.

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#amwriting:  therapy to get you writing through the block

We’ve all had moments where our creativity failed us. We had an idea, but couldn’t make it real—the words wouldn’t come, or when they did they felt stilted, awful. We felt incredibly alone and isolated in this because we are writers; the words are supposed to fall from our fingers like water down Niagara Falls.

I have learned to write my way through the block. Yes, the work I produce at that moment is awful, and no, I wouldn’t show it to the dog. But the act of writing every day keeps you fit and in the habit of writing. This job requires us to practice, as if it were dancing or ice-skating. And, just like any sport, doing well at it requires discipline. When we stop writing for any reason, we lose our momentum and our purpose.

We lose our passion.

When you have come to a place where you believe you can’t write, save the file, close it, and walk away from that manuscript. Delete nothing. You will come back to this later and will be able to use some or all of it, so file it properly.

Sometimes, the problem is that your mind has seen a shiny thing, a different project that wants to be written. If that is the case, my advice is this: work on the project that is on your mind. Let that creative energy flow, and you will eventually be able to become reconnected with the first project.

writers-block-smallBut what about those times when you need to write, you have to write, but the words won’t come? I think of it like having a sports injury: Dr. Jasperson has diagnosed you with a sprained-brain. (Did she really write that? Insert groans here.)

Seriously, I have some physical therapy for your bruised writing-muscles.

First, we have the fear factor to overcome. You need to be able to prove to yourself that you can write. This is a small exercise, very short, and I got the idea for this while in a seminar on the craft of writing essays offered by the bestselling author of Blackbird, Jennifer Lauck. As I was sitting in her class and embarking on the writing drills for structuring your essay, I had one of those bolt-of-lightning moments, a tangent to nowhere, as it didn’t pertain to essays, but it seemed important so I wrote it down.

What had happened was, Jennifer gave us prompts and asked us to write to them. I have never been good at writing to someone else’s prompts. My ideas don’t flow that way. To make it worse, we were going to have to share them with someone else in the class.

I never share work that hasn’t been revised. it might not seem as perfect to you as believe it is, but it has been revised and is the best I could offer. I felt panicky, terrified I wouldn’t be able to write, and would embarrass myself. My mind was blank.

But then, I saw what Jennifer’s prompt was, and it occurred to me that I could do that.

When I read the prompt and had that “I can do this” moment, I realized that most of the time, writer’s block is a result of not being able to visualize what you want to write about, and if you can’t visualize it, you can’t describe it. Once you have experienced that moment of complete inability, fear of not being able to write magnifies the problem until it paralyzes us.

So, I am offering you the same writing prompt Jennifer Lauck used as the first exercise in her class:

  1. Open a new document. At the top of this document type: Where I Am Today:

This is going to be a literal interpretation and description of your surroundings. Look around you, and see the place where you are. Briefly describe the environment you are sitting in, what you see, and then describe how you feel sitting in that place. Just give it two or three paragraphs.

For me, sitting here at this moment on a Sunday morning and writing this post, it runs like this:

I sit in the small, third bedroom of my home. It’s technically my office, but is, in reality, a cluttered storeroom, known here as the Room of Shame. A glass of water sits beside my elbow, as does my cell phone. My desk holds numerous books on the craft of writing and my computer.  

Two clear plastic bins containing books and paraphernalia organized to take to book signings are stacked beside the door. I prop my feet on a large bookshelf stuffed with books, so full the shelves have bowed. Stacks of cardboard boxes filled with things that were, at one time, deemed important to keep, surround me. Filing cabinets full of legal papers, tax forms, and research also take up space, all stuffed with the debris of our business life.

The desk is not my friend. The sliding keyboard shelf is broken on the left side, hanging at a slight angle. I work with a broken desk, despite the large box which contains my new desk, which leans against the closet behind me. That dusty box has been there for six months or more, unopened.

I could easily clean this space, and set up my desk. It would take no time at all, perhaps a day at most. It’s a mountain I put off climbing.

See? At the end of this exercise, you have written a drabble, a small short story. But, more importantly, you have written the setting for a scene. Those paragraphs are around 216 words and are nothing special. Nor were the words I wrote in the seminar, but I felt good about writing them because I had been given a task that had at first left me feeling helpless and unable to do it: writing to a prompt. However, in that class, because it was a simple, non-threatening thing, I was able to accomplish it, and I felt empowered.

So, now we are going to gently rebuild our damaged writing muscles.

  1. For your next exercise, go somewhere else and take your notebook. Write three more paragraphs detailing what you are looking at, and how you fit into it, and how it makes you feel.

You could do this at the mall, sitting in a coffee shop, or the parking lot at the supermarket.  Or you can do what I am doing: sit on your porch and write a few paragraphs about the space you are in, what you see, and what you sense.

My back porch is quiet, and the day is gray. Rain is falling softly. Just beyond the auto repair shop’s parking lot, and the coffee stand, glimpsed between the conical cypress trees, the sounds of the highway are muted. One of the neighbors has let their dog out without a leash, and the free-range cats are disturbed by it. The scent of sodden vegetation is fresh and speaks of autumn.

The third exercise is more abstract:

  1. Where do you want to be? Visualize it, and describe it the same way as you described the places you could see. For me, that runs like this:

I want to be on a foggy beach, walking along the high-tide mark. I want to hear the gulls and sh-shing of the waves. I want to feel at peace again.

gear-brain-clip-art-smallIf you do these three exercises at the same time every day, describing the environments and your perceptions in a different space each time, even when you have nothing to say that is worth reading, you are writing. With perseverance, you will be writing your other work again. The important thing is to write even if it is only a few paragraphs. This is the physical therapy I recommend for overcoming writer’s block.

Just like an athlete recovering from an injury, you must gradually rebuild your confidence, strengthen your writing muscles, and regain your writing work ethic.  You need to empower your creativity for it to flow.

As I said, this how my mind works. If you are suffering a dry spell, give these exercises try, as you have nothing to lose. I hope that when these exercises are no longer painful, you will be able to write again.

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