“All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?” – Philip Pullman
Have you ever found yourself in front of a computer wanting to chip away at that writing project? Or you would like to get somewhere with that book that you have been meaning to write? But nothing comes out. Zilch. Nada.
Well, since I am writing a blog post after a while, first let me begin by saying that I am sorry dear readers for not writing something for so long.
I was not exactly having a writer’s block but as the saying goes that life is what happens when we are busy making plans.
What better way to get back on the writing bandwagon than to write a post on the dreaded “stage fright” of writers. The awful writer’s block whether you believe in it or not may take many forms like fear, perfectionism or “I am too busy.”
We are going to tackle this unwelcome friend of writers block from many different angles. Since you know me well by now, or at least getting to know the blog, that I usually do not sign off without going into some psychology. So here we go…pen meets life meets psychology meets Launchyourgenius.
“Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper not eternal bronze: Let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes.” – Jacques Barzun
1. Write about Something
“Writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all” ― Charles Bukowski, The Last Night of the Earth Poems
The great choreographer Twyla Tharp calls this process getting a toehold. You need to hold on to something, a prompt or a small inspiration to move forward.
Often, we do not feel the little nudge and we let out creativity slip away to time and months and years. But every creative writer knows that they need to write something, and habitfy (is that even a word?) that process.
So when you are down in the doldrums and stuck, get the pen to the paper or keyboard to screen in writing about something that you enjoy. Remind yourself why you are in the business of writing in the first place, because you love to write. Or you thought so!
Writing more adds to the famous 10k hours of practice to mastery. It also strengthens further the neural networks and connections that predispose you to writing.
So, win-win is write-write. Well, you get the idea!
“I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.” — Barbara Kingsolver
2. Get Your Mind off Writing for a Little While
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” ― Hilary Mantel
You may be thinking: What? What do you say? Stop writing for a bit? How will that help?
Often we have writer’s block because we try too hard to write. The routines that are so important for the creative process become traps of obligation.
We can try what is called the three B’s of creativity or The Bed, Bath and the Bus. All the B’s are relaxing and refocusing activities that can renew our mind and get us over writing blocks.
What are some creative ways that you can take your mind off writing and get the creative juices to flow again?
Take a walk and clear your mind.
Do something mindless like sweeping your room or sorting some old stuff.
Take a little reading sabbatical and catch up on that fictional book you so long to read.
Whatever your method of reconnecting to writing, remember that routines work well most of the time. But we need to realize that we need to do something else to refresh that tired mind of ours and get back into the writing anew.
“Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.” – Paul Rudnick
3. Take Your Self Judgement and Let it go
“All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line. That’s why privacy is so important. You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone.” ― Erica Jong, The New Writer’s Handbook 2007: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft and Career
One of the biggest reasons why writers have blocks is because they can live constantly in the fear of the critic.
And who is the biggest critic in your life? I would not be surprised if you say the answer is yourself.
In any case, remember that the perceived idea of good work might be preventing you to do any work at all in writing.
So why give the critics so much power especially when you know that there will always be haters and critics to your work?
4. Reconnect to Your Higher Goals and Purpose
“Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: “Fool!” said my muse to me, “look in thy hearst, and write.” ― Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella
Ask yourself these deceptively simple but highly effective questions:
Why are you writing?
What is your purpose?
How do you see yourself as a writer in 6 months, 1 year, 5 years and 10 years?
What brought you into writing in the first place?
5. Begin Right Away
“Don’t waste time waiting for inspiration. Begin, and inspiration will find you.” ― H. Jackson Brown Jr.
Like the ancient chinese proverb goes that the last best time to plant a tree was years ago but the next best time to plant it is right now.
The power of the present moment is often lost on many of us, myself included. This happens when I am excessively focused on the past or planning for the future.
Let me ask you this: Are you thinking and working from how the past was or do you wait for the perfect opportunity to begin writing.
The time is never right for you? The past and the future are cozy writer’s block traps that I sometimes fall into. But the real deal is right now.
How am I engaging this moment, this hour, and this day towards better writing and towards my writing goals?
Answer that reprioritizing question and you may quickly find yourself off social media and on to writing.
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”- Mark Twain
6. Restrict your Choices for Writing
“Restrictions create breeding grounds for creativity.”-Mark Rosewater
I need to write something is too vague of an idea.
I need to write about a fictional story about a topic is also too vague.
But having a specific prompt like I want to describe a scene in a village and communication between people that can lead into something else is a lot more specific.
When you restrict your choices, you have a clear template to move forward.
Mark Rosewater is the lead game designer of the popular game, Magic-The gathering. Rosewater says that having rules, setting restrictions and developing frameworks is good for the creative process.
As an example, Rosewater says that you can give a writer a specific topic on even days. And allow her mind to wander freely without a topic on odd days. When given a topic and having restrictions motivates writers towards new associations and connections. However, she might revert back to what she knows when she allows her mind to freely wander in search of ideas. Counter intuitive, is it not?
7. Ask Yourself if You are a Perfectionist
“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”- Margaret Atwood
Perhaps there is no such thing as a writers block. How about if we call it writer’s perfectionism.
I know it to be true from my own experience that I did not hit send or write many times because I did not feel my work was good enough.
Of course, the simple truth is that even seasoned and famous writers allow themselves to produce mediocre first drafts. They refine their writing over time like a well-aged wine. When we know this first draft fiasco-needed for good work, we can be a bit less perfectionistic.
“I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, clichéd writing, outright flailing around. Writing that doesn’t have a good voice or any voice. But then there will be good moments. It seems writer’s block is often a dislike of writing badly and waiting for writing better to happen.” – Jennifer Egan
8. The One Simple Rule is to form a Habit of Writing
“Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.” — Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing
Research from neuroscientist Ann Graybiel’s laboratory in MIT has shown that habits are divisible into three parts.
The first component is a trigger or a cue. The second component is actions that follow the trigger. And finally, there is an eventual reward.
The best way to create a habit of writing is to have a dedicated time and space for the writing process. Set up cues or triggers that prepare you towards that writing goal.
The cue for writing could even be preparing a warm beverage like coffee or tea.
After the cue, the action of writing needs to come immediately next regardless of other time commitments.
The rewards could differ but for me the feeling of warmth and expression when I write some piece is a reward. It becomes an intrinsic motivator to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. Or you could have some external reward when you complete a certain amount of writing.
Rituals, actions and eventual rewards are important components of the process of writing. Without these components, it is easy to get lost in trying to understand what you get out of the process of writing aka a writing block.
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”-W. Somerset Maugham
“After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves — write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon — but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.”-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
9. Get into the Flow of Writing
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow states are immensely beneficial to getting through writer’s block. Flow research shows that flow states can be intrinsically rewarding. They are states that make us want to get back into them and repeat. Research also shows that flow happens under intense focus. And this means, yes you are right! No distractions.
Flow states are possible if you write at the edge of your comfort level and go into challenges. Dial up the difficulty level gradually and try to step away from your zone of comfort. When you are deep practicing at the edge of your comfort level, flow states are more likely.
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last blockon a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.” ― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
10. And Finally, Positive Persistence and Lowering Expectations
“I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent—and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.” ― Malcolm Gladwell
Make a goal of enjoying your writing even though it might torment you at times. Remember that you need to be in it for the long haul. There is not much success when you are an occasional writer. You have to commit to go the full way and for the long run.
And to do that, I will used the clichéd term persistence. I know it has been much used but today I introduce my own twist to it. Let us call it positive persistence. I know positivity is not what you feel when you are having blocks. But we have to tip the scales towards the positive side because without some positivity and hope, you will eventually give up.
Lower your insane expectations and be all right with work that does not always dazzle. Allow yourself to produce a lot of chaff and you may be surprised to find the occasional gems embedded within them. When you repeat this process, you will find your gems of writing more easily and more often.
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” – Octavia Butler