Typewriters, laptops, and notebooks all have two things in common: they serve writers and they can smell fear.
You’re trucking along, writing like a pro, and then chapter six rolls around and suddenly you have the urge to clean the apartment from top to bottom. In fact, every little task you’ve been ignoring suddenly seems like a great idea because for some reason, you’ve lost the ability to put one word after another. This quasi-productivity is accompanied by feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and internal stagnation. You’re afraid to even say those fated words, “writer’s block,” because they feel like a life sentence.
Honey, have a tissue. We’ve all been there. And while some writers look at writer’s block as that virus the doctor can’t give you anything for and tells you to let run its course, I beg to differ. When your car won’t start, you don’t sit in the driver’s seat and wait for it to start on its own; you get under the hood and see what’s going on. Try these five strategies for beating writer’s block that don’t involve tearfully cooking all the food in your pantry:
1. Change your thinking.
Inspiration isn’t some magical well that arbitrarily decides whether or not to allow you to write; it’s a pump you have to prime. Writing is a choice.
Oh, I know. Sometimes the story chooses you and sometimes your characters wake you up in the middle of the night, but those are just quirks of being a writer. A temporary lack of inspiration is not a cosmic sign you should stop. You’ve got a good thing going. You just have to believe that until you feel it again.
If you’re panicking about the deadline, remember that Mozart wrote the prelude to Don Giovanni the night before it premiered. Block out your inner drill sergeant and give yourself a break. You’ll get it done, and forcing it isn’t going to help.
2. Take care of you.
If you feel so stuck that you don’t know what to do, take a break. Walk away, watch Netflix, talk to a human being, and take care of your basic needs. Try to do something active; many writers I know think better when they’ve gotten their blood pumping. I like long walks for the fresh air and change of scenery, so I’d start with that. Please don’t kill yourself by overachieving.
Many of us burn the midnight oil when we’re on a roll, but an exhausted writer is an invitation for an editor’s red pen. If you’ve been awake for the past 36 hours, for the love of God, get some rest.
3. Circumvent the problem.
So you’re back at your computer, having just completed step 2. If you skipped step 2, go back, you cheater. I’ll wait.
Now you’re ready to try again, but that stupid blinking cursor is already mocking you. My friends, it’s simple logic: if what you’re doing isn’t getting you anywhere, it’s time to try something else. If you’ve been staring at the same page for over twenty minutes and felt nothing but fear, stop. Scroll up and find the last place you really felt good about what you were doing and were feeling the momentum. What changed between there and here?
When I hit this point, it almost always means I’ve lost my sense of direction. Some writers can just throw stuff on the page until magic happens, but if you’re reading this list, chances are that isn’t working for you. Open a new document – or turn to a new page, whatever it is you do – and free-write. Journal. Talk to yourself about how you’re feeling and what you think is missing. You’ll be surprised what you tell yourself.
If you’re more of a visual person and your stories play in your head like a movie, make a playlist for your story and either lay on the floor or do a mindless task until the movie starts up again. We all like to turn up the movie soundtracks and be melodramatic, so sit back and let your characters just play. Chances are you’ll stumble across a nugget of gold.
4. Taunt your muse.
If you’re still stuck, work on something else. Come on, you’re a writer; I know you’ve got too many irons in the fire at once like the rest of us. So dig out that story you haven’t touched since last November or dust off your poetry-writing skills. Chances are, using a different part of your brain will allow the part you’ve been using to relax, and eventually the ideas will start flowing again.
That, or the characters who’ve been defying you will come back because they’re jealous of the attention you’re giving another story. Either way, it’s a win.
5. Give it time.
Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you have to be in the zone all the time. Nobody could function like that, so let yourself be more than just a writer. Go out and live, then come back and channel your thoughts on the page. Your writing is on “pause,” not “stop.” When the inspiration hits you like lightning, you’ll be ready. So just throw a notebook in your bag, relax, and let it come.
That’s it. Dry your eyes, little writer. Soon you’ll be trucking along like before, but now you have the tools you need if you ever get stuck again.
Happy writing, and if your characters can’t behave, may they at least give you an interesting story to tell.
Speaking of writing, don’t forget to submit your poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction, photography, and visual arts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sequel 2017-2018 is accepting submissions until November 15th!
--Gina Reiman, '18