I don’t recall ever suffering from ‘writer’s block’, in the same way that I don’t think I’ve been bored since I was about 7. There always seems to be too much to do, and certainly too much to write about. But I’ve observed plenty of this phenomenon in others and studied the matter. So here I offer some suggested remedies for the situation in which you simply hit a ‘wall’ and cannot move forward with a piece of writing. Most of these remedies can be found in some form elsewhere, though here they get a unique twist.
1. Write in short bursts.
This won’t help if you are stuck in the middle of writer’s block right now, but to avoid the problem altogether, try to avoid writing in massive marathon stints. Just as with an athletic sport, a writer has a ‘stamina’ which needs to be maintained, and the best way to keep up one’s strength is to tackle the job in short bursts. Write for 20 minutes or half and hour, then stop and check social media, make a cup of tea, gaze out of the window, even read another book or a newspaper for a few minutes. Then launch back into the writing. This short burst approach keeps you ‘grounded’ in the environment in which you’re writing. This might sound counter-intuitive - surely you’re trying to escape your environment while writing? But the imagination needs to be ‘earthed’ like an electrical wire. Stopping writing and then starting again is a regime which can be kept up for hours and hours - you’ll find yourself getting more done!
2. Do something else creative.
If you’re really stuck, try drawing a picture, or write a poem, or go and build something outside. Similar to the point above, the imagination is like a muscle - if you keep on using the same part of the muscle over and over, it will get strained and become immobile. Using a different part of the muscle by doing something else imaginative helps to build up your overall strength. When you go back to writing you’ll feel refreshed, stronger and more able to carry on.
3. Write anything, without worrying about punctuation or correct spelling.
Another explanation for writer’s block is that it is a build up or accumulation of you stopping yourself, grinding to a halt to correct spelling, punctuation, grammar or other details. Instead of flow, flow, flow, your writing becomes stop, stop, stop. This is tiring and eventually adds up to a complete halt. To tackle this, write freely, putting words down at random about anything, not necessarily the piece you’re working on. Change the subject many times. Write a rant about something that happened recently that you didn’t like or disagreed with. Jot down a commentary on current events. After usually only a short while, you have ‘limbered up’ enough to proceed. And then from that point on, write larger chunks of work before you start to self-edit - your writing morale will come up.
4. Go for a long walk.
This has at least three benefits: the first is that the exercise that your body probably needs anyway will get your circulation going and revitalise parts of you that you may have forgotten you had; the second is that your attention, normally fixated while you’re writing to a point about a foot to two feet in front of you, will be extended outward, to the scenery around you, to moving and still objects, to other people, other activities that you will see. This will have the effect of refreshing you mentally.
The third benefit is that if you have gone on a long walk, well away from your computer or writing desk, you will be unable to continue to write for a little while. By the time you get about two thirds of the way round your walk, you will probably be desperate to get back to the task of writing - one or two or more ideas may have occurred to you and you may want to jot them down before you forget - exactly the frame of mind you need to break through any block.
5. Go to war on interruptions and distractions.
This is similar to point 3 above, in that you’ve probably had so many distractions and interruptions that you haven’t been able to get a momentum going. External interruptions have added themselves up to an internal blockage. Attack the situation by removing any phones, email connections or family members from the area (this is often more easily done by taking yourself and your writing out of the area). Blitz your writing for about two hours, and you will probably find that you have clambered over the wall that you built for yourself and are ready to continue.
6. Leave your writing overnight - and keep a notepad by your bed.
Studies have been done showing that when a person is on the verge of sleep, some of the most creative parts of his or her mind are at their most active. It is as though during the day, our attention is ‘anchored’ to the day-to-day affairs with which we must all deal - health issues, domestic duties, family concerns, work tasks and so forth. Try as we might, the fact that it is daytime means that our brains find it difficult to ‘de-couple’ and free up enough attention to think imaginatively. But, as we lie in bed ready to drift off to sleep, our brains begin to disconnect from all the paraphernalia of daily existence and go into a kind of ‘free association mode’.
In fact, if you’re having trouble sleeping, this can also help: try loosely connecting one idea or image in your mind with something that it is no way connected logically, like a banana with the Crab Nebula, or sausages with Polynesian furniture. Maintain this for a few minutes, keeping the subject matter light, and you will daydream off towards sleep. But for storytellers, this can be the most creative time of the day. As you lie there with your eyes closed, start to introduce elements of your story, perhaps from scenes other than the one you got stuck in, and let them play out in your mind. Often snatches of dialogue appear, or subtle imagery, or an entirely unsuspected piece of character development.
If you feel that you might forget what you’ve just thought up, jot it down in note form on a pad by your bedside and take it up in the morning.
Try some of these next time you have a problem, and let me know what happens.