Bust The Block
Strategies For Defeating Writer’s Block That Are All (Mostly) Guaranteed
This article is a supplement to previously published “Horizontal Thinking: Generating Ideas That Go Nowhere To Make Room For The Better Ideas.” Both deal with strategies for tackling Writers’ Block, and I recommended reading them together to develop a new toolbox.
Everyone, at some point or another in their writing career, runs into writers’ block. It’s a dreaded feeling. Like creeping doom. The sudden realization that there is nowhere to run. Or, write, rather. Or maybe you have the itch to write something new, and the creativity faucet is stopped up. You stare at manuscript pages, and yet nothing seems to materialize.
Let’s discuss some methods for dealing with writers’ block, and how to generate new ideas. Some of them you may be familiar with, while hopefully others offer a fresh approach. The first exercise I want to offer has less to do with creating more ideas, and more to do with making space for them.
Our brains get pretty cluttered with all of the new-fangled distractions we now jam into them. Do you remember the olden times, in the long long ago, when you had to defragment your computer? And then it would run faster? What if I told you there was a way to do that with your brain?
-Disclaimer. I am a writer, not a doctor. None of what follows should be considered medical advice or treatment for psychological ailments. This is for the purpose of idea generation.-
The human mind is naturally pretty orderly and analytical. Yes, even us creative types have more organized brains than we realize. One of the best ways to restore order to your brain is by listening to classical music. Now, I know, this seems a little cheesy. And maybe a little boring. It took me a while to really give this a chance, and even longer to make a habit of it, so I’m going to start you off easy.
Here is what I want you to try. For seven days, spend twenty minutes, distraction free, listening to classical music. It can be whomever you like, just not a movie score: I recommend Bach, Massenet, or Schubert. Turn off your phone, or at least put it out of reach, shut off the tv and computer and just pay attention to the sound of the music. Listen with the same intention as though you were reading.
Dozens of University studies show that the mathematical nature of classical music helps your brain reorder itself and can improve your attention span. (Something we are desperately in need of in today’s society since our attention span has fallen to 8 seconds). This natural defragmentation of your brain does not just impact your analytical skills, but also your creativity and higher-order thinking. It clears pathways for your to start thinking differently.
Additionally, this exercise will likely have a calming effect and help reduce some anxiety. Just another good benefit.
Let’s jump into some exercises specifically designed to spur creativity.
This first one I call the ‘write about it’ method. And it is pretty simple. You are going to pick an object- and write about it. Okay on to the next topic!
Alright, so it isn’t quite that simple. But it almost is! The idea behind the ‘write about it’ method is to essentially force yourself out of your comfort zone by writing about a mundane, inanimate, or quirky object. Your comfort zone in this case is functionally your work in progress. Whatever you are working on that you have gotten stuck in, part of the reason you may be stuck is because of over-familiarity. This can breed creative atrophy. By stepping outside that work- WAY outside- you can jumpstart a stalled creative engine.
Here’s how I want you to try this. Go for a walk. Or head out on an errand you’ve been neglecting. Do something that puts you intentionally out in the world and observing. Take notes about what you see. These don’t have to be complicated notes, just quick words. Banana. Bench. Birds. Why am I stuck on Bs? Anyway, you get it. List things you see.
When you return to your writer’s station, look at the list and pick something on it that for whatever reason stands out just a little more than the others. Now, start writing a story about it. But make it as strange and fantastical as you possibly can. Really weird it up. And if you can, try and do this in the genre you already write in.
Why? The fact is, the answer to your writers’ block is probably more obvious than you realize, but because you’re stuck thinking about your work in a very specific way, you are missing it. By writing a romantic fairytale about a banana, or an epic sci-fi space opera about a park bench, your brain will re-engage with your genre in newly creative ways.
This works for any genre, not just fantasy. Try and write a humorous story about a mossy, marble pillar. Or a horror story about an embroidered throw pillow.
Once your brain is spooled up, you will find the ideas begin to flow easier for your actual work in progress. And hey! You still end up with a goofy short story that might be useable somewhere else. And that’s part of the sneaky secret to this. One of the best ways to beat writers’ block… is to write.
Sometimes the best thing you can do when you’re stuck is to ask someone else for help. After all, if the answer is not presenting itself, then maybe what you need is external input. That seems pretty intuitive, right?
When it comes to writing, this sometimes works. But if you are asking someone else for advice on the direction of your work in progress, you’re more than likely going to end up with a story flow biased towards their preferences, rather than your unique, natural style. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can force you to experiment, but it may be so unnatural it really interrupts your manuscript.
So when I say ask someone else what you should write about, I mean literally have them give you a topic and you write about it. Unrelated to your current work. This may feel a little like shifting gears without using the clutch at first, but it can really kick your creativity into high gear!
A few examples.
This is a personal one that I love to share. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in the InkFort Press Writer’s Derby (which is how I met author Skylar Dates!). If you are unfamiliar with the contest, writers are assigned a book cover, title and pen name, and have three months to produce a work under those conditions.
When I wrote for the Derby, I ended up writing something so far outside my normal comfort zone that I was afraid I would botch the contest completely. I ended up loving what I came up with, and it kick-started a creativity period after wherein I returned to several works I was stuck on and got them moving again. By being told what to write, and not choosing it, it took the creative paralysis out of the equation. I wasn’t following my normal rules because the story I was writing was so different from what I usually create. It was super liberating.
Similar results happened to R.E.M. when they recorded “Out of Time.” They all played different instruments and took on different roles in the band, which spurred their creativity. Since they could no longer think in the same way they had previously, they generated new ideas. Being told ‘you have to do this’ can feel limiting, but it actually represents an interesting opportunity to free your mind up from the decision-making process. When your brain doesn’t have to decide what it is going to do, it has space to consider how it is going to do it. And writers’ block is usually a suffering of the how.
So the next time you don’t know what to write about: ask someone to give you an assignment.
Hopefully, this topic has been helpful in your writing journey. Writers’ block can be a pretty big pain, especially when you can feel creativity crackling on your fingertips, but never quite sparking. There are just a few more things I want to touch on in terms of promoting whole mind and body health. Because your brain works best when your body is too!
First: you might be surprised at how much good exercise does for your brain. There are a lot of studies that show a link between cognitive and neural function, and an active body. Now even if you’re not athletically inclined, this does not have to be a huge lift (heh, get it?). Walking for thirty minutes a day, doing a light jog, or some resistance training a few times a week stimulates your brain as much as it does your heart (see footnote for references). After just a few days of adding some activity into your schedule, you will be amazed at the new problem-solving and creative thinking you find your brain engaging in.
Second: read. In discussion with another writer, JJ Flowers, earlier this week, the consensus was one of the best ways to snap writers’ block is to simply take in new ideas. The whole premise of our main story two weeks ago was WHY writers should read. It feeds your brain. It infuses new ideas. It pummels your creativity with a flood of alternative flows, methods and perspectives. So if you find that you are well and truly stuck on something, and the work in progress is not… you know… progressing, then read. Read ten pages. Hell, read a hundred. The more you read and expose yourself to new ideas, the more likely it is you’ll break through your own plateaus.
Alright! You’re armed with a half dozen new methods of cracking the dreaded BLOCK and making forward progress on your work. So what are you doing still sitting here? Get writing!