We’ve all been there: a project that once seemed so inspiring, so full of promise, now feels impossible. Some people call this writer’s block. I prefer to avoid that term. Too many people associate it with an incurable state. A devastating creative affliction over which we have little — if any — control.
If you want to get over the hump and start writing again, you need to view so-called writer’s block as a normal part of the writing process. A slow patch doesn’t control you, and it certainly doesn’t make you less of a writer.
During the last semester of my BFA program, I got burned out. Bad. I felt like my concentration (painting) was the wrong choice. I was tired of falling short of my professors’ expectations. Tired of painting. But I couldn’t quit. I had a four-year degree to finish. A senior exhibition to hang. I couldn’t afford burnout.
It may have been my first experience with that kind of creative block, but it certainly wasn’t my last. And every time it’s happened, I’ve been reminded that we have a choice when we feel blocked: we can give up or we can show up. And at the end of the day, creative work is less about inspiration than it is about simply showing up — even if you don’t want to.
You don’t need to feel inspired to write.
Some people seem to think a magical spark fuels our creative work and that creative people always love what we do. That myth cheapens the thousands of hours of practice and hard work required to master a craft. It also instills a fear that our inspiration can run dry.
In reality, almost every creative project — especially long-running ones like writing a novel — hits a point where it will die unless we make a choice to keep going. We won’t always feel driven to do this work and it won’t always feel easy or fun. Like any other skill or craft, writing is a habit. A skill you hone by practicing it every day.
Some of those days will feel rougher than others. We may get stuck on a novel rewrite after a tough critique. Sometimes an external factor like a serious illness or a new baby sidelines our writing for a while. Or maybe we feel too tired to create after a long day at work. Whatever makes you feel blocked, you need a go-to list of tricks to get the words flowing again.
My go-to tricks to get unstuck:
How you get unstuck depends on who you are and what other interests you have. Here are some of my favorites:
Go for a walk/run or take a shower.
I have my best ideas while running or bathing. I suspect it’s because in both cases, I literally can’t do anything else. My brain has a chance to mull things over sans distractions.
Close all other apps/browser tabs on the computer.
If I remove the option to multi-task or distract myself, I often find it easier to dig into those novel revisions I’ve been putting off.
Send what I have so far to a critique partner.
Sometimes I feel blocked because I have no idea if what I’ve just written works or not. Feedback and questions from a trusted writing partner help light the way and get my ideas flowing.
Put my current project away and write something else.
If I have time and/or don’t want to send it to a critique partner, I do the next-best thing: I put it away for a while. Then I work on something else until I can come back to it with fresh eyes.
Write something, anything, even if it’s terrible.
Even if I only write for five minutes to satisfy my 100-word daily goal before I escape to self-medicate with coffee and chocolate.
Practice a different form of creative work.
For me this usually means sewing or coding, but it could be anything: music, doodling, even working in the garden. My brain occasionally needs to change gears and use a different set of creative muscles. I consider it a sort of mental cross-training, and it helps me keep from burning out on a single project.