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How to cure writer's block

  • by Stuart French

Okay, so this is an entirely subjective exploration of my own experiences with writer’s block. Whilst the five thoughts below are formed exclusively from my personal challenges navigating a course through this strange phenomenon, I really hope they can help others too.

There was a time when I used to find the concept of writer’s block amusing. Words and phrases, verses, and even entire books, would wander through me like a current at all hours. I would produce pages of poetry in an evening, pen a novel with few pauses to search for creativity, and repeatedly fill my Evernote pad during painfully unnecessary work meetings. I recall this period of hyper-creativity lasted from about the age of 15 right through until I was probably nearly 30. 

These days, though, it’s different. As a parent, I think much of our creative capacity is consumed through its investment in the curious minds of our children. Crafting intriguing answers to their even-more-intriguing questions, conjuring up plausible explanations for the things in the world that just don’t make much sense. All of this takes creativity, and the more you invest in this developmental adventure – and, let’s face it, what else is more rewarding? – the more the time you once had to indulge your creative appetite begins to dissolve.

It’s not just a challenge faced by modern parents who love to write, though, it’s something that I believe is much more complex than that. The world – certainly in this COVID-19 era – is increasingly becoming a place that is utterly overrun with distractions. The concept of always being connected, contacted, or contactable is a big part of it. If you have a job that necessitates frequent engagement with staff, colleagues, or clients, or even a family that needs excessive reassurance that you’ve not forgotten them, it can become almost impossible to disconnect from your routine reality.

And herein lies the problem – at least, in my own experience. When we’re unable to disconnect with the urgency and relentlessness of daily life, there really is no room for creativity to enter our consciousness… And, sadly, the majority of routines in daily life aren’t really the kind that inspire our right-brain to switch into gear.

Time in nature is a big part of it. And if you read the plethora of blogs that have explored writer’s block in the past, most of them suggest a number of ideas that sit under the very broad “get outside” umbrella. They also suggest reading, listening to a range of music etc. So, I’m not going to suggest any of these things – as much as I absolutely believe they help. Instead, here are my methods for managing – if only periodically – the writer’s block madness…

  1. Stop trying to be creative when you’re just not feeling it. You will never produce your best work by trying to push through writer’s block. And I don’t mean stop for a few hours. You might need to stop for days or weeks, or even months in order to rediscover the right headspace. It’s kind of like waves in the ocean as a surfer. Rather than compromise and catch inferior swell, you typically wait for a larger set to come through, and these happen in mildly coordinated patterns. I often think of the process of writing as being not dissimilar – just spread over a much longer period of time. The same analogy has been used to describe insomnia; rather annoyingly, something I suffer from even more frequently!
  2. Don’t read over your previous work. Pouring over some of your favourite outputs from years gone by isn’t going to help. In fact, I’ve often found that it constrains creativity even more, as you begin to use previous lines, phrases, or ideas as springboards for new work. It can also just frustrate you even further by bringing examples of your best work to the surface, which was likely written when you were in a headspace that you’ve since not been able to rediscover.
  3. Stop trying to write with a clear goal. Often, when we set out to write, it’s with a goal of creating something quite specific: a story about a particular topic, an exploration of a particular character we’ve had in our minds, or the continuation of something we previously started but couldn’t quite complete. By forcing yourself down a particular creative avenue, you establish even more conditions for your creativity to align to, when the process is already hard enough. Instead, just write, even if it’s a description of your immediate surroundings as if you were seeing them for the first time. The point is to relax enough to begin the creative process and to then see where things go from there. Neither the starting point nor the destination matters when you’re suffering from writer’s block. You simply need to start and not worry about where you’re heading – it’s the bit in between that matters.
  4. Acknowledge that great things often start as mediocre ones. In something of a strange paradox, I often try to remind myself that fiction writing needn’t always be outwardly creative. If you’re struggling to construct a narrative in a way that hits the mark, try stepping back and doing it analytically instead. This will use your left-brain – the side that is often more relevant to everyday life. Left-brain writing is the kind that steps out the structure of a story in a more rigid, process-oriented way. It’s the kind that lists the attributes and particulars of your fictional characters more than it vividly describes them. It’s also the kind that can eventually lead to a story that is more robust, structured and fully formed.
  5. Write by hand and stay away from the computer. I made earlier notes about the relentlessness of life and the abundance of screentime that we all seem to suffer from. And so, sitting in front a computer trying to be creative really doesn’t make much sense in this context, does it? If your computer screen isn’t filling up with words that inspire you, try changing your medium entirely. A little notepad or pocketbook is something I often find far less intimidating when starting new work from scratch, and there’s also a lovely sense of nostalgia to be found in using traditional mediums too!       

So, there are five random thoughts that have really played on my mind over recent years, and they’re also things I really enjoyed writing down. And isn’t this exactly the point? Very few things we write – if any – will go on to make waves and become bestsellers, but it’s about writing for the catharsis, for the enjoyment, for the gentle but welcome distraction from everyday life.

Next time you sit down to write, then, do so for the process of writing more than for the end result.

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