“There’s no way to write those words without a serious commitment of time and the sheer force of your iron will.” — Lisa Unger
Lisa Unger isn’t wrong. Then again, neither was Douglas Adams when he oh-so-cheekily hit the nail on the head regarding deadlines: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
The truth is that writing, whether you’re doing it professionally or just for kicks and giggles, is hard work. It certainly doesn’t help matters when your brain opts not to cooperate, either. Whether it’s struggling to find the right word—even though you would swear it was right there on the tip of your tongue—or trying and failing to build beyond just a vague idea, or inexplicably churning out lacklustre sentences to describe something that’s anything but, the mind can fall into any number of traps that can make stringing two cohesive sentences together feel impossible.
Enter writer’s block: the biggest pain in the ass for writers everywhere. There are tons of factors that can trigger a bout of writer’s block (internal and external sources of pressure, stress, lack of motivation, etc.), so it’s no wonder that a quick Google search for ways to “beat” writer’s block yields endless results (about 85,200,00 for me just now). Don’t get me wrong; there are some great strategies out there to this effect, and I would encourage writers to give just about any of them a shot if their hearts and hands are on board, but their heads require a little more coaxing. It’s been my experience, though, that fixating on the problem can send my own brain into an unproductive tailspin just as surely as staring at a blank page can.
So, rather than add to the numerous posts and articles that already exist to try to convince you that you should burn mental energy on avoiding or conquering what is simply a fact of life for anyone who dabbles in the written word, I’d like to offer a different perspective. You’ve heard the phrase “when in Rome,” right? Or maybe, “if you can’t beat them, join them,” is more your speed. Either way, the meaning is the same.
Set expiration dates within deadlines.
Don’t let the macabre subtitle scare you off; I’m not suggesting murder as a suitable coping mechanism for writer’s block. I am suggesting you adopt a modified version of killing your darlings. Just because your brain can’t (or for whatever reason won’t) flesh out a concept you’ve come up with, doesn’t mean you have to stubbornly shove your nose into the grindstone anyway, come hell or high water. Nor should you write off (heh, see what I did there?) the idea for good. It just means that you need to use your time wisely and give other ones a shot. After all, there’s no shame in admitting defeat when your sanity is at stake. So, when a deadline looms on the horizon and the one idea you’ve been beating to death from every angle isn’t working, file it away in your brain as having met its “expiration date” for this particular project and let yourself move on to something else and see if it’s a better fit. Not to be confused with hard deadlines, these expiration dates serve more as mile markers in the creative process, rather than the end of the road. And the best part? You’ve just found a totally legitimate loophole in writer’s block.
Think on your feet.
Yes, I do mean this one to be taken literally. We’re fortunate enough to live in an age that writing doesn’t have to be done via pen and paper or even on a laptop/tablet. So, when sitting and staring at the screen or the page isn’t doing it for you, get up and take writer’s block for a walk. It might seem like you’re letting it win since it’s taken you away from your writing utensils of choice, but in reality, it’s more like taking it to go. After all, if writer’s block is a psychological obstacle, what better way to cater to its whims than to trick your brain into considering the physical exercise as movement and progress on all fronts? And, because studies have proven that walking can kick-start the creative thought process, there is always the possibility that you can indeed steer into the skid so smoothly that you wind up owing that case of writer’s block a thank-you. By forcing you to change things up, it might help you discover options you wouldn’t consider without a change of scenery.
Six degrees of separation never hurt anybody.
Depending on how close you are to your deadline, the last thing you’ll likely want to do is walk away from your desk and do something else entirely. But, if writer’s block is proving to be particularly stubborn, it might be exactly what you need. Other pursuits can be just as stimulating as hammering away at your current writing project without directly poking the proverbial bear that’s taken it upon itself to enforce an embargo on creative thinking for the time being. Activities like word association games, memory exercises, putting together a puzzle, and filling in crosswords are designed to rev up your brain while also allowing you to relax and have some fun. Maybe this strategy seems like a cop-out, a method of procrastinating or skirting the issue of writer’s block disguised as a healthy coping mechanism, but consider for a moment how writer’s block feels. Personally, I tend to feel the same way I do when, mid-sentence, I suddenly can’t spit out a simple noun even if I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye, just on a larger and much more annoying scale. If we’re taking the glass-half-full approach, then we might surmise that this is your brain’s way of encouraging you to dig deeper, or at the very least make use of a thesaurus. In that case, these similar diversions can appease your inner writing coach and ultimately help you focus enough to move forward.
Hit the brakes.
It’s counterintuitive, maybe even radical thinking to those of us Type A control freaks, but one hard lesson I’ve learned as an editor and as a fellow frustrated writer is that one of the better ways to address writer’s block is to stop fighting it, push everything (and I do mean everything) aside, and let yourself have a true break. Now, I’m no mindfulness or meditation guru, and this is actually a relatively new practice for me; until the last year or so, I’d written off those kinds of things as impossible for someone whose brain rarely shuts up, even to let me get a decent night’s sleep. Luckily, there’s always time to learn something new—especially when it can take as few as five minutes out of your busy day. And this isn’t me encouraging you to give writer’s block the finger and shove it “out of sight, out of mind,” no matter how tempting that sounds. Wiping the slate clean for a few minutes allows your mind to take a much-needed break and wander where it will. It’ll all be there when you get back—trust me—but taking a breather can help shift your focus and maybe gently guide you to where the writer’s block was coming from without all the pressure of a focused thought process. Productivity and success comes in all shapes and sizes, and who knows? Maybe there was a point behind all that start-and-stall nonsense.
Writer’s block may be the bane of our existences, but when you stop fighting it and start leaning into it and using it to your advantage, you may find you have more options and skills at your disposal than you previously thought. In the meantime, try to remember to enjoy the ride.