Are you blocked?

Writer’s block is as common as odd socks. It happens; you have to live with it and find a way to work with it. One of the best things I’ve found, for myself and clients, is to tackle it head on: get to know it by getting it down on paper, and then get away from it. (And, yes: there is such a thing as ‘editor’s block’ too.)

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What is your block about?

Please don’t go near this question. The last thing you need when you’re trying to write and already feeling terrible about a looming deadline, or a week of work not done, is to start to analyse it. Instead, use the tools of your creative gift and storify for good (not crazy). In a similar way to working with fear around writing, using writing can help you to understand the blockage … and it keeps you writing.

There are some exercises that can help you create text, even if you can’t create the text you want right now. Who knows, you may actually be able to use it in your novel, article or short story later.

If your block were a character …

Sit and close your eyes for a moment. Breathe and try to find the sensation of the writer’s block in your body. Where is it? Can you feel it? If you have any pain, start there. Just sit for a couple of minutes and let the words come to you. Then open your eyes and start to write or type a list of adjectives that apply. Don’t think about it, just do it. You know, it doesn’t even matter if they’re not strictly adjectives or some of the words are nonsense; if table is in your list who cares, just keep going. Stop when you have a page or so, or whichever point beyond that. Have a look at your list: do you have predominantly dark, “heavy” words or predominantly light, “up” words? Does that tell you something about your particular block?

Now, spend ten minutes to create the characterisation for a character who fits these words. Put them in either the very worst or very best situation you can imagine. Even if you don’t end up using any of this for anything later, you will know how to recognise your writer’s block, which is handy if you want to overcome it, communicate with it, or send it out of your life.

Mash-up

Pick a page of something you have already written and print it out. Cut it up so each sentence is separate. Now you have puzzle pieces; stick them onto a new page so that they make some kind of story. This can help you to see the text in a new way.

There’s a longer version you could try too, which can help you gain insight where the text itself might be the block. Copy and paste into a separate document all statements about a particular character. For example: Julie always smoked as if she was half smiling. She walked like she was performing some kind of graceful precision movement, perhaps as a skater might. (You may want to do this for all central characters.) Collect them all into the one document, in order. When you read these statements, do they seem to belong to one person? Do they fit with the scenes you’ve created or plan to create, and the aims for your story? What happens if you rearrange the order, does a different character emerge who could be useful to your story?

One-on-one-off

It doesn’t matter whether your deadline is contractual or self-imposed, if you have writer’s block the pressure of the deadline can make you feel sick to the stomach with anxiety and stress. The brain does weird things if you push it. It’s much better to stop instead of push. That’s why one hour on and one hour off can be a useful fix for writer’s block in the moment. Work for an hour then stop and either play or rest for an hour. Just in case you misread that as “distract myself on social media”, that’s two options: REST or PLAY. It’s a simple process, especially if you set an oven timer or the stopwatch on your phone, and effective.

Play doesn’t mean electronic games either, especially if you write on a computer. Playing means getting up from the desk and playing a game of cards, or drawing or painting or playing a musical instrument, or dancing, or running or walking outside (with or without a dog), making something with clay or dough, or paper, beads, wire, or wood, or even Playdough. Crosswords and doublets count as playing. So do maths games. (Maths actually has a lot to do with writing, according to Alexander Nazaryan in the New Yorker.) Or playing with a yoyo, spinning top, kaleidoscope, frisbee, skipping rope, ball – yes, it means old-school playing.

Resting means actually resting. Lie down or sit down and look at something – a flower, a tree, a car in the street, people outside the café window, an image you like – and take in as much of its detail as you can; really look. Or just close your eyes and look at nothing. Or meditate (there are some great meditations available here) or just breathe and stretch. You may want to nap, which works too. A twenty-minute nap any time between 11am and 4pm has been found to improve concentration, motivation and productivity. (See The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working by Tony Schwartz, Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy, PhD.)

An hour might seem like a long time to take a break from writing work, but consider that you’re unlikely to be productive anyway. It’s also worth remembering to schedule breaks generally, even when work’s going well and you’re not blocked, and that some of that break will be used up by saving and backing up a document, having some water, going to the toilet, or getting dressed for outside temperatures, so you might end up actually napping or playing for 20 minutes, but your break might be 30 minutes long. With this in mind, you’ll be able to schedule more realistic working goals for each day. There’s nothing like trying to do too much to bring on low motivation, low productivity or full-on writer’s block.