I don’t believe in writers’ block, any more than I believe in washing-dishes-block, or dealing-with your-taxes-block, or confronting-a-scary-problem-block. I’m not saying that writing will always come easily, or that you won’t sometimes stop and find it hard to start again. Of course you will. What I’m saying is that the reasons for halting your work are perfectly logical, therefore so are their remedies.
When your productivity dries up (and it will), do not deceive yourself that you’re the victim of some kind of creativity flu, or a passive vessel waiting to be filled with inspiration by a fickle muse. The problem usually stems from one of four conditions, and they are all within your power to fix: loss of momentum, loss of clarity, lack of confidence or lack of discipline. Once you identify its cause, you can get busy solving it–and I’d like to show you how.
Get your momentum back
There was a certain time in my life when I was incredibly good about keeping my clothing neat and tidy. I had three small laundry bags in my closet for darks, lights and handwashables, and I religiously dropped my clothes into the right bags the moment they came off at the end of the day. For a whole year and a half, I maintained this system effortlessly.
Then something happened and I just stopped. I don’t remember the catalyst for the interruption–maybe it was that extended trip I took to New Zealand, or maybe I moved house or broke up with my boyfriend that year. For whatever reason, I simply dropped my excellent clothing maintenance routine without ever consciously deciding to do so. What’s more, I forgot about it entirely. I couldn’t seem to get organized, and for several years my bedroom was in a semi-constant state of chaos–until, of course, I got back with the program. Sometimes you just lose your mojo–but you can get it back. Here are two of the most effective ways I know to jumpstart yourself out of a stall with your writing.
When you feel like you’ve totally lost your grip on your book, you need to get that train of thought moving down the track again, and your desk may be the worst possible place to try to do it. Scientists have proven what writers have long known: activity in the body has a direct and powerful effect on activity in the brain, so take your so-called writers’ block for a purposeful walk.
Before embarking on your creative constitutional, reread your outline or chapter drafts, ideally on paper, away from a screen. Resist any urge you might feel to critique the material, beat yourself up or launch into nit-picky revisions that would suck the life force out of you. Just read it quickly, as you would a magazine article on a train, to re-familiarize yourself with what you’ve already got.
While your drafts are fresh in your mind, lace up and hit the road. It doesn’t matter whether you go for a nature trail or an urban hike, but make sure there aren’t too many obstacles to navigate (like traffic, crowds, or transactions.) The trick is to go someplace where the walking itself doesn’t occupy more than the bare minimum or your attention, so you can go deep into your thoughts–needless to say, leave the audiobooks at home.
Sometimes it helps to set off on these brain-boosting excursions with a particular section of the book in mind, or a specific problem to solve. Other times, you might want to ruminate on a broader thematic or structural issue. If you are diligent in training your attention on whatever task you’ve set for yourself, you will indeed find that solutions present themselves, and new chapter or title ideas will float to the surface of your awareness. Bit by bit, you will coax your book into coming alive again in your brain.
If walking isn’t your bag, try swimming, yoga or a bike ride. Even a long car ride can do the trick, as long as the route is swift and smooth enough that you can drive it on autopilot. As soon as you get back to your home or office, dump all your thoughts down in point form notes. Do this daily, or as often as you can, until your writing sessions regain a sense of urgency and fascination.
Midnight with the muse
Paul McCartney is famously said to have written the Beatles hit Yesterday in his sleep. Apparently it came to him in a dream, and the whole thing was just playing in his head when he woke up, ready to make music history. This is the most impressive (and envy-inducing) example of a visitation from the midnight muse that I’ve ever heard, but it is by no means the only one.
I have a friend who swears he gets all his best ideas from what he calls the Dream Hut. Whenever he’s grappling with a stubborn problem, he will ask himself a question before turning in at night, and more often than not he wakes up with the answer. So far, I haven’t heard him boast about being handed any ready-made double platinum singles in his sleep, but he has shared so many tales of breakthrough thinking, I am in no doubt that the Dream Hut has become a hugely important and surprisingly reliable idea generating and problem solving tool for him.
Not everyone has this habit, but anyone can cultivate it. I have my own version, although it’s far less methodical. I don’t tend to put in specific orders with my sleeping subconscious as my friend does, but as a lifelong insomniac, I spend a lot of time examining the contents of my brain in the dark. For a long time, flashes of inspiration simply got churned under along with the random thoughts, old memories, fears and fantasies that would ricochet around my head in the wee hours. It was only when I started making a conscious effort to notice and capture the useful stuff that I realized how very many valuable gems are to be found amidst this mental flotsam. When I am working intense creative or practical projects, I actually welcome those midnight wakings because they offer a time of quiet reflection and deep concentration that is always fruitful.
To make it easier to capture those heavenly pearls of wisdom, keep a notebook and pen near your bed, and use them. You don’t need to get up and spend hours writing things down in detail, but do jot down a quick reminder. When morning comes, you’ll be amazed by how many ideas you’d already forgotten. By building midnight muse visitations into your writing practice, you’ll access much more of what you already know, and may even solve major manuscript problems.
This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Bold, Deep and High: How to Write a Book That Can Change the World. To learn more about the book and my other three methods of eliminating writers’ block, sign up for our mailing list.
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