This is a guest post by Katie Lewis.
A writer doesn’t always know what to write. It’s perhaps the best-kept secret among creative writers, who appreciate being viewed as unique idea factories. Every writer, no matter their experience or level, sits down to write without any idea of what to say or where to go. Even writers who embrace outlines must, obviously, first compose the outline.
It’s part of the process, though writer’s block is easily the most frustrating part of the process. It hurts. It’s a slam against the ego.
Are you familiar with the children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt? Every barrier encountered while hunting said bear — long grass, a mushroom patch, a wide river—must be confronted and moved through.
‘Got to go through it,’ goes the refrain. Children embrace this idea, as can novelists.
So here we are. You’re creatively blocked. How can you get through it? Four ideas for you:
1. Take a walk
Walking—indoors or outdoors—has a positive effect on creativity. Outdoor walking specifically lowers the stress hormone cortisol, according to a Japanese university study of those who participated in ‘forest bathing,’ or walking in the woods.
It is beautiful to walk in nature while listening to it, smelling it, seeing it, and using all the senses, but honestly? Personally? My walks this fall have pulled double-duty as exercise and professional training: writer-focused podcasts.
Maybe it’s less poetic, but I’m more the overachieving Leslie Knope type than Walt Whitman these days.
There are a bevy of inspiring and actionable podcasts (The Shit No One Tells You About Writing is one of my favorites), and Freelance Writing Coach with Kaleigh Moore and Emma Siemasko has proven most useful in this season of my work; I’ve been focused on landing more client content marketing projects while my novel’s with my editor.
Yet despite trying to wring every useful droplet out of an outdoor stroll, there’s no discounting how the fresh air affects my body. I return with rosy cheeks, a clear mind, and, truthfully, a more patient approach to parenting. My short fuse lengthened during the three-mile walk.
Want to increase your creative output by 60 percent? Start walking.
2. Embrace the writer’s block
Acknowledging writer’s block takes away its power. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert has talked about how she anthropomorphizes her self-doubt and addresses its evil.
So you have writer’s block. Now what?
‘I talk about my creative fear,’ said Tina Donati, marketing lead at Fuel Made and freelance ecommerce writer. ‘I have a great support group of friends and teammates that I choose to be honest with. If I’m feeling something that’s blocking me, it can be good to talk about it.’
One unrealised benefit to writer’s block is it highlights how a writer holds themself to high standards, not wanting to disappoint themself or readers. And that’s a sweet thing!
‘I care so much about the quality of the writing I produce and my reputation that I have this impending fear of having one project mess up everything I’ve worked toward,’ Donati said. ‘I know that may sound silly, but it’s truly a mental battle I have been facing for a long time. Because of that, I do feel writer’s block often. And I guarantee you that sometimes it’s because I’m simply too afraid.’
Afraid? Of course you are. Creating something from nothing can be scary and hard. But as writer Glennon Doyle is known to say: ‘You can do hard things.’
3. Free write
One way to kick fear’s ass is by starting. Easier said than done, though, right?
This is why the practice of free writing is essential to unclog your creativity.
Julia Cameron’s incredibly successful The Artist’s Way promotes free writing as a daily ‘clearing exercise’ she calls Morning Pages. She says to write three pages of anything at all, even if that’s your to-do list. Whatever’s moving through your consciousness, that’s what should flow out onto your pages.
‘They seem to have nothing to do with creativity,’ she says of these daily pages in a video on her website. ‘But what they do is clear your mind. It’s as though you have taken a little Dustbuster and you go poking it into all the corners of your consciousness, and you come up with what you put on the page.’
The benefits include:
- It makes you feel like you’re producing something, which ups one’s perceived accomplishments.
- It uncovers what your unconscious is thinking, bringing it to the forefront.
- Documenting your stream of consciousness can produce a creative spark, and it’s off to the races from there.
- You might find yourself writing more boldly with the knowledge that this writing is for your eyes only.
What you write can be negative. It can be grumpy. It can choppy sentences unrelated to one another with no character but your own internal monologue.
While free writing is best done by hand, as this more strongly enhances memory, employing this technique as a pre-writing practice works just as well for creativity on the computer.
4. Read the work of others
Being given the assignment of reading? Yes, please.
When you aren’t trying your hardest to write The Next Great American Novel, you can get out of your own way by reading.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, but writers are already inspired by one another. It’s what had all my early short stories sounding like Raymond Carver knockoffs. But I say let yourself be influenced. Write as another writer would. Mimic them, steal from them. Just like in free writing, let writing as another writer would be a tool you employ.
But I digress. Before you try writing like Brit Bennett, read her books. Read Lily King. Read Chandler Baker, Mona Awad, Jean Hanff Korelitz, David Sedaris, Phoebe Robinson, and Fredrik Backman.
Read fiction, non-fiction, memoir, young adult novels, short story collections, anything, everything, max out your library hold list, then spin round and round on a mountainside like Maria in The Sound of Music.
It’s a wonderful thing, to read. Writes Dani Shapiro in her book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life:
‘Fill your ears with the music of good sentences, and when you finally approach the page yourself, that music will carry you. It will remind you that you are a part of a vast symphony of writers, that you are not alone in your quest to lay down words, each one bumping against the next until something new is revealed. It will exhort you to do better. To not settle for just good enough. Reading great work is exhilarating. It shows us what’s possible. When I start the morning with any one of the dozens of books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?’
Writer’s block: painful, yes, but also normal
Once you accept that the icky discomfort of writer’s block is an established part of the writing experience, you’ve taken away its power. It no longer has a hold on you first, because you won’t allow it to, and second, because you now know ways to deal with it.
Got to go through it.
Katie Lewis is the author of the short story collection Cheers, Somebody. As a freelance copywriter, she produces thoughtful, researched marketing pieces for B2B and SaaS companies. Her editing work has her partnering with wildly creative and talented writers to get their projects ready for publication.