Writer’s block. Sitting down at your computer and having ZERO thoughts. It’s not a new problem, or even a particularly interesting question, unless it applies to you. There is no “right” answer to the question “how do I defeat writer’s block”. There are many, many answers. The challenge is discovering the method that works for you.
I have had a serious, long-term problem with sitting down at my computer and starting to write. I get caught up in all the decisions. What do I write about? Should I work on my novel, my blog, or free-write something that I might be able to use in either? If I can decide what type of writing I will do, then I can’t decide what to write about. My head swirls with thoughts like: do I just keep writing where I left off last time? what is a good topic for a blog post? should I just work on my character’s background?
So instead of writing, I look around for inspiration to answer my questions. I start reading blogs, listening to podcasts, or looking up information online about writers that I admire, as if reading about creative people will somehow give me ideas on what to write about. I search out an “Ah -ha” moment that will propel me into my writing like a skier landing a downhill jump. What I really need to do is just sit down and get to work. I know this in my rational brain. But my creative brain is still constipated. I can’t squeeze an idea or even a few pretty words out onto the page no matter how hard I try.
Some say “just write anything, it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you are writing.” Well, I have done that, and I have thousands and thousands of words sitting on my hard drive that don’t make up anything readable. There is no theme, no cohesion, and no thought process. It is just writing. There is no purpose or thought beyond getting words on a page.
I recently started reading a book by Twlyla Tharp called The Creative Habit, and the first chapter makes an important point. She explains how important it is to have a ritual that comes before whatever creative exercise you are attempting. This was a kind of “aha” moment for me. It makes so much sense. I immediately thought about the fact that I am a runner, and how many tiny little rituals that I have that lead up to each and every run.
I run every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. I aways set out for my run in the late afternoon, around five pm. So around four thirty, I start thinking about the upcoming run. Then I change into my running clothes. I even have a certain order to how I put on my clothes, an order not developed on purpose, just out of habit, routine. Then I stretch. It is at this point that the run is really a done deal for me. Once I have my running clothes on, I am committed to the run, no matter how I feel or what comes up. I put on my watch, queue up my playlist, and attach my headphones. Lastly, I put on my running shoes. I makes sure the laces are tight around my foot but not too tight at the top. I double knot them so they won’t come unlaced during my run. Once my shoes are on, there is nothing else to do but go out the door. And once I am out in my driveway, there is really nothing else to do but start running. Each of those small routines leads me to my run, like a five lane road gradually narrowing down to one lane. One choice. And the fact that I have done that same routine over and over for years makes it easier to get the exercise done on a regular basis.
Now the challenge for me is to find a group of small rituals similar to my running ones, that will lead me to my computer and get my fingers moving on the keyboard. Easier said than done. Writing and running are very different activities. Currently, I have a general time in the afternoon when I want to get some writing done. That’s it. I don’t have a specific time, or specific clothes, and I don’t need to go outside to write. I need to find rituals that will help push past the swirling thoughts to a place of focus and creative thinking. Specific activities that will gradually narrow those lanes, step by easy step, so that when I am sitting in front of my computer screen, I have nothing else on my mind but writing.
As I write this, nothing specific comes to mind right away. I can think of things that I SHOULDN’T do as I am preparing to write. Those would be social media, YouTube, and the ever-tempting google search. I need to remove those things from the space where I write. Currently, my laptop sits on my desk in my study. I use my laptop for all of my computer work — both writing and all of those other things. Somehow, I need to make that space sacred for writing. So how do I do that? I don’t have another room and I can’t afford another laptop just for social media and email. I could disconnect from the internet during writing time. That would prevent me from going on social media, but it still wouldn’t make the space sacred for writing. I could cut out social media and YouTube entirely, but that would mean also cutting out some things that are valuable resources for my writing. (As well as cut me off from many of my friends who are only accessible to me through social media.) My husband suggested that I only use social media and YouTube on my iPad or my phone. Even though I don’t like it (I like the bigger screen), it is probably the best suggestion. It would keep those mind-consuming activities out of my study and away from my writing space.
But yet, I still find myself with writing constipation when I sit down in my chair and try to write. I need steps that will bring me to the chair, so that I can quiet and still my brain in preparation for sitting down and facing the screen. I could set aside a specific time during my day when I write. If I schedule my writing time “from 2:30pm to 3:30pm”, then I will start preparing mentally around 2 pm, knowing that I have to be ready. I could make coffee or tea for a caffeine boost, and put on a specific piece of clothing in preparation for my writing. I could have a “writing cardigan”, or “writing slippers”. Twyla Tharp recommends that I “sit alone in a room and let your thoughts go wherever they will”. She suggests trying this “mental wandering”, or daydreaming for one minute, and work up to ten minutes, or however long it takes to ensure that something interesting will come to mind. It will increase my tolerance for solitude and help me transition to my writing mind. These are all things that I plan to try.
If you have any rituals, steps, or practices that you use to accomplish something that is difficult for you to do on a regular basis, please share in the comments below. I would love other creative input.