In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway writes “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” I love these words and what they represent. But for those of us who aren’t Hemingway, there may be other, more realistic approaches to curing writer’s block blues. It took some trial and error to find what works best for me. The following are five techniques I am currently using to push through the frustration.
1. Writing Prompts
The magic of writing prompts is in unlocking your unique voice and perspective, allowing you to craft a narrative only you can. For me, the most effective tool in the prompt box is the single word. Take the word ‘shoes’ for example. What is the first image that pops into your head? Are they slinky red heels? Tiny infant booties?
In my mind, they’re dusty beat-up sneakers thrown under a bed. Who do they belong to and what do they mean to that person? What happened on the most exciting day those shoes were worn? Pulling at the thread created by questions guides us toward a new world. As you write the story inspired by that world (without judgment or constraint), you’re finding new angles to explore something familiar and bursting through the wall built by writer’s block. Quill Pen Editorial has a varied list of one-word prompts to get you started.
If you need to stay close to your topic, either to avoid losing focus or straying too far, reading might be the solution for you. Find materials that are relevant to what you’re working on, however indirectly. Maybe it’s a novel by a respected author in your genre. Maybe it’s non-fiction research that will inform your piece. By immersing yourself in someone else’s words you can reset the way you think about yours while gathering useful knowledge.
Choose to read critically, thinking and questioning what techniques were used to achieve the final result. Take notes on what stands out in a positive or negative way. Your observations will come in handy once you’re writing again (like Mr. Hemingway said, you will write again). The purpose of this exercise is to continue moving forward in your project, even while expending effort elsewhere. This is particularly helpful if you’re under a tight deadline and can’t afford to truly unplug from the subject.
3. Character-Specific Timed Writing
Normally the idea of timed writing gives me nothing but anxiety. My inner editor does not like to be dismissed, let alone ignored. But when I’m stuck on a particular story there is one such exercise that seems to loosen me up. Pick one of your characters, any of them. Then pick a detail, can be their hair, voice, hands, favorite curse word, anything. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write about all the minutiae involving that characteristic.
Take full advantage of your minutes, do not stop writing. If the spotlight naturally begins to broaden, let it. Maybe you started the exercise by describing your character’s hair care routine, but it has evolved into an exploration of her relationship with her mother. Maybe the opposite is true, you’ve spent 10 minutes detailing the texture, length, color, shape, and smell of one hair. Either way, this is an investment which opens pathways and forces you to create something out of nothing. Worst case scenario, you come up with some bizarre but excellent ways to describe hair.
4. Critique Other People’s Work
If you haven’t already, find a critique group. I’ve talked before about how important my critique group is to me. Besides providing support and constructive feedback, they’ve supplied inspiration. Often on my drive home from a meeting, thinking about what someone said, an idea will worm its way in. I let it bounce around and give it space. When I arrive home, there’s a fully formed story itching to escape from my mind onto the page.
I’ve had similar experiences while examining others’ work during the meeting. Advising another writer how to tackle an issue, be it lack of tension, showing not telling, etc. sparks solutions for me. None of us are above making mistakes. Finding and correcting those mistakes for others can lead to moments of clarity regarding your own writing. At the very least, shifting your critical focus (even for a little bit) can relieve some pressure.
5. Have a Kit Kat
When you’re dealing with a deadline (self-imposed or otherwise), taking a break from your writing might be the last thing you want to do. Especially if you’re stubborn like me. My initial instinct in the face of writer’s block is to buckle down and power through. But I’ve noticed that when I take that route, my writing loses its edge. My voice gets muddled as I struggle to put words on the page.
In the ultimate ironic twist, I’ve had writer’s block while writing this post. For some reason, trying to explain the argument behind each tip was like pulling teeth. So I paused for an intermission. I went out for drinks with friends, laughed, and talked about everything other than this post. Clearing my mind and putting this conflict in perspective allowed me to come back refreshed and ready to write.
You’ll notice all these tips involve backing away from your project, setting your attention on something else. This doesn’t mean procrastinating; you can do laundry and catch up on emails later. Use these absent moments to strengthen your resolve, not to leave your writing behind. I’m curious about your experience with writer’s block, what works or doesn’t work for you? Let me know in the comments.