In its simplest form, Creative Block (as a writer) is where when you sit down at your keyboard, your fingertips graze the keys but then nothing comes. Your vivid mind sinks into a wasteland or a desert with tumbleweeds and scarce cacti. The definition changes slightly from person to person, but one thing we can agree on is that if one finds themself afflicted with Creative Block, it sucks.
I sat in a seminar where the question is posed to us: Do you believe in Creative Block? The answers were varied. A mature student close by, always outspoken and wearing a suit and tie to evening seminars, said he didn’t believe in creative block. He went on to explain how it was an excuse for people who weren’t ready to be writers. A quiet boy, who always wore grubby hoodies and a pair of torn jeans, said he thought creative block was real but that it means you don’t know your story well enough to write it. Then I, always outspoken and wearing a pair of knock-off docs, said that creative block was real. I didn’t think it had anything to do with whether or not you were ready to be a writer or ready to write your story, but much like an infection, it has everything to do with both what is going on inside and outside you. I’ve found, almost every time I’ve experienced Creative Block, the root issue is deeply buried and in wait of being exhumed. The reasons are emotional because, no matter the project, there is always a piece of our pain, curiosity or joy rooted somewhere inside the subconscious of any given story.
Unlike a infection, there is no medicine you can take, but there are things you can do to help nurture the creative embers still burning. This is what I have found to be helpful in the past.
1. The wonders of walking.
This is the oldest trick in the book and it’s the medicine that many of my writing mentors have prescribed me. Take the project off your mind and push it to your subconscious. Find the closest quiet place or the closest busy place and just take in a bit of the world. Let the mundanity of the every day wash over you. Sometimes, I think we need to let our subconscious catch up with us. Sitting in the place you write while you’re experiencing Creative Block is the equivalent of repeatedly asking yourself are you done yet? Are you ready to write now? When will you be finished? Can we start typing yet?
Enjoy a little bit of the outside world. As much as it consumes your every thought, because it is an obsession, don’t think about writing. As writers, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine our identities without writing, but writing is just how we express who we are. Visit a quiet forest or a busy town square. People-watch or look for jellyfish in the warm coves or your nearest seaside. Connect with the world around you. Be present.
2. Take your time.
As much as you will resist this piece of advice, sometimes you need to shelf what you are working for a short time. We don’t often put our own personal wellbeing ahead of our writing, but we should. It can be really frustrating, but taking a longer period of time away from a piece can give you perspective and a point of view you didn’t have before. Don’t feel ashamed if you have to temporarily shelf something. We all know the writers who effortlessly write a novel in a ridiculously short period or time or can breathe out exceptional short stories in a single breath. It is okay to be someone who takes a little bit of time. We can’t all be prolific prodigies. And there is a charm to that. There is a charm to being a chip off the old block, going at your own pace, and smashing it regardless.
Remember the words and characters are not in charge of you. You are in charge of them. I sometimes find myself telling off a story or a character because they simply refuse to cooperate. Like a lot of other writers, I get very anxious when I can’t use the tool of my trade because it’s like my way of communicating has been closed off. You have to remind yourself that you are in charge of not just the content itself but also when you write. Instead of saying: I can’t write because I have Creative Block, adjust your way of thinking. I can’t write because I am choosing not too. Writing is a complicated craft. We can explain, to such an exact and precise science, how an athlete runs: their muscles and bones move in a certain way and gravity is a factor (Albeit this is an oversimplification but at least we know, step-by-step, what happens.) To write well, to bring together a solar system of techniques in order to elicit a certain emotional response from a reader or audience, and then to also wrap all that up in a good structure, voice, character development etc – that is a really hard job. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Take that feeling of being completely overwhelmed and tell it off every now and then.
4. Check in with your mental health.
Nine times out of ten, my Creative Block comes from my own mental health. That is fine and nothing to be ashamed of. You aren’t less of a writer for struggling. We don’t all show it, but every single one of us on this planet struggles with something. It’s important to know what about your work is triggering you. This is so you can investigate how combat your block. Let’s look back to what the mature student said in my seminar: he didn’t believe in creative block. He went on to explain how it was an excuse for people who weren’t ready to be writers. There is much about what he’s said which is wrong. I do believe there is such a thing as Creative Block and I don’t believe that people get it because they aren’t ready to be writers. What I believe is that people aren’t ready to confront something beneath. It isn’t that you aren’t a good enough writer or you aren’t a ready enough writer. Sometimes the answer is simple: You must ready yourself to confront something that makes you afraid.
5. Try a couple of writing techniques.
In the past, I have often resorted to a couple of different exercises to help. This is definitely a less internal way of working, but hey, it works. If it’s a particular story you are struggling with, use your MC, if it’s a new story, breathe life into someone new, but regardless you need a character.
- Finish the paragraph: [MC Name] sat in a chair.
- Finish the paragraph: [MC Name] lifted their pillow and found a gun.
- Finish the paragraph: [MC Name] started to run.
- Finish the paragraph: Though it was quiet between the two of them, [MC Name] was furious.
- In any given scene, what is the worst thing you could do for that particular character. Investigate response both on a internal but external level.
- Take your favourite book and look to the first sentence of any chapter. That is your jumping off point – no matter how random.
- Rewrite a scene of your own but from a different character’s perspective to your MC. It is just as important to know how your MC is perceived by others. Who we are, who we present and how we are perceived are all elements of our identities.
- Take your favourite book and rewrite a scene from it in your own voice.
You’ll notice there are some similarities between these techniques. They all involve stepping away in some form. No matter what people say about writing not being a real job or other writers saying that writing is easy, writing is hard. Of the tens of thousands of words you will write for a novel or a screenplay, the craft of writing a novel isn’t just to place the right words one in front of another, or to creating something gripping with voice and suspense, it is the larger picture stuff too. So much has to be satisfied in a single document and so much is required of you outside just doing the writing itself. Go easy on yourself. Remember that writing is hard, but you are trying your best.