Friday Fun – Beating Writer’s Block

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: We recently asked you what questions you’d like answered in our Friday Fun post. Today, we’re answering the following reader question:

FriFunQuestion7

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: Hi, Laurel. Writer’s Block is something each of us battles at one time or another. I have days when I believe it’s a real thing and days where I know it’s all in my head. Either way, I’ve dealt with it enough over the years that I wrote a four-part series on the topic:

I will also offer up this post on the challenge of starting. I hope you find these posts helpful in understanding and overcoming your writer’s block. Good luck!

LL HeadshotLee Laughlin: Sit down in a place where you are comfortable and with the beverage of your choice, and your favorite writing implement and word collection device (pen & paper, lap top, crayon and paper napkin, whatever floats your boat).

Set a timer for 5 minutes. Ready. Set. Write. Even if it is 5 minutes of “This sucks, I have no idea what to say. Where are my words?” Write. Don’t judge. Write. When the timer goes off, you’re done. Unless of course you’re not, then by all means keep writing.  Slowly increase the time on the timer. Writing is like exercise, to be successful, you need to be consistent. Write when you don’t feel like it. Write when you think it is going to suck. Just write.

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: All of the above! But to add a little bit to the conversation, my favorite acronym for this particular ailment is: BICHOK. Butt-in-chair-hands-on-keyboard.

Open that blank document and just start typing. Or open that notepad and just start writing. As Lee mentioned, you may not have any idea what to say — type/write that! “I have no idea what to write about, my brain is mush, words just aren’t coming to me.” Write ANYTHING. It may come out as all gibberish. It doesn’t matter – you’re clearing the decks and the words WILL come if you persist at it. The 5-minute timer is a great way to get started.

And so what if what you have after 5 minutes looks like an alien language? You can pat yourself on the back for getting THOSE words out of your head to make room for the real words (your story words) that *are* moving to the front of the line and that *will* hit the page if you keep striving to reach them.

 

Imagine the Unlikely – Tip for writing when you get stuck

So what happens when you hit that proverbial wall, you know the one where you are so out of ideas you sit in idle gear amazed at the ineffectiveness of your own imagination.  How do you work yourself out of that one?

Imagine the unlikely.  Photo credit: Koshyk

Imagine the unlikely.
Photo credit: Koshyk

Here’s a trick for you to try when you find yourself in this situation – start listing the most unlikely scenarios for your characters.

You know, like your character crosses the street and gets hit by a truck carrying poultry to a market (had to work in chickens somehow.)

Or looks down at her feet and find a flash drive dropped by an ex-Russian spy. (Hey who cares that your novel is based in the Victorian era?)

This is a case where something is better than nothing.

My point is that sometimes if you imagine something that is so outlandish and completely unlikely to happen, your mind might just step in to “correct” your thoughts. It’s kind of like asking for an answer to a problem before you go to sleep. You’ll sleep but your mind will continue working on the problem. Often with the morning sun will come the perfect solution. You just needed to step aside and let it emerge.  

If you think about an event for your character that doesn’t seem logical to your mind, I’m pretty sure that your talented brain is going to have a go at coming up with a better solution. It’s what humans do, we solve things.

I used to prove this to my writing students by giving them the homework assignment of going up to others and simply say “my stomach hurts.” My students had to report the findings to the class the next week.

Without exception, every student said that the responses were along the lines of:

  • Did you eat?
  • I’ll bet you ate the chicken salad?
  • Do you need to use the bathroom?
  • Do you want some Motrin?

Every single person they had said this to tried to come up with a solution to a problem. Without even knowing what the problem actually was (seriously, what if your stomach hurt because you had a cancerous tumor in it?) It doesn’t matter, this is human nature in action, we are a species of fixers and we just love to offer our solutions to make things right.

So knowing this, why not go ahead and use this wonderful skill to your writing advantage?

Perhaps your character won’t get hit by a truck filled with chickens, but maybe a little kid on a tricycle (wearing a chicken shaped protective helmet) accidentally drives into him which then sets up a meeting with the child’s very attractive (and recently divorced) mother.

Not going to find a flash drive in Victorian England? Okay but perhaps your main character sees a card from a stereoscope lying on the ground instead and when she picks it up, she realizes that not only is it her in the photo but also a twin sister that she never knew about (but how could that be if the photo of them is taken when they are both adults?) Hmmmm.

See? If you introduce unlikely events to your character, your mind (which, let’s face it, already knows where your story is going) will pretty quickly get to the task of getting your story back on track.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

I don’t know, I think I might have also been able to work chickens into that Victorian story if I had really tried. 🙂

Friday Fun – Lost your mojo?

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION:  It happens to all of us. You’re working on a piece and it just isn’t going well. Last you knew, you were smarter, sharper, funnier or whatever-er than this miserable article, story, or blog post. What do you do to get back on track?

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson: Ah, yes, losing  Mojo, it happens. Mojo seems to run off when I have a lot of time to dedicate to my project. I look forward to my time to write on the project and tell Muse, show up, and then Muse is off on a carefree cross-country motorcycle trip with Mojo.

I get frustrated, probably curse a time or two, and then laugh at the absurdity of thinking I’m floundering. I mean, seriously, Muse and Mojo as a couple? Ha! No chance they’ll last longer than a few hours, and then both come racing back and want to be first in line with the apology.

It’s funny to see the imaginary expressions on their faces when they realize I’ve completed a brand new project that neither was privvy to, while they stepped out together.

Once Muse and Mojo are back at home, though, I can finish up the project they ran away from quickly enough, since they both go above and beyond to get back in my good graces. 🙂

headshot_jw_thumbnailJamie Wallace: I smiled when I read this week’s question. The column I wrote for my local paper this week was a perfect example of losing my mojo. Ironically, it was on a topic that I thought would be a breeze: my cats. I had a mind mapped outline that sprawled up, down, and across a whole page in my notebook. I had plenty to say and passion for my subject matter, but try as I might I just couldn’t get the words to come out right. My column typically clocks in around 600 – 700 words. I think I wrote three times that over four false starts. I’d literally get 400 words into a draft and think to myself, “Nope. That’s not it.” It was exhausting. I eventually found my groove, but it was a grueling process.

When I find myself in this situation, it usually means that I haven’t prepared enough. I either don’t have enough reference material (often the case on client projects), or I just haven’t found the angle that makes everything clear for me. There are other reasons that come into play (I explored several of them in my series on writer’s block), but usually the underlying culprit is simply that I’m not ready – tactically, logistically, or emotionally.

What do I do? First, I keep writing – trying to pull something through that will give me the thread of an idea or perspective I’m looking for. If that fails me (and I haven’t backed myself into a corner by procrastinating right up to my deadline), I will walk away for a while – get outside, go for a walk, take a karate class – anything to get my head out of the work. Finally, I’ll read something – anything. Sometimes, reading someone else’s words can help me get mine flowing.

photo: M. Shafer

photo: M. Shafer

Deborah Lee Luskin: Yup. Happens all the time. My answer? A walk. A true, four-to-six-mile walk works best, but if I don’t have the time or weather for that, simply walking away from my desk and doing something else also does the trick. It’s a matter of time and space – giving my mind enough of both to freewheel through its mysterious processes. And just as mysteriously, it comes back. Learning patience and having faith that this is so has made my life as a writer much richer and more productive – and I’m a lot happier, as a result.

 

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: When I start to lose my oomph for my writing, I walk away and do something else, as Jamie and Deborah mentioned. I often plan for this–most of the time I write a blog post draft and then put it away, usually for a couple of days, occasionally only for a couple of hours. With my other writing, I am sometimes blind-sided by the sudden lack of enthusiasm for the project. When this happens, I do exercises to get back on track (since I’ve usually set aside only a specific period of time and I don’t want to squander it). Creative writing prompts, open-focus techniques, a short stint at meditating while sitting at my desk–all of these can work for me. In those moments, I just stay at my desk until I’m back into work mode (or my time is up!)

Writer’s Block Cause 3: Not knowing where to start

Sometimes, even if we have overcome our fear and found the time, it’s difficult to get the pen moving across the page or our fingertips tapping on the keyboard. Though we have summoned the courage and carved out the hour, we may simply not know where to begin. Despite slaying some of our demons, we find ourselves once again paralyzed by writer’s block, only this time the culprit grinning at us from the blank page is confusion.

The beginning of a project can make you feel like you’re standing at the foot of a very large and very intimidating mountain. Worse, as you contemplate the task before you, that imposing edifice seems to rise up out of the earth, stretching higher and higher above you, sending small avalanches of stones skittering and sliding in your direction. The longer you wait, the bigger the challenge becomes, until you may as well be trying to climb to the moon.

It’s not that bad. I promise.

Here are a few tips to help you cut that mountain down to size (or, at least get your feet moving up the first slope):

Break it down: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Not that I’d want to eat an elephant. At all. But, it’s a well-known analogy that also applies to any project. It’s not enough for you to block out time to “work on your novel.” You need to get specific about what you will do: work on an outline, do a character sketch of the heroine’s older sister, write the first scene of chapter three, edit chapter ten. Breaking the Big Thing down into smaller bites makes it a lot more palatable (and less scary). This was never better said than by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. (A book I highly recommend for writers of all kinds.)

Have a plan: Of course, to break things down, you need to understand the component parts of your project. This is what makes it possible to develop a good plan. Do you have a process for writing a story, a blog post, a novel? How do you break things down? If you’re not sure, get sure. Figure out how you get from start to finish. For a blog post, it might involve brainstorming, mind mapping, research, a first draft and a couple rounds of edits. For a more complex project – like a novel – you’ll have more steps. I am a fan of Larry Brooks’ Storyfix planning process for fiction writing. Good stuff.

Though the artist in you might rail against the idea of process, there is something empowering about knowing where you’re going. Give yourself the gift of a roadmap for your creative journey. Just because you are making a plan doesn’t mean it won’t be an adventure.

Start in the middle: They say that starting is the hardest part, and they are right. The first word, the first sentence, the first paragraph – these are often the most daunting tasks in a writing project. How do we get the ball rolling? What brilliant line will hook our readers into reading the rest of the piece? Why, oh, why can’t we think of a single opening statement? Relax. Forget about it. It’s true that your finished piece will need a first line, but that doesn’t mean you have to start there. Start in the middle. Just start writing anything – whatever comes easily. The important thing is to build up some momentum – give yourself that jumpstart and then keep going. You’ll eventually circle back to the beginning … when you’re ready.

Remember that nothing is written in stone: One of the most beautiful things about writing is the iterative nature of the process. In truth, most of our writing is never done – we simply set it free when we reach a random point of satisfaction. The first draft is only the beginning. It’s not meant to be perfect. No one else ever has to see it. You will get a second chance, and a third, and a fourth, and … you get the idea. The first draft should be crap. That’s what first drafts are for. Revel in the realization that you have the freedom to go ahead and make a mess of things. Breathe a sigh of relief and just play. Get some words down. Give yourself something to work with. That is the writer’s first job.

Bonus: remember self-care: Creative juices don’t flow well when you’re all tied up in knots. Give yourself the gift of some TLC. Give yourself some love. Give yourself a break. Sometimes, the wisest thing you can do is walk away … for a little while. Go for a walk. Clear your head. Give your mind something else to chew on for a while. I guarantee that if you can give your creative muse the room to stretch and breathe, she’ll come back to you with the solution to your problem. I get most of my best ideas while I’m driving, doing yoga, or taking a shower. Don’t try to force things. Take care of your need for reflection, fun, play … whatever gets you going. It’ll help put you in the right frame of mind for developing your plan, breaking down your Big Project, and getting started with enthusiasm and joy.

So, how about you? What are you going to start today? How are you going to start? Tell us and then get going and get it going! 

This is the third post in a series about the causes of that fictitious condition known as writer’s block. In the previous entry, we talked about finding the time to write and in the first we tackled the topic of fear. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone who feels they have suffered from this inability to put words down. I just believe that if we can uncover and face the root causes of this uniquely literary affliction, we can slay the writer’s block dragon and get back to the work at hand. Who’s with me?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: gigi 62

Writer’s Block Cause 2: Life

“I was going to write the next great, American novel; but life got in the way.”

Though it is the source of all our experience and inspiration, there are days when “life” can be one hell of a nuisance to a writer. Life doesn’t care that we just had a breakthrough on the blog post/essay/article/poem/novel we’re working on. There are still kids to be picked up, work deadlines to be met, laundry to be done, and bills to pay. (Oh, the bills!) There are family and social obligations, housework, homework, and busy work. There is no question that “life” can block our ability to write. Not only does it sop up precious keyboard time, it drains us of the energy we need to summon our inner muse and create.
 
Too tired? Too busy? Too bad. 

The reality of life is a particularly tricky piece of the writer’s block puzzle. Fear is easily labeled as something that emanates from within. It is a beast of our own creation and therefore one we should be able to un-create (or, at least tame). Life’s overwhelming demands, however, seem to come from without. They appear as an external force, bearing down upon us. We do not overwhelm ourselves, the world overwhelms us – the task at hand, the laundry, the work deadlines, our in-laws coming to visit. Without even realizing that we’ve done it, we subconsciously give up our power over the situation by living with the assumption that life “happens to us” and is outside of our control.

Not so.

Being overwhelmed by life is a mindset, one that many of us have been trained to adopt as our status quo. Americans are especially prone to constant proclamations of exhaustion, insane workloads, and unending obligations. With each new complaint and sigh, we invite these things into our lives and feel forced into letting go of the things most dear to us – like our writing, for instance.
 
But, I really AM busy! 

Of course you are. We all are. But, we’re never quite as busy as we believe we are. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is a hackneyed expression, but one that nevertheless holds a lot of truth. The trouble starts when we use “being busy” as a crutch – an excuse that keeps us from doing our great work. I readily admit that I sometimes make up “musts” and “shoulds” in order to avoid sitting down to write. We all do.

Automatically saying, “I don’t have enough time” is one of my favorite crutches. Those words have become so familiar rolling off my tongue; they are almost a reflex. I’m a single mom running a marketing and copywriting business, often working past midnight, writing for multiple blogs, and too often getting involved with causes and pro bono projects. I could easily be the poster child for people who don’t have enough time.
 
But, I’m changing that. 

I’m training myself to recognize the time I used to leave lying around. Though I at first hated to admit their existence, I now delight in discovering little pockets of time that I can use however I like. One of the best ways to jumpstart this practice is to stop waiting for a big block of uninterrupted time. I’ve wasted years waiting for a full day to write, or even a block of three or four hours. I’ve turned my nose up at the smaller, less appetizing handfuls of minutes that came my way almost every day. No more. Now, if I see fifteen minutes that I could scoop up and use to work on a project, I snag them and scribble away with all my heart.

I’ve also started putting time in my schedule for the things I want to do as well as the things I need to do. In addition to writing more, I promised myself that 2012 would be a year of more time spent with friends. I want coffee and lunch dates. Lots of them. And I’m making it happen. I’m just putting them on my calendar. I’m setting that time aside and putting a big, alligator-filled moat around it. You need to protect your “sacred” time – whether it’s for friends or writing or just sitting and doing nothing. Sometimes, you have to protect it from yourself – you need to make conscious and careful decisions: “Will I use the next forty-five minutes to write, or to watch a re-run of ‘Bones’ on Netflix?” (A dilemma I face quite frequently. Sometimes, ‘Bones’ wins.)

Lastly, I’ve stopped saying how over-booked and time-poor I am. I’ve stopped saying it out loud, and I’ve stopped saying it in my head. I’m trying on an abundance mindset when it comes to time. It’s working some miracles.  I’ve heard it said that we “create” time by how we perceive it. I’ve been amazed to find how much more open my schedule seems these days, now that I’m expecting to have time. It’s like magic, but suddenly I do have time. I’ve been reading more, writing more, and working on plans for some new projects. I’ve had more time with my daughter, more time to cook, more time to spend with friends. I wouldn’t have believed it, except that I’m living it.
 
You can change it too. Start by being aware and then get fierce. 

Start paying attention – really paying attention – to how you spend your time. Hear yourself saying “yes” to things that are going to take time away from your writing. Make a mental note when you choose time-wasters over writing. Don’t judge or berate yourself. Just notice.

After a while, you’ll start to see patterns. You’ll begin to dabble in reclaiming your writing time – a few minutes at a time. You’ll like the way it feels to bring that practice back into your day. You’ll want more. Start setting up those moats around your writing time and protecting them as if your life depended on it. It does – your writing life, anyway. No one else will make the time for you. No one else will push you past the blocks that life sets up for you. Only you can fight that battle and take back what’s yours.
 
So – what are you going to do? Are you going to let life become part of your writer’s block, or are you going to make your life feed your writing?
 
If you’re interested in more tips about finding/creating/managing time, you might want to check out Laura Vanderkam’s book 168 Hours. I haven’t read much past the introduction so far, but from what I’ve heard it’s a great resource for learning how to see the time you have in a whole new light.

This is the second post in a series about the causes of that fictitious condition known as writer’s block. In the previous entry, we talked about fear. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone who feels they have suffered from this inability to put words down. I just believe that if we can uncover and face the root causes of this uniquely literary affliction, we can slay the writer’s block dragon and get back to the work at hand. Who’s with me?


Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Writer’s Block Cause 1: Fear

You’re a writer on a deadline. You know you should be cranking on your assignment, but instead you’re staring at a blank page with your mouth open, your heart pounding, and your mind doing its best impression of a black hole. You have no good ideas. You can’t string together a single sentence. The lifeless forms of impotent words are strewn around you like so much literary roadkill. You’re suddenly sure that everything you’ve ever written is crap. The void of the stark white and oh-so-empty page starts to give you a bad case of vertigo.

Writer’s block – the kryptonite we dare not name. 

Whether writing is how you make your living or how you feed your passion, there are few things more terrifying to a writer than sitting down and finding the words have stopped flowing. But what causes this sudden paralysis? It’s not a virus or a temporary gene mutation. It’s not hereditary or influenced by environmental factors. In fact, there is no clinical proof that writer’s block exists, and yet writers routinely claim their muses are held hostage in its grip.

What if writer’s block is simply a convenient name for a collection of common roadblocks that keep writers from writing? What if, instead of fearing this mysterious affliction, you could break it down to its most basic elements and wrest yourself from its control? I believe that’s not only a possibility, but also our obligation. As writers, we have a responsibility to create. We don’t have time to waste with fabricated demons.

Writer’s Block Cause #1: Fear

Yes, it’s that obvious.

Writer’s block isn’t about some external force sucking your ideas and talent away. Writer’s block is about your own fear taking over your nervous system and depleting your confidence to the point of paralysis. It’s about attempting to avoid pain and disappointment by eliminating risk. Putting your thoughts out into the world requires courage and conviction. When your fears inspire a case of vicious self-doubt and second-guessing, it’s no wonder you end up feeling sapped of creative juices.

The bad news:

You have every right to be afraid. Your fears are not unfounded or irrational.

The most common fear – fear of failure – is totally justified. There’s every chance you might fail. You might find that you don’t have the chops to deliver a particular assignment. You might come under fire for “doing it wrong.” You might find yourself suffering the slings and arrows of self-appointed critics. You might have to endure public exposure or ridicule. Worst of all, you might be awoken one night by the initial tremors of your writing dream’s death throes.

There are so many things that can trigger our fear. Apart from the human impulse to imagine the worst case scenario, writers have a particular aptitude for self-flagellation via comparison. We read the brilliant work of someone else and start to wonder why we even bother. We dread putting our own work out into the world for fear that someone else will make the same comparison and find our efforts wanting. The world is full of heartless assassins who won’t hesitate to put a bullet in our writing.

The good news:

The good news is that your fear comes from love. You love writing. You love story. You love your craft. Your fear mirrors the depth and intensity of your love. No wonder it’s powerful enough to strike you dumb! Your fear is just a normal reaction to your desire to protect something you care about. It’s not unusual for a stressful situation to send even the most rational of us into that fight-or-flight space. And what could be more stressful than risking the survival of something that is such a big part of who we are? Bring on the lizard brain and forget about sticking your neck out. Give in to writer’s block and keep your tender dreams alive, right?

Wrong.

Now What?

You’ve identified and acknowledged your fear. You understand that it’s holding you back. What’re you going to do about it? Fear is a pretty tenacious emotion. It’s not impressed by logic. You aren’t going to argue your way out of this one. Instead, let’s try a story.

When you start to feel the waves of doubt and fear creeping up from your heart into your brain and then down to your fingertips where they rest motionless on the keyboard, tell yourself the story of your journey as a writer. Start with gently reminding yourself that it is a journey. No one wakes up one morning a fully formed writer. The transformation from aspiring writer to accomplished writer requires traveling a usually long and almost always twisting road. Your writer self needs to grow and learn and evolve, just like you do. Be gentle with her. Don’t expect her to be a master craftsman the first time out.

Remember that you are the hero of your story. Guess what – the hero never has it easy. If you’re going to have your happy ending, you’re going to have to go through some stuff. Some of it will be good, some of it not so good. You will be challenged. You will fall down and have to get back up. You will face demons and dragons and bad guys. You will lose your way and find it again. Each time you get derailed or discouraged, remember that this is just part of what it means to be a hero. These are the experiences that will prepare you for later victory.

Accept where you are in your journey. Celebrate your triumphs and embrace your failures.  Know that you must experience both to become the writer you’re meant to be. Count each elated high and each desperate low as equally valuable notches on your literary belt. Remember that your fear comes from love and is a completely normal reaction to the stress of potential failure. Feel the fear and write anyway. Savor the lessons learned at least as much as the outcome of your efforts. You may never fully eradicate your fear, but you will at least learn to live with it and – more importantly – write through it.

How does your fear keep you from writing? What are your biggest fears? How do you push past them? 

This is the first post in a series about the causes of that fictitious condition known as writer’s block. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone who feels they have suffered from this inability to put words down. I just believe that if we can uncover and face the root causes of this uniquely literary affliction, we can slay the writer’s block dragon and get back to the work at hand. Who’s with me?


Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Darren Hestor