The age-old struggle of writers all over the world. Can you imagine Tolstoy, Tolkien, or Sanderson smashing their head over and over on the keyboard?
I can’t. Because…queue dramatic music…I don’t believe in writer’s block.
I believe in being creatively drained, sick and tired of a specific story or character. I believe in being unable to think coherently due to lack of rest, stress, or crappy eating habits. I believe in being depressed or anxious.
But do I believe that your brain just doesn’t know what to write next, that the next piece of story just magically isn’t there? Nope, not even a little.
Hear me out.
Your brain is basically a super computer. It’s programmable, just like a computer (maybe not JUST like a computer, but you get the gist).
You can program your brain to be repulsed by the mention of sugar (I’m still working on that one, but I’m told it’s possible). You can program it to need exercise at exactly 9am Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You can program it to get excited when the Bachelor comes on.
You can also program it to be creative.
Listen closely young Padawan while I impart the secrets of the Universe 😉
Read it again, blink a few times, read it again, and shake your head like you’ll never believe me. But that’s the secret, so read it one more time.
Creativity on demand comes from having a routine that presages your creative periods. Top performers across numerous disciplines have learned that habits begin with routines, and that a carefully structured routine can help you to quickly slip into a flow state, where creativity is at its peak.
Of course, YMMV. Everyone is different, so you’ll need to customize things to suit your peculiarities.
Without further ado, here’s my creative routine. I’ve dialed this in to my needs over time, and it works perfectly for me. Every single time.
The biggest trick is to start at roughly the same time every day. I’m free from childcare duties in the morning after breakfast, so at about 9am (give or take 30 minutes), I begin. This works for any habit, not just creative writing, as the brain LOVES routine. Doing the same thing at the same time each day is like crack for the brain.
I gather my necessities: tissues, water, ChapStick, and a fidget spinner. I hate being interrupted, even if it’s an interruption I create myself, so I even keep nail clippers by my desk so if a pesky hangnail occurs I don’t have to move far.
Before I sit, I stretch to get my blood flowing. I do squats, touch my toes, roll my shoulders, basically high school gym class stuff. Once I’m settled into my writing chair, I stay there for the full time if at all possible, so I need a good stretch before settling in.
Engage multiple senses to kick things off (taste, smell, etc.). I used to chew a special flavor of gum, but since my jaw’s been acting up (I’ve got temporomandibular joint disorder) I’ve had to switch things up.
So I replaced gum with eating a banana, shudder (I’m neither a vegan nor a gorilla, so “keep that shit away from me” was my normal response to bananas). Alas, they’re healthy, and I had to replace gum chewing with something…might as well get potassium while I’m at it.
Whatever you do, this third step must be something unique to your day and to this activity. Something that you ONLY do before you write, and that engages multiple senses, because what you’re doing here is effectively a trigger.
I start my Spotify music, selecting whatever fits for the goals for the day. Depending on what I’m doing for the day depends on what I listen to. When I’m writing an action scene, I like to listen to fast-paced, aggressive, hardcore music. If I’m writing an emotional, gooey love scene, I listen to soft singing. IT’s easiest to write if your music has no words, but again, YMMV. I absolutely can’t listen to music with words when I’m editing, so I’ve got an impressive collection of what I call “La, la, laaaaaa” music.
I open whatever I’m working on, reread whatever I last wrote to help anchor in the scene and flow of the story, and boom, I’m inspired and the writing flows.
Yes, it’s that easy.
I’m convinced that the majority of people who say they have writers block simply lack discipline and consistency in their process.
Harsh? Maybe a little, but in my experience and my observation of top performers across various fields, being able to “turn it on” on demand is about discipline and routine, nothing more.
Now, the real beauty this process is that you can customize the routine to your exact preferences. Maybe your first task is loading the dishwasher or feeding the cat, maybe it’s taking off your bra and slipping on fuzzy socks. Make a cup of tea, or whiskey, turning on yelling punk music, or soap opera ballads, reciting your favorite Shakespeare passages, or standing on your head.
Whatever your want your routine to be, make it yours, make it precious, make it simple. Create a list of three or four tasks, complete those tasks at the same time and place each day, and sit down to write.
Within a few weeks you’ll find that when your designated time rolls around, you find yourself inspired when you start task one.
In fact, over time you can remove and shorten bits of the routine, a little at a time, and you can maintain the same effect. This is what Josh Waitzkin, a world champion at both chess and Tai Chi, calls making smaller circles.
Some days, I don’t even need to progress to task two or three. I’m inspired as soon as I find my Chapstick. No joke. Routine is a powerful thing.
Okay, so now you understand the process, and you’ve created your own personalize routine. Let’s move on.
An important part of this process is getting into flow. A flow state is very critical part of being inspired, and is key to the creative process, so don’t discount it or dismiss it. If you’re not familiar with flow, read this now.
Flow is probably one of my most useful tools, because once I enter into that glorious state, it’s so easy to be creative. One of the most important parts of flow though is to not be interrupted. This is critical.
Put the dog outside, silence the phone, shut the door, put a very aggressive and mean sign on the door to prevent anyone from disturbing you. When you are in flow, you are OFF LIMITS.
Every time you interrupt flow, it can take upwards of 30 minutes to return. That’s 30 minutes of creativity down the drain.
Some people will be like, “but I multi-task so well! I can check twitter or Facebook!” NO YOU CAN’T. Yes, I just yelled at you.
Less than 2 percent of the population can actually multitask, and there’s a 98% chance you aren’t one of them, even if you think you are (read this).
Flow is a precious and wonderful thing, because it allows you to immerse yourself in the creative process, to feel the words and let them drip from your fingers. It’s is a direct companion to the muses, so don’t disrupt the power.
Protect your flow like you would a precious stone, or the last gulp of water in the desert. That means no interruptions. None. Zero. Zip. Nada.
Okay, I’ve sufficiently pounded in the importance of routine and protecting your flow state, so I’ll move on.
While I might not believe in writer’s block, I believe in being creatively drained. One day, my kid was at preschool, so I had an abundance of time on my hands. What did I do? I wrote.
I ended up writing for like six hours that day, and at the end I had nothing left in the tank. Physically, mentally, emotionally, all of it was gone. I had trouble forming sentences I was so drained. No joke.
After that I needed a recharge. But needing to recharge is not writers block. It’s your body’s way of saying “take a damn break you sadist”.
So how do you recharge? That’s a great question young grasshopper.
Now, I can only tell you how I recharge, and this is another personal process that needs to be tailored to the individual.
On that particular day I took a nice, relaxing bath, with a LUSH bath bomb. I listened to thunder, on a white noise app, and I thought of… drum roll… stories. Swoon. I recharge by telling myself clichéd, sappy stories (usually romance). Yep, I am a storyteller through and through.
I got all toasty warm, and after said bath, I turned on some awesome music. Listening to lyrics always seem to get the creative juices flowing for me as well.
I also take every Saturday off, and sometimes Sunday as well if I feel I need it. No matter what though I take Saturday off and do basically nothing (besides human stuff, taking care of the kid and husband). I’ll go into this (probably) at a future time, but as a writer there are specific expectations, and I take Saturday to let go of the routine and obligations and just unwind. Zen 🙂
That means I don’t read, write, read about writing. Nothing linguistically creative.
Usually I color, craft, or paint. I focus my creativity on something else, well, creative. HA! But alas, I’m a creator, and therefore I must create something, even on my off days. But I reserve Saturday to do exactly what I want to do. It’s also my diet cheat day, so I eat whatever I want too. It’s a magical day.
So that’s my typical recharge process: a bath, music, and a day off. Guess what? I don’t eat bananas on Saturday either, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Every single day I sit down to write, and every single day I’m “inspired”.
It’s not magic, it’s science.
I haven’t suffered from from this mythical beast called writer’s block since I stared my writing routine six years ago.
So the question is, what is it that writers who say they have writers block are actually suffering from?
Oh boy, that’s probably a big bag of cats, but here goes.
I think for many it’s a fear of being judged. If you’re always in the process of writing, nobody gets to judge your work, so you’re safe. When you complete something, and have to go out and get eyeballs on it…well, to a lot of people, that’s scary af.
This might be mean, but I will say it anyway, so hate me if you want: If you’re so afraid of being judged, why are you a writer?
The only reason to fear having your writing judged by others is if you’re a fixed mindset person, someone who believes they can’t or don’t need to improve.
If you have a growth mindset, a belief that hard work will help you improve, then having others read and judge and critique your writing is just another step in improving your abilities.
Now, to be fair, I’ve got to look in the mirror when I say this. Because when I first wrote stories, way back when I was 15, I was afraid of being judged. I feared it so bad I told no one of my stories. I minimized the screen when my parents walked into my room.
Eventually I stopped writing completely because I was so afraid of being judged, and I didn’t write another word of fiction for years. All my fingers typed were essays and research papers.
And finally, when I first started writing again almost a decade later, at first I didn’t dream of being a published author. I thought only very special individuals can be published writers, unique stars that are elevated because of their talent.
My husband convinced me otherwise, and helped me to adopt not only a growth mindset, but the self-confidence to reach for the stars.
So, now you face a choice, just as I did:
Hide behind the fear of being judged, of receiving criticism, of being laughed at and scorned, and told you suck…
What if the world needs your story? What if people need your voice and your unique perspective to enrich their lives? You owe it to them, and yourself, to at least give it your best effort.
So either toughen up, face the critiques of readers and agents and editors, and give the world your story…or don’t.
It’s all up to you.
And that, as they say, is that. My opinion that writer’s block doesn’t exist.
I have many, many quotes from authors saying just that, and I believe them.
There is no writer’s block, just writing excuses, and those excuses can be overcome by creating a solid routine, by giving yourself time to creatively recharge, and by realizing the world’s judgement won’t stop you from telling a great story.
But wait, let’s say you’ve crafted the perfect routine, you’ve recharged creatively, and you’re still struggling?
I’ve got a tool for that too.
I’m amazing I know, thanks for noticing 🙂
Read a portion (or all of it depending on length) of what you last wrote, read it carefully, internalize it. Then delete the last paragraph.
Yep, you read that right. Delete.
After the shock, and betrayal, and despair has faded from deleting a precious paragraph, write it again. If that doesn’t start the creative juices, you’ve got to get more extreme. Brace yourself.
Delete the last page.
Yep, I’ll give you a moment to stop hyperventilating. Moment.
After you’ve sufficiently recovered from deleting a whole page, rewrite it.
Now, if this doesn’t kick start your creative juices you’ve got more work to do.
The dreaded list making. Well, I’m not sure if you dread it, but I don’t like lists because I never seem to finish the list, and I feel bad for failing. But that’s my issue.
Make a list of everything that can go wrong for your protagonist. Get more and more serious as you get lower on the page. It doesn’t even have to be realistic. This is pure inspiration, so make it extreme.
Let’s do a practice run with a hero named Bob, who is fighting an evil Turnip:
• Bob trips and breaks his nose, the gushing blood blocks his vision, and Turnip breaks his arm.
• Bob tries to throw boiling water at Turnip and ends up burning his face off.
• Bob chucks a shovel at Turnip.
• Bob consults Bobby Flay and decided on the best recipe to cook Turnip.
• Bob uses a net to catch Turnip, but Turnip breaks through the rope and bites Bob’s fingers off.
• Bob learns a magic spell that turns Turnip into a beat, and they make music together.
See how that works? Just list out things that make life more difficult for your hero. Eventually something will stand out and you can run with that.
What if that doesn’t work?
Well, not that I’m an advocate of giving up, but at this point if all my tools don’t work, throw in the towel. For the day, not forever; let’s not get extreme.
Sometimes it’s okay to realize that, for whatever reason, it’s not the right time to be writing.
But, this is a caution, if this is happening to you often, then it’s time to reexamine the story. Maybe the story, or the protagonist, or the plot isn’t right, and therefore it’s just time to shelve it and move on. Or to rework things completely.
Sometimes your subconscious is just telling you things are off, and conscious you doesn’t want to accept it. Well, accept it. Take some space, take a breather, and come back to it after a mental break.
And if that doesn’t help, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Okay, so you’ve stuck with me this far, and I appreciate it, so let’s go over what we’ve learned:
- Routine is your friend. Routine will call up the nine muses from wherever they lay to rest on your shoulder and whisper sweet inspiration into your ear.
- Don’t fear judgement, for you are a god among men, you are a ferocious beast, you are an oncoming storm set to ravage the land and take no prisoners. You fear no judgement.
- Set aside time to creatively recharge, and create a routine to help.
- If you’re still struggling, delete the last paragraph, or page, and start fresh.
- If it’s still not working for ya, take a mental health day.
- If it’s STILL not working, consider looking at the story, and see if that’s where the problem lies.
The concept of writer’s block is a crutch, an excuse to not do the hard work.
So take some extreme ownership, and do what needs doing.
You’ve got this 🙂
Now, go forth and write!