“The problems we feel most alone with are, by definition, a shared reality with millions of others, separated by shame and shyness.” — Alain de Botton
After being completely blocked creatively for more than a year and half, I recently finally broke through and completed a draft of a book I have already spent far too much of my life working on.
It’s not the first time I’ve been blocked and it’s unlikely to be my last. I can declare it the most frustrating thing ever.
I felt like a phony – here I am claiming I love to write, when I wasn’t actually doing it. That induced shame, adding another soul-crushing layer to everything.
I feel I’m fairly self-aware and often able to correct my own problems, but I became overwhelmed by a paralysis that felt like it was going to choke me. I wanted to write so much, yet I had no idea why it felt like I just couldn’t.
I had everything a writer could want – time, quiet, privacy. (Just in case that sounds too idyllic, I can vouch for the times when I had none of these and I still didn’t write…)
When the dam broke, it felt like coming home. I reconnected with my most favourite part of myself. I was euphoric. Granted, I am rather an all or nothing type, passionate rather than cautious, effusive rather than measured. But even if the experience of writing is not always heady (and it’s very often not), it was still a potent reminder of how important it is to stay in touch with that side of me.
To be prepared for the next time I might get blocked, I am putting down everything I know that has helped in the hopes it may help others too. This applies not just to writing but any creative output.
1. Three sideways tactics
When stuck, the most nourishing thing to do is study great art. Great art is our greatest teacher.
Learning lessens the suckiness (a tad) of being blocked. This is does not mean zoning out, which is how we sometimes imbibe (binge watching, or numbing ourselves from the real world). Instead, be present and participate. Study techniques, make notes and connect what you’re imbibing with your own work. Keep learning all the time.
Some further tips:
- Sometimes deconstructing familiar work is more effective as you’re not distracted by experiencing it for the first time.
- Try stepping out of your favoured genres once in a while to see how a different medium or genre offers solutions to the same problems.
- Try cross-pollination. I take storytelling tactics from films and apply them to writing fiction. I learn about human behaviour (and what is a story but the consequences of human behaviour?) from podcasts about economics and science. Many film directors use great photographers’ work as inspiration for framing their stories or capturing mood.
- Be expansive in the range of input, but be selective about quality; only imbibe the good stuff. The quality of evocative art and dynamic craft – whether in reporting, dance, music, films or books – takes us on a meaningful journey that lingers long after it ends.
- My photography professor in college told us when he first started, he would put his photos alongside his favourite photographers’ work and compare them side by side. You too can try that, if you don’t mind being a masochist. Or if it won’t paralyse you further.
Observe and note
Even when I was so blocked I didn’t write a word for a year and half, I still scribbled down tons of notes. I did this partly so to not forget some little gem that may come in use One Day (and they were all used at the end). And also to tell the universe that I had not given up, that I was still loyal to my book, even if it was incomplete.
(My memory, once sharp, has become a sieve. I retain nothing. And either because the mind is relaxed just before I fall asleep or it’s a way for the muse to test my devotion, that’s when I usually get an idea phrased exactly right, which means I have to write it down then and there. I don’t always keep a notebook and pencil by my bedside, so I’ve often typed it into my phone’s notepad with eyes half closed. In the morning – thanks to autocorrect – I stare, stumped, at my screen, trying to decipher the nonsensical words.)
Stay in the realm
Even when I wasn’t writing fiction, I still wrote my diary every day and this blog once in a while. Neither were like trying to craft a made up story but it helped keep the wheels somewhat oiled.
2. Know thyself
I wanted to be the kind of writer who wrote daily because I’d heard that’s what every good writer does. I also heard the mind is fresh in the morning so that’s when it’s best to put in a good number of hours. “Treat it like any other job,” was another common refrain.
Here’s the reality: I once finished a draft by writing on a series of Sunday mornings, my one free window while on a hectic job. It wasn’t ideal but it still worked.
When I had more time, I still did not succeed in writing in the mornings. What stank about being hung up on that notion was that for months if I didn’t write first thing then I wouldn’t write at all. It was a lot of unnecessary pressure to work the way I thought I had to work. For what it’s worth: I wrote at times for half an hour before going out to dinner, or for three hours after coming home late. As much as I strive to have a routine, I don’t often work in one.
Personally, I’m more a binge-y sort of writer. Once I get going I have to stop myself from writing all the time, otherwise I’m in danger of ending up a smelly hermit with no friends. After not writing for 18 months, I finished the next draft in two weeks. The only time of day I did not write was first thing in the morning. Go figure.
So please know that if you don’t follow some external rule that works for other people (even if it works for every single person you know) then it doesn’t mean you’re broken. It just means you have to figure out the method that suits you best.
Side note: I suspect advice like this originated from men who had other people taking care of their household; they had the luxury to wake up, eat a hot breakfast, then sit down to write undisturbed. Instead, look to Jane Austen who wrote in her sitting room and used a sheet of paper to cover her work when visitors called. Or from Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote in her book You Learn By Living: “Because my husband and my children naturally were of first importance, the other activities often had to be carried on in a room where any number of things were happening, with children playing on the floor, shouting, and making all kinds of noise. Either I could learn to continue with the reading, writing, or whatever I had to do in the midst of this turmoil, or I would have to relinquish it.”
3. Try these tactics
Here are what specifically helped me overcome two major blocks:
One was many years ago when I realised I was clutching too hard. Thus if I got out of my own way, the writing would flow. I know that sounds esoteric but it worked a treat. And the reason was that I finally realised that the work comes through me, and not from me. As writer Joyce Carol Oates once said: “I’m just the garden hose that the water sprays through.”
Though this didn’t work as an unblocking tactic again (hard to have the same a-ha moment a second time) it was an important and vital step in my creative thinking and outlook.
More recently, I tricked myself by asking a friend I’m slightly intimidated by creatively if he would read my manuscript. He kindly said yes. He was going to be on a long flight in three weeks’ time. Even though he didn’t say he was going to read it on the plane, I told myself that he just might do so if I handed him a hard copy by then. So that’s what I promised him.
This is great to try if you are like me and would rather swallow your own vomit than go back on your word. This isn’t always an effective tactic to use with a close friend or family member, where you can make excuses to postpone and they’ll love you anyway. Best to pick someone who maybe doesn’t have a super high opinion of you, and you want to prove them wrong. Dead. Effing. Wrong.
Likewise, go ahead and use whatever traits you may feel are not cricket but can be appropriated to your advantage for this situation:
- If you’re super competitive, make a bet with a friend.
- If you hate to let down random people you don’t know or like very much (and I say that with love), then join a writers group.
- If you get distracted working alone, set up a recurring appointment to work side by side with another artist (who does his/her own project).
- If you prefer to be accountable to an authority figure, work with a coach who sets targets and deadlines.
4. More tactics
Less time: work on your project for only 15 minutes a day, or even just five minutes. Sometimes we’re just too ambitious and it overwhelms us. Do it before or after something you already do, like brushing your teeth, if you like. This worked for me in the prep stage (see below).
Fewer projects: another way to manage ambitions effectively is to work on just one thing at a time. If you’re juggling too many creative projects (or just too many projects in general) at the same time, you can feel scattered and guilty. Get one project to a certain stage of completion before tackling another one.
Time management: I’d always run my errands, but put off the important things because they were more time consuming, and I thought I’d need to clear space in my calendar. I’m still the kind of person who will go grocery shopping first and then sit down to write, so I’m not the model to emulate here, but it did make me buy my groceries faster so I could come back to write, if that helps at all.
Of course, the general wisdom here is to prioritise the important – your creative work – before the lesser stuff. After all, do you want to look back on your day, week, month, year, life, and say: hey, at least I was always on top of my laundry, woo hoo!
Break it down: sometimes the work is overwhelming because it feels amorphous and hard to get a handle on. This was a factor for me and I didn’t realise it for a long time. I knew what I wanted to write, but I didn’t know how I was going to go about it so I kept stalling.
Finally, I spent a week (15 minutes a day) collating my notes then breaking them down into actual sentences or specific ideas. This way, I was able to start almost on autopilot – input this line here, remove that reference there. etc. I started by dipping a toe in. Then soon enough I was carried by the writing’s own wave.
5. Micro un-stucking
Sometimes the macro has been sorted – you’re writing – but you get stuck on a lower rung. This happened to me during my outpouring. Instead of fretting I tried all of the following with success:
- I meditated. This is not to ask the universe for answers (though you can) but more to un-clutch the mind.
- I wrote it out. I think better when I write, the way some people think better when they run. So I wrote out all possibilities on a separate document and saw what came up. Some people think better by bouncing ideas off another person. Work out your best thinking tactics and use them at every step.
- I sometimes also ran. But this was more to take a breather and get out of my head and into my body. Any exercise or a massage can be good for this. Sometimes it feels like the best ideas come through the body anyway, so it helps to have it nimble and relaxed.
- I experimented with every idea that came to me. I didn’t reject any before trying it on the page. This encouraged more ideas to come fast and thick.
6. Final tip
Most importantly – and I can’t emphasise this enough – I gave up on perfect. I made peace with showing my work early and asking for help, instead of trying to present something flawless (ha! as if) that people would find more impressive. In fact, I’ve made that a practice in my life now with everything, because it was holding me up in all sorts of ways.
As a film producer I’ve spent years reading hundreds of scripts and have never expected to find an unblemished one; it doesn’t exist. In fact, if a writer is too rigid (which often happens if they’ve spent too long down a rabbit hole) then that makes it difficult to work with. Being a little flexible is great for everyone, and that only happens when you accept that your work is not perfect.
This is not an excuse to turn in anything sloppy (poor punctuation, grammar or spelling; it’s/its, there/their, lose/loose – pray get these right!). Nor to share half-baked ideas (unless you’re paying them, or it’s your mother).
But do embrace a work in progress for what it is and release yourself from the fear of being seen as “less than”. Hang loose, my friends.
Also: have fun.
“I cannot imagine where women ever got the idea that they must be perfect in order to be loved or successful. (Ha ha ha! Just kidding! I can totally imagine: We got it from every single message society has ever sent us! Thanks, all of human history!) But we women must break this habit in ourselves — and we are the only ones who can break it. We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it. (There are people out there who still consider Beethoven’s symphonies a little bit too, you know, loud.) At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is — if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart. Which is the entire point. Or should be.” — Elizabeth Gilbert
Although I am no longer active on social media, I’d be more than thrilled if you choose to share this post on your end, thanks!
The lives of a struggling Hollywood screenwriter and a has-been star are captured in their twinned darkness and desperation in Billy Wilder’s classic, Sunset Boulevard. This is always worth rewatching.
One of my most favourite podcasts is 99% Invisible, hosted by Roman Mars. In it he examines man-made designs, from the origins of speech bubbles in comic books to this beautiful and inspiring episode about graphic design in films.
The most famous how-to book on creativity is probably Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way; in the late ’90s, I think every person I knew was following her 12-week programme. (If I remember correctly, I along with most of my friends petered out around the 9-week mark for one reason or another…) Another book that is designed to inspire and prompt (though in a more meditative and less instructive way) is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. My favourite, though – by far – is by Elizabeth Gilbert. But then, I’m devoted to her, and am always surprised when people say she’s too earnest (?). Gilbert’s book on creativity, Big Magic is a fun read, and one I’ve gifted to several writer friends. In it, she says to stop treating your art like a tired, unhappy marriage and instead start regarding it like a passionate lover: “Even if you have only fifteen minutes a day in a stairwell alone with your creativity, take it.” Her TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, is also a gem. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that we have a genius rather than we are a genius: