A few months ago, I really struggled to find motivation for my current work-in-progress, the third book in my contract with Penguin. I was traveling to promote my first book, thinking of ways to market my second, and experiencing the remnants of Debut Stress left over from last year. So I had a hard time feeling excited about my story, and honestly, there were days when writing 100 words felt like pulling teeth!
Every now and then, most of us experience a creative block. Here are a few possible symptoms: difficulty concentrating, lack of interest in the subject matter, the urge to write a different project, despair, low self-esteem, lethargy. Once these set in, it can be hard to pull yourself back out. I have paid a visit to the creative doldrums once or twice every year for the past decade, but somehow (so far) I’ve always managed to escape eventually.
Here are ten things I have done to help fight my creative block:
- I accept it. Do any of you struggle with insomnia? When you’re tossing and turning and watching the hours tick by, obsessing over your inability to sleep doesn’t help. In fact, the stress keeps you awake even longer. I think the same is true of creative blocks. The more you struggle and worry, the harder it will be to get out of the doldrums. I have learned to stop, take a deep breath, and tell myself: “Okay. I’m stuck. It happens.”
- I take a break. I know deadlines seem dire. I know that feeling of taking a day off and obsessing over the fact that it is one fewer day in which to work. But deadlines can be more flexible than you think. Your agent and editor want you to turn in your best work and will likely give you more time if they can. Rest is imperative to your health and creativity, even if it’s just 24 hours away from the book. I think writers feel like we have to work all the time because the work is always there. But I also think the fact that the work is always there is even more reason to take time off. Most other jobs have weekends or sick time or vacation days built in, and writing should be no different.
- I refill my creative well. This phrase is common, but what does it mean? Well, creativity isn’t fostered in a vacuum. All artists are inspired by other art. Take yourself to a movie. Get a book from the library you’ve been longing to try. Go to a museum. Exercise your creativity in a different form, like drawing, dancing, knitting, photography . . . whatever it is that calms your mind and makes you happy. For me, I caught up on some TV shows, wrote and doodled in my diary frequently, and read a ton of great books.
- I take a walk. I used to run cross-country when I was younger, and up until my late 20s, I still ran long distance. But I broke my knee in 2015 (slipping on ice! Oh, Boston winters!) and I’ve found that running is harder on my joints now, so long distance walking has become my primary form of exercise. I go alone so I can think, and I listen to music that inspires me or a writing podcast that encourages me. If you prefer, you can simply sit outside somewhere. It’s amazing what being away from your desk and soaking in sunshine and fresh air can do.
- I keep a journal. Every day in June, before I got to work on Book 3, I wrote in my journal. Here’s a photo of a few of the pages on my Instagram. I scribbled down my word count goal for the day, a snippet about the scene I would work on, or my general feelings and level of motivation. Then, after I finished working, I journaled about how it went. Did I get stuck? Why do I think I got stuck? What about the scene was hard to write? And if the writing went well, what do I think helped? By analyzing and compiling my thoughts, I was able to push through my block and finish my manuscript.
- I talk to writer friends. We’ve all been creatively blocked at some point, and sometimes it’s necessary to vent to someone who gets it. A phone call or some texting or G-chatting can give me that boost of confidence . . . or, if I’m honest, that permission to take time off (usually in the form of my friend yelling: “JULIE, TAKE TIME OFF!”).
- I get a friend to read what I have so far. It’s terrifying to share a rough draft, but I promise it’s probably not as horrible as you think it is! How many of you have gone back, cringing, to reread old pages and end up thinking “Hey, this is actually pretty okay”? Maybe you need fresh eyes to detect what is blocking you.
- I skip or skim through scenes that I don’t want to write. If the author is bored, the reader will definitely be bored, too. It’s possible that the scene you’re finding difficult to write is one you need to come back to and reconsider keeping or reworking later on. Sometimes I’ll type a comment to myself in the document saying: “Come back to this later” or a snippet of what I envision happening in the scene. And then I move on. If you’re creatively blocked, there’s no point in pushing against that brick wall. Climb over it, and come back later.
- I find other ways to spark my interest in my book again. Once upon a time, we were all in love with our story ideas. Perhaps that story idea even distracted us from another book we were working on at the time. Think back to the honeymoon period: what excited you about this manuscript? Maybe you need to listen to that soundtrack that inspired you again, or watch that movie that sparked the concept. Maybe you need to make a Pinterest board or an aesthetic and envision your characters’ faces and your world again.
- I reread old manuscripts I have finished writing. They don’t have to be ones I plan to publish, just ones I have completed. Doing so proves to me that I have written a whole book before and that I am fully capable of doing so again. Sometimes my brain just needs the reminder!
I hope that if you are currently experiencing a creative block that you know you’re not alone. And it is entirely possible to get yourself out.
Let me know if you try any of these techniques, or have any suggestions of your own that you’d like to share in the comments!