There’s a kind of fear most writers have that can inspire a clammy feeling even faster than waiting to hear if a book’s been accepted by an agent or a publisher. It’s the blank mind, particularly when there’s a deadline looming just ahead. Some people call it writer’s block, as if there’s something sitting in our heads that stands between our keyboard and creative brilliance.
It happens to all of us, no matter how long we’ve been writing or how successful we’ve become in our writing careers. However, I have learned a few tricks to remove the blocks and get going so that I don’t go sliding past a deadline and just make myself, and everyone else, feel worse. Even better, occasionally a reader will point out that very spot in a book as their favorite, and I marvel, once again, at how important it is to just keep going without expectations or attachments.
First Tip: Be gentle with yourself. Berating, digging around in your past for reasons, imagining a bleak future, or even waiting for the muse are not helpful. A walk might be, though. Also follow the HALT rule. Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Take care of those first and then get back to work.
Second Tip: Pull out your character descriptions you hopefully wrote out before you started the book, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction or a memoir. Reintroduce yourself to all the idiosyncrasies, some of which you’re not even using on paper, and even add a few if you feel so moved. If you haven’t done this, do it now. We’re the driver on this literary trip, and we need to know all of the passengers in order to see where it’s going.
Third Tip: This one has gotten me out of more than one corner. Write the words, “Once upon a time,” and then let your imagination go. Write whatever comes up and follow the trail. You can delete those four little words later along with anything else you needed in order to get the left side of your brain going again. Most of us were read a fairy tale or two as a child, and those words can often create a sense of wonderful anticipation of what might be coming next. Our brain recognizes that too.
Fourth Tip: Pull out the description you have, however brief, for the arc in the story. That’s the place that’s most climatic, where everything changes. Is the arc still satisfying? Does it need beefing up, more research, more details? Is everything still pointing to that arc? That may be why you’re stuck. You’ve gone a little off course and need to delete some, add some more, so that you’re once again heading toward a big moment. Stories usually have several smaller arcs on both sides that can be used as places to aim toward as well till you’re driving for the ending.
Fifth Tip: Read the last portion you got down on paper to a trusted friend, preferably another writer that you respect. Hearing it out loud may help you hear what comes next. A brief conversation about what you’re writing and where it’s headed next may do the same. If you have to call more than one or two friends, though, you’re serial dialing as a distraction and not to help the writing. That usually leaves me overwhelmed.
Keep in mind that every job has its down days, and even though we love being writers, some days we’re bored or anxious or frustrated. That’s okay, but we have to also keep going because this is a business as well as an art form and someone’s made plans with that deadline in mind. So do your best, hammer out what you can and come back tomorrow. This too shall pass.
Q: What do you do to get out of a literary corner?