Writer’s block and starting small

The horror of the blank page. At least the notebook's open! (Photo by Vince Kusters.)

The horror of the blank page. At least the notebook’s open! (Photo by Vince Kusters)

Writer’s block happens to all of us, but it’s different for everyone. For me it’s not that the muse doesn’t want to visit, but that I’ve got my fingers in my ears because I’m too scared to listen. When I’m blocked, I’m just not showing up.

I’m certainly not the first to talk about this. But writing is not going to happen until you’ve got your butt in a chair, eyes on the screen, and fingers on the keyboard. Once I show up, the rest is easy. But it’s hard sometimes to give myself permission to do it, to stop worrying about the minutiae of daily life, to get over wanting to be perfect, to turn off the thinking and turn on the doing.

Over the years I’ve discovered some strategies that help:

  • Exercise. Julia Cameron is one big proponent of this. A half-hour walk (without a phone or music) helps me relax and refocus. Lifting weights helps me be in the moment (and there is a serious penalty for not being in the moment when lifting weights — trust me).
  • Do some roleplaying. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (also my go-to resource for grammar help) has a nice article on overcoming writer’s block, and one good suggestion is to pretend you’re someone else. If you’re writing fiction, it could be one of your characters.
  • “Control your environment.” That’s something Joss Whedon says in this article on writer’s block at Rookie. Whedon turns off his phone and the Internet and shuts himself in an uncluttered room. He also listens to movie soundtracks while he’s writing, especially more modern ones, which are more ambient. I do that, too, Joss! Will you be my friend? (Had to try.)
  • Pick a random part or scene. This one’s mentioned in this great article on writer’s block from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Center for Writing Studies (say that 10 times fast!).

And it was this last one, Dear Reader, that got me unstuck this week. I’ve been doing pretty well with my 1,500 words per week goal, but sometimes Life Gets in the Way, which is what happened to me last week. Somehow, writing what happens next in my novel seemed impossible or stupid or not perfect. So I just skipped ahead and picked another scene that wasn’t as intimidating. First I just focused on writing one word at a time, then one sentence, and before I knew it, I was 300 words in with a good idea about how to write the scene I had just skipped.

It helps to focus on the small stuff. Like Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird when writing about her one-inch picture frame: “… all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

Thank you, universe, for Anne Lamott.

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