Writing is difficult. It's a universal truth. Another is that few things induce anxiety as powerfully as the -
Blink. Blink. Blink.
- of a static cursor against a blank white page, especially in those moments when you seemingly have no creative bones left in your body.
But I'm here to tell you that it's okay. Writer's block is inevitable, and the simple fact is that everyone experiences a creative blockage at one point or another. I, for one, have wrestled with writer's block on countless occasions, and each battle has seemed equally insurmountable at the outset. Yet, thankfully, I've always found a way to turn the corner.
Over the years, I've developed a handful of strategies that regularly help get me over the hump. So, whenever you next find yourself in the heat of battle with a creative block, here are five tricks that you can use to overcome it.
1: Write the words of others
It sounds odd, I know, but it works, and I can attest to it personally. Once, while working on a semester-long creative writing assignment, I was blocked for well over a month. Really, truly, brutally blocked. No matter what I did, I simply couldn't find any combination of words that seemed to work. I was at a loss.
Then, I stumbled across a genius piece of advice from the writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, in which he recommended simply transcribing the work of others to inspire your own writing.
I was wary about it at first, but at that point, honestly, I would have tried anything. So I snatched a paperback of The Catcher in the Rye from my bookshelf and started typing, copying it word for word. I wound up transcribing about 65 pages that night, and then, to my surprise, I had a breakthrough the following day. In just a few hours the next morning, I'd written a complete draft of my project from scratch.
I've employed this tactic multiple times since, and in the past few years, I've written the first 50 or so pages of about 20 of my favorite novels. Each time I've found that the exercise helps me work through the block. I think there's something to be said about drawing inspiration from others' genius. But there's also something to be said about simply forcing yourself to put words on the page, even if they're not your own. It's about getting your cursor moving.
2: Draft the worst possible version of the assignment
One of my favorite things to do when I hit a creative wall is to write what I know won't work, intentionally. I developed this strategy while struggling to write a paper about "what a leader is" for an anthropology course in college. After staring blankly at a word doc for three or four days, at a complete loss for ideas, I decided to begin by eliminating topics. I asked myself, what is a leader not? And then I wrote that essay.
It was remarkably fun and cathartic, and it relieved a lot of the stress that had built up after multiple failures to launch. After writing my purposely lousy draft, I was easily able to begin writing the actual essay for the assignment. Sometimes, exploring what not to do will help you discover what to do.
3: Step away
Have you ever noticed that a lot of great ideas seem to pop into your head while you're not sitting in front of the computer? I've found that one of the most productive things you can do is walk away from your work to refresh your mind when you're experiencing a block. Many writers I know enjoy taking a walk, a shower, or going out to eat to unwind. Personally, I prefer utilizing guided meditations to realign. If this sounds like something that might work for you, I recommend trying the app Calm, or, for any art lovers, the National Gallery has a great 5-minute guided meditation series available free of charge on YouTube.
No matter how you do it, by simply taking your mind off writing and allowing yourself to relax, you'll often find a renewed sense of vigor when you return to your writing table.
4: Establish a rewards system
One particularly effective piece of advice that I received from my high school English teacher was to establish a rewards system when you're stuck on writing assignments. This method can take a variety of forms. For instance, in high school and college, I would treat myself to an episode of Breaking Bad or The Office whenever I completed a first draft. Then, after polishing and submitting an essay, I would reward myself with a trip to the movies. Celebrating little milestones along the way eases the load of each project, and if you're strict enough with it, it also motivates you to sit in the chair and get the work done efficiently.
5: Don't put too much pressure on your first draft
A lot of people, myself included, suffer from perfectionism when writing, which is especially debilitating when working on a first draft. Remind yourself at the start of each project that no piece of writing is perfect after a first pass. Writing is rewriting. You can (and should!) always go back and edit, tweak, and polish a project to get it where it needs to be. The important thing about a first draft is just getting the words down on the page; that's more than enough. So practice allowing yourself to write a clunky first draft!
The most important thing is to generate momentum to get through the block. Whether that entails transcribing War and Peace, gifting yourself a cookie after writing each paragraph, or simply reminding yourself that the first draft doesn't have to be perfect, is of little importance. Just get yourself moving, and in the end, you'll overcome it!