8 ways to overcome writer's block
Written By: Anayat Sekhon
You’ve resolved to complete that dreadful writing assignment; to answer a humdrum prompt; to write the Great Indian Novel; or to coax a classic out of a mind dulled by the soporific ramblings of the rabble. Armed with renewed gusto and ambition, you’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that your working environment reflects the grandiose pursuit of perfection your insides ache to embark on. The coffee is the right temperature. The lighting is soft; the curtains are assiduously drawn so that the pristine, cream-coloured leaves of your notebook seem aglow with the promise of a higher purpose, provisioned for by blue ink. The desk is uncluttered, and half a dozen books are stacked neatly in a corner; the titles are meant to serve as a tantalising glimpse of your own literary vision come to fruition.
But then half an hour elapses, and the most productive thing you’ve done is reimagine the Ferns-’n’-Petals logo on the top-left corner of the page. As if Narcissus seized you, your marginalia consists solely of your name scrawled repeatedly in different fonts. Or, you’ve reverted to cubism, and you’ve made Picasso turn in his grave by sketching a most ludicrous cubic contraption. On top of the page are angry dots produced by repeatedly pressing the nib of your pen to paper, as if the force of your pitiful attempts at pointillism would beckon your layabout muse to you. Writing, your la grande passion, morphs into the odious alternative to doing your own laundry. And the mind, not to be outdone, deploys its defence mechanisms to excuse itself from facing the reality that you are, in fact, an unproductive piece of shit. It dresses up your failures as the natural outcome of your perfectionism, or your propensity to procrastinate, or your unresolved Oedipal complex.
Writer’s block. The arch nemesis of creative invention, the remains of your ego and well thought-out tattoos. It is crippling because broad acceptance of a writer’s work is tantamount to validating his self-conception. We would all like to believe that an endless reservoir of original and interesting personal insights is at our disposal, thanks to our possessing abstractions such as a ‘highly-developed personality’ or a ‘creative bent of mind’. And these insights, once committed on paper, would successfully capture the public imagination. This idealistic point of view cannot be reconciled with the fact that we view and experience our creative forces as unpredictable, uncontrollable flashes of brilliance that peter out on a whim. Our figurative muses are terrible teases; half-crazed minxes; sadists beyond reproach.
Views and advice on writer’s block are as diverse as the authors themselves. Phillip Pullman claims it doesn’t exist and is an outcome of the fledgling author’s inexperience. Maya Angelou advises that you write tedious, nonsensical, repetitive things between bouts of creative inspiration until you “convince your muse you’re serious”. Hilary Mantel says it’s best to leave the irksome piece of writing and divert your attention for a while in ways that would create a “space for your lost words to show up”.
Through a motley mixture of personal experience and research, I have imbibed 8 strategies to cope with writer’s block:
• Think, and research- but don’t fall into the trap of passivity and egotism:
It’s important to brainstorm ideas for writing projects and put in the requisite amount of research. But researching too much is a trap that anyone who likes gathering information for information’s sake falls into. An information overload engenders complacency and passivity because you’re so busy ‘gathering influences’ or ‘exploring new avenues of thought’ (procrastinating) that you don’t actually start writing.
• Start. Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you can’t bring yourself to write, lower your standards until you can.*
You are not expected to be Proust in the first draft of your writing assignment.
• Keep stress at bay. Write about something silly.
I’ve been doing this for a while. I take an English word that sounds ridiculous to me (like poppycock) and write a stanza or two on what the word means to me. It allows me to keep things light-hearted and firmly in perspective. Acquire the ‘brute-force’ method of writing through a writer’s block. It’s like blowing your nose to relieve blockage.
• Create an atmosphere conducive to creativity.
What sparks creativity, and what keeps your creative juices flowing? It’s a subjective question with many answers. Your creative streak could be awakened or sustained by finger-painting, meditating, walking, listening to certain kinds of music, watching a good movie, or drinking an obscene amount of liquor. Whatever works for you.
• Write regularly.
I cannot underscore this enough. There are many ways to inculcate the habit of writing regularly: keep a journal or a dream diary (try , an online journalling resource), or join a community-oriented writing platform like or . I write on semi-regularly, and I also recommend , which provides statistics on your writing speed, themes and mindset as you clock in 750 words every day.
• Use mind maps or diagrams to sketch an outline.
Mind maps provide a visual representation of the material that you plan to incorporate in a piece, and are incredibly useful when it comes to structuring, filling gaps in, and editing text effectively. While pen and paper are suitable for mind-mapping, some mind-mapping resources include Coggle () and MindMeister ().
• Stop caring about negative feedback.
It is inevitable that no matter how finely you hone your craft, someone will hate your writing with a vengeance. Constructive criticism and setbacks have their place in a writer’s journey of personal growth, but it is important that they don’t get to you too much. Most of the time, your biggest obstacle is going to be your own internal naysayer. Silence it, and half the battle is won already.
• Minimise distractions.
No good writing was ever done with twenty-something Chrome tabs open in a different window. It’s essential to allow yourself the mental space to ruminate and allow inspiration to give rise to tangible creative output.
None of these tips can allow you to overcome writer’s block unless you couple them with thorough introspection, optimism and personal insight into your own writing style. Writer’s block is daunting, but certainly not insurmountable.
*(’Lowering your standards’ until you can write was advice given by William Stafford, who had about 6000 published poems to his credit)
Author: Shuchi Singh Kalra