riter’s block. It’s that phrase we speak tremulously to explain why we aren’t writing or why what we are writing sounds like a page that fell out of a 13-year-old’s diary. It’s a concept that wraps up, in two words, every horrible insecurity we have as writers. All we have to do is say it and everyone moans an understanding, “Aaah,” as if we are consumed by a sad, maybe even tragic affliction that could ultimately prove fatal if we don’t manage to recover from it.
You don’t have it
Nobody has it. The truth is some days (many days) writing is hard, but as James Frey writes in How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, nobody lets bricklayers get away with saying they have “bricklayer’s block.” Romanticize it all you want, but writing is brick-and-mortar work. You know the language, you know the structure. It is possible to do the work no matter how crummy you feel about it.
The day “the writing won’t come” is the worst day, like some stranger stole you out of your bed and dropped you into a desert wasteland of creativity with no water and no camel to ride back into town. But think of the wasteland as a way-station instead. A place in between. Okay, if you must, call it purgatory. It’s the place where your brain sits to gestate, to rest, or reboot.
Calling it “writer’s block” is something that happens to you. It’s a passive affliction and you are its victim. Instead, let’s call it what it really is—recalibrating. Treating it like what it really is allows you to keep your power. You are the one in control.
Below are thirteen ways to recalibrate your writing engine. From exotic to pedestrian, these are all writer-proven methods for jump-starting inspired writing.
Hit the Shower
Water and the rhythm of moving water is well-known for calming the mind and allowing ideas to flow freely. In Wallace J. Nichols’s book, Blue Mind, the author examines scientific studies that indicate our brain experiences an increase in “feel-good” hormones when we are close to the water. Stress hormones drop, feel-good hormones rise and there is an increase in our ability to focus.
If you can’t get to the beach, hit the shower. Or find a creek or river, or even just sit by a fountain. Focus on the running water, breathe in the fresh smell of moving water and give in to the changes in your brain. Wait for the inspiration to come. Be in the moment so you can catch the ideas as they drift by.
Haruki Murakami runs ten kilometers or swims fifteen hundred meters every day. In a 2004 interview he says the repetition of his routine “becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
Kurt Vonnegut did push-ups and sit-ups. Neil Gaiman runs. Henry David Thoreau was a walker. Orson Scott Card advocates walking for an hour before writing.
Research shows walking improves mood, increases energy, and increases performance on cognitive tasks.
If you have mobility challenges and can’t exercise in the ways described above, you might consider exploring the work of Wim Hof and his breathing techniques. I don’t know if they will work as a replacement for exercise euphoria, but it’s worth a try.
Take a Trip
Travel doesn’t have to be an exotic extended adventure to a far-away place. It could be a simple road trip. Get out a map of your state, close your eyes, and stick a pin in a section of the state you’ve never seen before. Or find a place that has terrain completely different from where you live.
Find a ghost town. Every region has one. Explore the hidden history and mystery of those who built these places with their hands.
Find a curvy road, rent a sports car. Let the curve of the road and the roar of the engine mesmerize you into your creative zone.
There is a delightful simplicity in a spontaneous hotel stay one-town over from where you live: there’s a pool you don’t have to clean, someone else is cooking the meals and the maid is picking up the wet towels off the floor. Quickie Nirvana.
If you are unable to travel or have mobility challenges, explore new terrains in Google Street View. Another great hack is to sift through the amazing photography work you can find online via Google Images. Use search phrases like moody photography or ethereal landscapes. Pick an image that speaks to you and expand it to fill the whole screen to make it as immersive as possible. Imagine being there and let your muse do the rest.
Practice a Hobby
Find something non-writing you can enjoy guilt-free.
My weapon of choice is knitting needles, and studies have shown it has an impact on one’s mental health. There is something hypnotic about the way the needles click and slide together, the yarn wrapping in and out of itself, the repetition of the same stitch over and over. It keeps part of my mind busy and leaves the rest to work on bigger problems in the background.
Maya Angelou refers to this as the “small mind” and the “large mind.” She said in an interview that if she could occupy the small mind which works on the petty things, it would get her to the big mind faster. She highly recommends playing solitaire. With high-quality Bicycle cards, of course.
But any hobby will do. Sit on the porch and whittle. Crochet, play guitar, learn turkey-calling, try beer pong. Practice rolling a quarter across all the fingers of your hands. This not only helps your brain but it doubles as a great trick at parties.
Einstein had two hobbies: The violin allowed him to step away from his desk, the sailboat allowed him to step away from his house. We all need both kinds of stepping away.
Einstein had a wise approach to taking breaks from his work. He had two hobbies: violin and sailing (he almost always sailed alone, in a one-man boat). The violin allowed him to step away from his desk, maybe into the next room, for an hour or so. The sailboat allowed him to step away from his house and life for days at a time. We all need both kinds of stepping away.
Chop Wood, Carry Water
It’s a Zen concept that goes back more than a thousand years, the idea that you can achieve spirituality through everyday chores. I’ll do just about anything to get out of washing dishes until I hit a rough patch of writing and then somehow dishes seem like a nice fantasy I need to explore immediately.
Think about the concept of finding magic in the mundane. Since we are using dishes as an example, think about the act. The sensations of hot, running water. Soapy water. Filthy dishes that become squeaky clean. The miracle that we even have these things. The act of our body’s motion.
Or sweeping. Raking leaves. Halfway through you look back and there is the beauty of symmetry when half the room or yard is clean and half isn’t.
The satisfaction of reorganizing a bookshelf. Windows that become clear and shiny. A car is washed and suddenly looks newer.
There is a secret joy in doing everyday things, but sometimes we are so busy we don’t see it. Surrender yourself to the wonder of these and see if it sparks something deep inside you.
Break the Habit
When I was in college, every Friday a group of friends and I would go to the same restaurant. Our friend Thomas always ordered spaghetti. After a few weeks, we started teasing him. “Come on, Thomas, order something new. Look, chicken alfredo! It has noodles, that’s close.” He declined every week. Just before we gave up I asked him, “Why do you always order the spaghetti? Why don’t you ever try something different?” He said, “I really like the spaghetti.”
Love what you love, but every now and then give yourself a new experience. We already talked about new places, but what about closer to home? Try a new dish. A new restaurant. A new ethnicity.
Drive home from work a different way. See a play instead of a movie. Read a new genre or author you’ve always meant to try but haven’t.
And when you do, examine the sensations. Feel what it is like to be unbalanced, maybe out of your comfort zone. Remember what it’s like because one day you can use all these sensations in your work.
Art Journal or Alter a Book
Sometimes tiny fragments of things will come but they don’t feel like enough to get started. Pieces of dreams, two lines of dialogue, a single visual image. Keep a journal, but make it visual and be bold with it. Wash the pages with watercolor in between paragraphs or as a light background. Rip pages out of magazines, staple in paint color swatches from the hardware store. Write sideways and upside down. Write wildly with a giant Sharpie and ignore that it bleeds through.
Typing on a screen yields basic black on white text, always going across from left to right. But your journal is boundless. Rip it, tear it, color it, glue it. Be outlandish.
Here are a few inspirations for art journals. Or take your favorite used book from literature and turn it into a journal for yourself, creating an “altered book.” You can lightly cover the pages or just draw or write directly into them using the original words for inspiration, such as Tom Phillips’ A Humument.
Here are a few inspirations for altered books. Notable journalers who make great company: SARK, Elizabeth Gilbert, Frida Kahlo, Dan Eldon, and Sabrina Ward Harrison.
Crank Up the Music
Writers are divided on whether or not music should be played while writing. For some it works, for some, it doesn’t. But music, at the right time, can be inspiring—before or during. Try to mix it up a little and experiment. Crank it up loud with a heavy bass so you can feel the music thumping in your abdomen. Or try catching a blues show live at a club. Pick music that works for the genre you’re writing, maybe from the same time period or from the region your story is set in. Pick music that is paced the way you write, fast and loud for a chase scene or slow and seductive for a love scene.
Stephen King mentions in his book On Writing that he listens to bands like Metallica when he writes. And, apparently, cranks it up pretty loud.
Let music guide your writing with no thought to where you are going. Watch where it takes you. Let it be the boss for once.
If music doesn’t work for you, or you have attention span challenges that benefit from targeted background noise consider these personal favorites of mine… Birds of the Forest playlist, and the Creaking Wooden Pirate Ship in a Thunderstorm. (Do not judge me for my piratey ways.)
In a 2012 interview, Barbara Kingsolver said, “I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.” Not every word we write is precious and we have to treat them that way. Don’t be afraid to carve away the rind of your work to get to the sweet, juicy fruit on the inside.
“I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.”
When you feel uninspired, take some time to attack a blank page with bad writing or with nonsense. Start with a beautiful sentence that has been bouncing around in your mind, or maybe a sentence from a favorite novel. Write the next thing that pops into your mind. And the next and the next.
Just like a runner stretches before the marathon, so must the writer sometimes. It’s exercise, not art. But necessary and sometimes it reveals a future masterpiece if you let your mind shake loose.
Write Small (Micro Writing)
In poetry, the poet laser-focuses on the beauty and impact of the imagery in a small amount of space. Each line is highly concentrated in a way that fiction is not.
Pick an image in your mind, a random scene from a piece you’re currently working on. Write it as if you’re writing a poem. Be as lyrical as you can, but focus on the play of each word. Take your mind off whether or not it makes sense. Don’t worry about the structure or plot of your work, because this is an exercise in imagery and lyricism.
Focusing on a small portion of the work allows you to dump a different kind of creativity into your writing. Then you can take the piece and roll it into a larger work while retaining the interesting lyrical bits you choose to keep.
Write a Handwritten Letter
Try writing a letter to someone. Anyone. Living, dead, friend, foe. Doesn’t matter. Writing a letter activates your brain in three important ways.
First, it assures your psyche there is no pressure. You’re writing a letter, not a best-selling novel, not a poem your mom might hate, not a potential precious story that might be rejected by Fish Scent Review. We cling less to these words because they are intended to be “thrown away” in that we ship them off to a friend and never see them again. They are 100% for the benefit of the recipient. It’s never about us and therefore we are free from all the self-inflicted affectations we adopt when we sit down to write.
Second, it forces you to use that writer trick that tells you to pick one reader as the audience for your writing. When you write a letter you are writing to one person specifically. How does your writing flow when you do that? Have you been stuck because you’re writing for the wrong “person” (audience)? Think how that influences your work. Go back to your current work that feels stuck and try seeing a different face when you are writing.
Third, writing by hand lights up your brain. Yes, it takes longer. Yes, it’s more physical and your hand gets tired and then you have to deal with getting it all into the computer. In an interview with Paris Review, Joyce Carol Oates said she wrote 800 or more pages by hand for her novel The Assassins. Just go do it and stop whining about your cramp. Drink more water and shake it off.
Try a New Method
As writers we read a lot. Sometimes for pleasure and sometimes to learn from other writers. We pick things up on the fly because we are immersed in writing and publishing.
Take this a step further by putting in critical reading time, and more importantly, critical practice time.
For example, in the column Ritten Werds, author Stephen Parrish analyzes selections from novels and explains why the techniques used make the writing work so well.
Try using one of the methods described. Maybe one week you’ll work on pacing. Another week you might work on tone or how to get your story across while leaving details out. Treat it like your own writer’s workshop.
Who knows where mixing it up and channeling classic authors will take you.
Talk to a Stranger
Once I took a weekend workshop where one particular exercise was to go to a local mall and talk to a stranger long enough to learn something interesting about them. I’m an introvert who rarely leaves my house, so you can imagine how horrifying this homework would be for someone like me. But also, I’m a writer, so imagine how it could also be a thrill, akin to flinging yourself through the doorway of a perfectly good airplane and plummeting swiftly back to the solid ground you should have never left in the first place.
It was one of the most liberating, fun, terrifying, interesting, life-changing things I’ve ever done and so simple once you get past the horror of it if this is outside your comfort zone. A great example of this activity is Humans of New York. Let them inspire you.
And if you just ultimately cannot bring yourself to do it, try this instead:
Happy Writing. I believe in you!
Wendy Russ is the managing editor of The Lascaux Review. She does not have a cat.