You know how I like to talk about ‘stuck’? Well I’m going to be doing it again today.
Feel free to go and potter amongst other posts if you’ve never felt the particular horror of your hands paralysed on your keyboard, brain in a total fog… I think I have something from a while ago on daydreaming. Otherwise, pull up a pew, this may take a while.
Stuck is something that you’ll get to experience quite a bit as a writer, and there are many types of it, and a few different sides.
The trick is knowing which kind of stuck you are and what to do about it, and how to enjoy not being stuck so that you’re not forever feeling like you’re looking over your shoulder for the monsters of stuck dogging your heels.
Let’s take knowing which kind of stuck you are first.
You could just be tired.
If you’ve been writing for ages today, and you’re feeling brain-tired and like you’ve got nothing left to give, then you just plain old need a break. Your brain is capable of intense concentration for about 50 minutes at a time. After that long, a 10 minute break to do something completely different will reset your brain for another 50 minute writing session. After THAT one, though, you’ll need a 30 minute break away from your desk before hammering the keyboard again. (Thanks to Daphne Cohn for the technique!)
These are optimum brain-function time intervals that I use myself.
I’m always amazed by how much I can get done without feeling like I’m in the writing gulag using this method.
If, however, you’re on your third day of staring at the screen, berating yourself that you’ve got nothing to show for your time spent at the keyboard, then you’re another kind of stuck. It can be one of a few things:
You could be out of inspiration.
If you expect yourself to be able to write, closeted away, and consistently come up with brilliant prose, then you’re dreaming. Yes, putting words on the page gets you a book: I’m fond of saying it myself.
But without the magical ingredient of having experiences and synthesising them through the lens of yourself, your writing – about anything – will be dull and peter out.
Get to know your True Inner Writer – the part of you that wants to say what you’ve got to say – and let them tell you what they need. It might be a nap, or a jog, or a shower. It might be an outing to a local bookstore. My True Inner Writer likes doing yoga relaxation and going to the local market when it’s on. Also napping. Commit to doing this for a while (and on into the future), and your writing will flow again.
You could have lost your connection to your purpose.
Writers write because we feel we have something to say. Our purpose is communication with our reader. I like to turn this around a little, and think of our inspiration to write coming from the thoughts and prayers of people who need to hear what it is we have to say.
If you don’t write what’s in you to be written, then your reader will go hungry.
They will not have your ideas and words to get them through, and that’s unthinkable. If you’re this kind of stuck, then focus for a moment on your reader, the one person you’re writing to (I just use one for the visualisation, though there’ll be many readers in the end!), the one person who most needs what you’ve got to say. Regroup with the attitude that you’ve got the idea that they need, commit to getting it out there to them, then get back to writing.
You might have gone on a tangent that has run out of puff.
If you’re writing like I do sometimes, you’ll go off on tangents. This is great, and necessary! Sometimes a tangent will show you a whole other direction and slew of ideas that you can mine for your writing. It’s like a lucky dip of writing. This means that often the tangent will be the tacky prize from the barrel: the one that you know will break before you leave the fair and go straight in the bin when you get home.
Unlike the lucky dip though, with writing this is great too. You’ve been down the path, you know what’s there is not immediately valuable to you, and you can then get back to your main point and go forward again.
So check that what you’re doing is not trying to force a tangent to work. If it’s reached the end of it’s usefulness, then get back to where you branched off, and set off again from there.
You might be bored.
If you’re boring yourself, you’ll be boring your readers.
This is such an elementary point, but still worth saying. Just think about it for a moment: would you rather read something that sounds like the writer is enjoying themselves, in a deeply committed way in their writing, and writing from the core of themselves, or something that feels like the writer had to get this out before going and doing something a whole lot more fun? This doesn’t mean that your writing needs to be informal, or jazzy, or fun all the time, it just means that you need to be immersed in it, enjoying the process, because it’s easy to tell when you’re not.
For this reason, if you’re stuck and bored, I’ll tell you right now to stop. Just stop pushing yourself, and go and do something completely different. Check in with yourself about what that something should be. If you want to put loud music on and rock out, do it. If you want to go outside and just look at the ants, do that. Just do something that is not you, trying to write. When you’ve done that, come back and set yourself a short time limit to try writing again. Just 15 minutes or so. Write for that long, then stop.
This is the most important bit, the stopping. If you want to build trust with your writing self, you’ll stop when you said you would. That way, your writing will come more easily when you sit down to it, because your unconscious will know that you won’t be punishing it by pushing.
When you get yourself unstuck, it’s important to put a few practices in place so that you don’t get stuck so easily next time.
My recommendations are basically the tools we’ve covered above, but used as preventative treatments now, rather than as emergency fixes. The more you integrate these tools into your life, the less likely you are to become horribly stuck in your writing.
I’ll list them again for you here, for easy revision:
- Take care of your creative brain. Work it in strategic, timed bursts, so that you have writing longevity on your side. Remember, it’s 50 mins writing, 10 mins something else, then 50 mins writing again, and finally 30 minutes of something completely different – preferably physical movement – to reset your brain.
- Inspire yourself. Get out of your writing space and live your life. Even if you’re not writing about your life, the unconscious needs feeding with experiences so that it has an abundance of fodder to work with. Listen to your inner writing self to find out what experiences it needs from you to keep writing.
- Remember you’ve got something to say. Connect to your reason for writing in the first place, think of the one person who deeply needs your writing, and write to them, from your heart to theirs.
- Check if you’re on a tangent that’s run out of puff. If you are, then great! You’ve been down a track to explore, and have either found extra goodness to add to your finished writing, or have found all sorts of stuff that you don’t need. And,
- Keep yourself interested. If you’re boring yourself, you’ll almost certainly be boring your reader. Stop pushing yourself, do something different, and let yourself relax. Then write in short increments of time, remembering to stop when you said you would. Treat your inner writer kindly, so that they continue to furnish the words.
I know you’ll get unstuck eventually, these little techniques just get you out quicker, and make it less likely to happen again. Let me know how you get unstuck in the comments…