Tools for When You're Feeling Creatively Blocked

It can be hard to put words on the page at the best of time. The inner critic can rear its head, bringing on self-doubt and uncertainty, which leads to a feeling that many people call writer’s block.

However, these are not the best of times. Many folks have been shut in at home due to shelter-in-place orders, which might seem an ideal situation to increase productivity and get writing done. Instead, increased feelings of stress, uncertainty, and depression can make it harder to be creative, compounding the problem.

My own writing process has been hit or miss over the past few weeks, with stretches of no writing being marked with sudden bursts of creativity. Since I’ve been dealing with my own ambiguous feelings towards being creative, I thought I’d share a few tools or methods I use to address the feeling of being blocked when it comes up.

Not all of these ideas are going to work for everyone, so feel free to use or discard them as you see fit.

Just Write Anyway

Essentially, this is the power through it method — or what I love to call the garbage dump or word vomit method of writing. It’s an idea that I’ve pulled from Ann Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, in which she talks about “Shitty First Drafts.” The idea is to put the words on the page no matter how good or bad they are, with the idea that terrible first drafts can be later edited into something good.

My process is simple: I open up a new document and write whatever words come to my mind — and I mean any words. I usually begin with the thoughts in my head that would normally get in the way, such as “I don’t know what to write” or “This is terrible” or “I think I’d rather be watching TV.” As I continue with the flow of words, I usually get bored by those thoughts and move into writing other things, like sensory details or images or dialog. I might even come around to writing what I really want to write.

Afterwards, I’ll have a big amoeba mess of a thing, which will have to be significantly edits. However, the word flow sometimes churns out little nuggets of gold that are worth keeping.

I also find momentum to be useful. After the initial heave and heft of getting the writing ball rolling, I find it easier to continue keep the ball rolling.

Take a Breathe

Essentially, this is the process of doing a mini-meditation before starting the writing process — and it’s currently my favorite method of beginning my writing practice.

I sit in front of my computer and open the project I want to work on. Then I close my eyes with my hands resting on the table in front of me or in my lap, and I take three to ten deep breaths.

As I’m breathing, I try not to focus on any specific thoughts. Instead I let the thoughts flow through my head, like words passing on a screen. And as I continue breathing, I might ground myself into the space further by acknowledging my body within the space around me — the table, the chair, the light through the window.

After I’ve completed several breaths, I open my eyes and begin writing. I find this process of breathing helps to center myself into the present moment by clearing out the anxieties and thoughts of self doubt and other things that get in the way. It makes me more focused and allows me to bring more clarity to my writing, making for a more productive writing session.

Take a Step Back and Walk Away

You don’t have to write right now. Things are hard right now and sometimes the best thing you can do for your creativity is to give yourself a break. It’s okay.

One of the things I do is to intentionally give myself permission to take a time off — to the extent that I will literally say to myself (either in my head or out loud), “I give myself permission to not write today” or this week or even this month. 

I do this for a very specific reason — it’s a way to battle the shoulds, which come with an associated feeling of guilt. I can think back to any number of times when I’ve been reading a book, playing a video game, or taking a walk and my brain chimes in with , What do you think you’re doing? You should be writing, right now.

Guilt about not writing is insidious. It can compound all those feelings of stress, anxiety, and self-doubt that led to the feeling of being blocked in the first place.

Giving myself explicit permission to do something other than writing shuts down those shoulds, providing a clear space to really enjoy whatever I’m doing. That way, I’m able to really recharge and, when I’m ready, I can come back to the writing refreshed.

Thank you for watching and/or reading! I hope you found these tools helpful. Are there any methods that you use deal with feeling blocked that I haven’t mentioned?

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Since there are plenty people out there who are smarter than me, here are a few posts that I’ve read over the past couple of weeks that I’ve found encouraging or useful in someway.

Writing Advice In The Age Of The Pandemic by Chuck Wendig

“My output is cut. I don’t feel burned out, exactly, but I definitely feel like I’m proceeding more slowly, more gingerly, through the work. I have to do a lot to suppress the feelings of guilt and pressure that arise as a result — as a once-freelancer, my life was driven so keenly toward GO GO GO and DEADLINES ARE LIFELINES, that it’s hard to break that. If I’m not turning out 2,000 words a day, what the hell am I doing? Who am I? So, I’m managing, but managing comes part and parcel with the feeling that mere “managing” is equivalent to treading water, or worse, just being two nostrils above the surface of the water — rising floodwaters and I’m breathing, but barely.”

On the Creative Process During a Time of Crisis by WFMA

“What this ordeal has made clear to me, though, is how deep my lack based thinking goes, how despite all of those things, I am fundamentally afraid of never having enough. How I can look at my fully stocked pantry and fixate on the fact that I didn’t buy an extra bag of rice. You see where I’m going with this, right? This is a moment when we are forced into stillness with everything, including our fears. But that means it can also be an excellent opportunity to learn how to take better care of ourselves and each other. And those are lessons that extend to our creative process.”

So, am I a writer yet? by Caits Meissner

“Maybe you, like me, then learned somewhere along the line that your art could also make you feel good when someone else enjoyed it. And the value attached to your creativity increased. But only for a moment. And because that moment was fleeting, chasing the feel-good became addictive. The process of seeking validation became wrapped up in your larger identity, and what you create (and how people respond) became confused with the very facts of who you are.

Maybe then, that infinite ocean of effortless flow became harder to find—which cave do I swim under, again? And so on and so forth and the advent of social media and blah blah social capital in who you know and how you flaunt it, and suddenly writing isn’t a place to escape or visit to understand yourself more intimately, or to examine and chase after elusive truths, but a landmine of anxiety and a veritable slot machine of different combos and flavors of attacks on your self worth.”