Work with, not against, your brain
I don’t believe in writer’s block. Never had time for it. Blank page? I’ll take two, please. I’ve never met the muse. She sounds delightful, but she’s never knocked on my door.
“There is a muse,” writes novelist Stephen King. “But he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station.
“He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there, you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.”
Still, every writer struggles with times when you’d rather be reading a book than writing one — or heading to the coffee shop instead of the office. So how can you put words on paper when you can’t think of what to write? Here are some writing strategies that work.
Use the creative process.
What passes for writer’s block is usually a process problem. The more you understand how your brain works, the more likely you are to come up with a good method for writing.
I use the five-step creative process, for instance, every day. It looks like this:
- Forage, or gather information. This is the “feed your brain” step of the process. Here’s where you interview subject matter experts and turn to Google for the raw material that will become your story.
- Analyze that information. Focus, sift and organize it to see how the pieces fit together. (Bonus: During this step, you are also uploading this information to your brain.)
- Incubate, or let the information simmer. Let your subconscious mind mull over the message.
- Break through, or get to the “Aha!” Here, you’ll answer questions like “What should I use for my lead?” and “How am I going to organize this thing?”
- Knuckle down, or take Ernest Hemingway’s advice and “apply the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.” In other words, start writing. (In the three-step writing process, this step is called free writing.)
Skip any of these steps or carry them out in the wrong order, and you may have trouble figuring out what to write.
Before you sit down to write …
The biggest contributor to writer’s block is when you skip incubation — that is, you try to force a solution without relaxing and letting your subconscious mind work on your project.
“I’d like to remind you again, Winfield, that daydreaming is only a part of the creative process.”
— Boss to employee in a New Yorker cartoon by Charles Barsotti
That’s easy to do.
Incubation is the most misunderstood — and therefore, the most frustrating — of all writing tools. That’s because it seems as if you aren’t really doing anything.
That can frustrates us — and irritate our bosses. But skip incubation, and you can look forward to some long days staring at a blank page.
Successful writers incubate. Period. Here are three ways to perform this essential writing exercise:
- Work on more than one project at a time. That’s right, multitasking can actually work in your favor when it comes to overcoming writer’s block. Blocked on that blog post? Switch to social media status updates. While your conscious mind tackles the Project B, your subconscious mind keeps toiling away on Project A.
- Time it right. My best case scenario: Finish foraging and analyzing one day, then head out for happy hour. When I return to the office the next day, I’m itching to write. The reason: 16 hours of down time have really been 16 hours of incubation. Call it “creative pressure.” Put off that first draft until you need to let off some creative steam.
- Incubate in tiny doses. No time to put the project away for even one night? Try a fast-food method of incubation: Put your notes in a file. Put the file in a drawer. Then take a few minutes to answer your email, walk to the vending machine or organize your files. Even a tiny change of scenery can be more productive than staring vacantly at your notes for 20 minutes.
Gordon MacKenzie, the late, great Hallmark creative guru, told a story in his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball (edited by yours truly!) about a businessman watching a herd of dairy cows.
The guy watches and watches, but all he sees is a bunch of cows leisurely hanging out under shade trees, roaming around a pond or quietly eating grass. Finally, the businessman shakes a fist at the cows and shouts: “You *&%@# cows get to work, or I’ll have you butchered!”
“The man wants to see the cows creating 24 hours a day,” MacKenzie wrote. “What he doesn’t understand is that only a portion of the creative act is visible. As they stand idly in the pasture, those cows are performing the miracle of turning grass and water into milk right before his eyes.”
When you incubate, you are performing the miracle of transforming words and ideas into stories. Don’t skip this step. There is magic in it.