2020 has been, I don’t need to tell anyone, a weird year. There have been days when moving from the bed to the couch has seemed a herculean feat, days when the effort of pouring a bowl of soup from a can has been similar to the work put in to make a five-course gourmet meal. There have also been days when things have gone swimmingly—exercise, cleaning, work, play, all sorts of productivity in a single 24-hour period, with minimal doomscrolling in between. It was in anticipatory hope of a strong of days like that which made me decide to sign up for NaNoWriMo once more.
Nobody is self-deprecating like a writer. Partially it’s because we trade in words and so we’re good using those words to gently mock ourselves, partially it’s because it’s so easy to feel impostor syndrome when we’re infinitely connected via social media with other people publishing short stories and blogs and novels and journalism and fantastic work around the globe, mostly it’s because when we’re staring at a blank notebook or Scriviner page or Word document with nothing but the lyrics to Ariana Grande’s ‘7 Rings’ in our heads it’s easier to laugh than to cry.
I’ve written before about my experiences with creative burnout, but it’s not just burnout that sometimes makes it feel like putting a few words on a page is an insurmountable challenge. Sometimes it’s just good old writer’s block. We’ve all felt it. Even if you’re not a writer, you’ve probably felt it staring down a deadline for an essay in high school or college. Or you’ve felt the equivalent—photographer’s block or knitter’s block or baker’s block (are any of these real terms? doesn’t matter)—regarding your preferred creative outlet.
So what do you do when you feel like you’re never going to write another sentence, or draw another picture or play another song? Here are some ideas:
(note: I’m directing these ideas toward writers, but of course they can be adapted for any creative pursuit)
Take a walk.
I’ve come to realise that my creative drive is directly proportional with how much time I spend in nature. One thing I don’t love about living in Melbourne is that it’s much more difficult to get away from the city; it’s large and spread out and the parks are manicured and obviously man-made. Still, even just getting outside into one of these crafted green spaces and seeing something that isn’t streets and skyscrapers makes such a difference in how inspired I feel to write. When my imagination wanes, taking a moment to reconnect with nature kindles it again.
Steal some inspiration.
Writing exercises aren’t just for students. If your block is coming from a lack of ideas rather than a lack of words, let someone else guide you. There are countless places to find fiction and nonfiction writing prompts online, from dedicated communities on Reddit to a search for journaling prompts on Pinterest. Pick something that strikes your fancy and give it a whirl (or pick something that doesn’t and try to make it work). While realistically you probably won’t stick with it in the long-term, it’s another way to get over the writer’s block hurdle so you can work on something you really want.
Be shit at something new.
“Shitty first drafts” from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is practically a Biblical text to most writers. But nobody wants to feel like they’re not good at something important to them. Instead, try being bad at something else. If you’re a writer, grab a camera and take some shitty photographs. If you’re a photographer, paint a shitty painting. If you’re a painter, give a cake some shitty decorations. It’s easier to be okay with being bad at things that we don’t expect ourselves to be good at, and it’s still creative work that helps to get rid of the mental block.
Set the smallest goal.
In On Writing, Stephen King said that he aims to write 2,000 words a day; sometimes it takes a few hours and sometimes nearly until sunset, but by setting a daily goal it forces you to push through the writer’s block and get the words out. In a perfect world, I would write 1,000 or so words per day. Sometimes that’s just not going to happen, though, so instead I set a goal that’s a minuscule percentage of that: 10 words. Just 10. One sentence, maybe two. Generally, once you start you’re not going to stop at 10, but even if you do you’re ending the day with 10 more words than you started with, and that’s something.
We all tend to think that what we’re writing is trash while we’re writing it. It’s one of the reasons that NaNoWriMo exists, to force us to resist the urge to ruthlessly edit and cut and hack at our work whilst we’re writing until there’s nothing left. But sometimes what we’re writing is just not working. In these instances, set it aside and start something else. Pretend you’re done with that piece of crap story forever and put it in a folder named “trash”—don’t actually trash it, though. With some time away and the excitement of a new project in front of you, you’ll likely come back to that old, stagnant piece and realise it’s not half as bad as you thought.
September is flying by. Two months from now, Steve and I will be leaving New Zealand and heading to Australia (visas pending… should probably get on applying for those). In the meantime, we have two trips planned (well, one planned and one planning-in-progress… can you tell I’m a bit behind on my to-do list?), heaps of people to spend time with, and a couple more items to cross off the kiwi bucket list.
The weather’s also starting to warm up (yay!) which has meant that my Septemberwrimo goal has gotten slightly off-track. Only slightly, I’m at ~24,000 words and I expect I’ll hit 27,000 at least by the time the month finishes, but I have no desire to sit inside on my laptop when it’s sunny and there are mountains to climb. But that’s not important. Even if I only write one word in a day I try to celebrate it, because it’s one more word than I had on the page before.