Saturday, October 27, 2007

My Cures for Writer's Block

For many writers, despite the best of intentions, sometimes the words fail to flow.

You know what it's like. After 30 minutes of what you think has been solid work, you realize that every other sentence includes the word "great" or "unique" or (for marketing types) "paradigm." Ugh. All of those weak, say-nothing adjectives and nouns just rolling around like tumbleweeds with no destination.

Maybe your novel isn't going anywhere (reminder: NaNoWriMo is just around the corner!). Or you're writing an important speech for work - the one that will make or break your chances at a promotion. Or there's a proposal due in 24 hours and it looks like the only way you'll make it is to spend the next 12 hours in a hyper-caffeinated buzzland.

Whatever your situation, sometimes it helps to gain a little perspective. So here are 10 of my jump-starts for breaking through the brain lock.

1. Free-write a page. The only rule is there are no rules. Write about anything that is taking up space in your mind – your ideas, scraps of outlines, your worries, your fears. Whatever. Even the absence of thought can be described. Get in the zone and just fill that page. Go ahead, you can do it. And then see what happens next.

2. Change your venue. Staring at the same four walls can render your mind positively numb. If you're on a real tight deadline, just change your perspective - physically. Been working for hours in your office? Move your stuff to the dining room. Take over that little corner of the hallway. Or just swivel your chair around and reposition yourself so you're staring at something different.

3. Write something else. Whatever you're working on right now, stop it. Write a letter to a friend. Send an email to your cousin in Iraq. Make a list of home improvements to make this year. Think of a list of 30 meals you can make for dinner over the next month.

4. Read good writing. During the (very) brief time I worked in PR, my boss noted that reading good writers was the best thing one could do to improve one's writing. Whether it's a favorite old master, an article in Fortune or BusinessWeek, or a novella that you treasure, savor the turns of phrase that speak to you and try to dissect what it is that appeals.

5. Go outside. Have you been lulled into a state of suspended animation? You know, that feeling when you've spent 2 hours in front of your computer watching YouTube and reading the news, barely moving when you should be writing? So that your brittle body feels about as flexible as Rodin's The Thinker? Go outside, you giant lump of marble! (OK, technically, cast bronze - but still, not very flexible!) Be one with nature. Feel the sun shine on your face. Look up in the sky. If there are clouds, identify the shapes (Is that Nietsche?). Take in a few deep breaths of fresh air.

6. Get your blood pumping. Do some exercise. Take a 30-minute walk. Do 25 jumping jacks. Lift some weights. The activity will deliver much-needed oxygen to your thought-maker, yielding more creative insights than you ever thought possible. Try it and see. And then replenish with a healthy snack.

7. De-clutter your desk. Has your home office has turned into your home’s Procrastination Zone? You know what I mean... Office supplies you play with. That magazine you just bought. The temptation that is Halo 3. Shoes that you need re-soled? (I guess that's just me.) Realize that clearing your desk is symbolic of clearing your cluttered mind. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But what’s the harm in cleaning your desk?

8. Put someone else's shoes on. Knowing your audience is the most important step when you’re writing. Think about what it's like to be the person who will be reading what you write. What motivates them? How old are they? What's their day like? What are they most likely to read every day? If you're a business writer, think about the business challenges your reader faces day in, day out.

9. Talk it out. Give your best friend a call and ask for 5 minutes of their time. But keep it positive. Instead of complaining about your project and your frustrations with writer’s block, instead try talking about the approach you want to take. Explain to your friend what the project’s all about. Needless to say, try one of your more positive friends (not a Debbie Downer type who will have you doubting your ability to ever pull out of a writerly funk).

10. Take a break. If exercising or snacking doesn't put you in a different frame of mind, shelve the project for a day or two. Or even a few hours. Turn your attentions to another project, ideally one that doesn't involve writing. I've seen that making headway in one area of my life can drastically change my attitude and provide a little inspiration along the way.

Keep in mind that the spark of an idea can come from a totally unrelated activity. What seems like unproductive procrastination can actually be invigorating and renewing, allowing you to tackle whatever word-oriented challenge you were wrestling with. And your writer's block will be a distant memory.

Good luck!

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