No matter how long you’ve been writing, you’ve probably experienced that panic-induced paralysis known as writer’s block. Common causes are a recent rejection, a good friend’s sudden literary success, and the certainty that whatever you’re writing is absolute crap.
So what do you do? The obvious answer is to quit while you’re ahead. As Homer Simpson once said, “If something is too hard to do, it’s probably not worth doing.” Really, nobody asked you to be a writer. It’s not like there is a phalanx of agents and editors breaking down your door. Why not just read other people’s books, which are surely better than your own?
Seriously. Just quit writing. It’s easy! Lie down with a cold cloth over your eyes and say to yourself, “There, there. I don’t have to feel bad anymore.” On the other hand, if you’re already addicted to the writing life and want to tame the symptoms of this nonfatal but debilitating condition, here are some home remedies to try:
Keep your book warm. Yeah, yeah. “Real” writers say that you should write 500 or even 1,000 words every day. But who are these people? Don’t they have jobs and kids? Many writers are lucky to find just a scant half hour to work some days. Life gets in the way. But it’s important to keep your work warm during slow spells. Even if you’re not writing, visit your work. Just read it over once a day for five minutes.
Know what comes next. When you do write, stop only at a point where you know exactly what words you’re going to put down next. That will make it easier to sit down the next day, because you’ve sidestepped the fear of the blank page or screen.
Be armed and ready. Always carry a small notebook. Sure, you think you’ll remember that great idea you had while watching Jon Stewart, but you won’t. Trust me.
Unplug. This should be obvious, but somehow it isn’t to most people. Find a place where you can’t get WiFi or plug in. You’ll have the jitters at first, feeling sure you’re missing something, but eventually you’ll get used to the idea and focus better on the screen in front of you.
Change locations. If you typically write in the dining room, take your laptop to the bedroom or out to the screened porch. Being in a different location will help you read your work differently, because your senses will respond to the change in your environment. You can also change positions: try writing while you’re standing up, or switch the chair at your desk.
Describe what you see. If you can’t think of anything to write, try describing the things right in front of you: the weather, the scene outside the window, the pictures hanging on the wall. Go all out with the descriptions, too, and play with them: remember where you bought that picture, and what your roommate or boyfriend said when you brought it home. Or describe what the neighbor is wearing as she gardens and what kind of person would buy a hat like that.
Retype sentences. Sometimes our obstacles to creativity are all mental. Physical activity can get the creative breezes blowing again. If you can get out to walk or ride a bike, that’s great. But what if it’s midnight and snowing? Let your fingers do the exercising for you. Retype the last few sentences you wrote—and suddenly you’ll find yourself being propelled forward, because your brain will no longer be frozen.
Switch up the point of view. Let’s say you’re writing a very romantic historical novel from the third person, and you can’t quite get into the character’s head. Put it in first person and rewrite two pages—that will give you a new understanding of your character even if you go back to third person. Or, if you’re writing in a limited third person, broaden the perspective and write it from another character’s point of view, or even from an omniscient point of view, as if the entire town is telling the story. That will allow your mind to stumble upon new descriptions and bits of dialogue that you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.
Create a ritual. Just as athletes have lucky objects in their pockets or ritual chants before a game, you might find it’s easier to get into the writing zone if you have your own ritual: making a cup of mint tea, watering your plants, or feeding the cat just before you sit down can all be pre-writing rituals.
Draw a story board. Creating a visual map of your writing, complete with cartoon characters acting out some of the scenes, can help you understand the narrative in a new way and spot holes in the plot.
Have fun. Writing has three stages just like we do: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. When you first start writing, let yourself play like a little kid, bouncing around with the language and forgetting everything you know about editing. As you revise what you write, you’re creating an adolescent shape, taking off some here and there, letting it get bigger in other places, and giving it room to rant and rage if your writing needs to do that. Eventually you can give your writing some manners and polish up that final, sophisticated adult draft—but you have to have fun first.