Guest Post By Estelle Erasmus of Musings on Motherhood & Midlife
When I work with my clients as a writing coach, aside from helping them to polish their prose, I’m often asked for tools and tactics on how they can power through writer’s block.
As a writer myself, I know that it’s a common conundrum, whether you are a blogger, an essayist, author, or journalist.
When I’m faced with that feeling of futility, I start by brewing myself a cup of coffee (love my Keurig), getting comfy (this is the time for stretchy yoga pants and a comfortable sweater), and will the muse to come.
She doesn’t always.
When that happens—and it does for everyone—here are a few ways I knock down those writer’s blocks so I can build something lasting with my words.
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Write in Free Flow: In Bird by Bird, the seminal tome on writing by Anne Lamott, she says, “write shitty first drafts”. This advice is very empowering. I find that many of my clients are thinking in their heads, and editing as they write, which is a mistake. Your first draft is not the time to parse words (that will come later). You should sit down and write as much as you can, without worrying about grammar, spelling, word count, structure or phrasing.
Fill in the Blanks: As I write my first draft, when I am at loss for a word, a phrase, a quote, I don’t stop writing. I simply write the word SOMETHING in caps (you can choose your own word like ‘BLANK, FILL IN, WORD), etc. The point of doing this is to keep the words coming, without censuring yourself. You will find it easy to fill them in once you get to the editing step.
Take 15: Give yourself a deadline—a short one—about fifteen minutes long. See how much you can write down without thinking in that time span. Some people use a timer.
Learn Something New: If I feel stymied, sometimes I will stretch my brain by researching odd topics I have an interest in (best chocolate cake recipes, or why do camels spit?), or the topic I’m writing about. Often by doing that I’ll discover an interesting word that I want to use. I keep a list handy and refer to it later in the editing process. I recently fell in love with the word unspooled, and just used it in an essay.
Write a Catchy Headline: If I can write a descriptive headline, it usually will spur me on to write the piece. For example, I recently had Why I Won’t Be Showing MyChildren Scary Movies This Year for my column “The Practice of Parenting” on PsychologyToday.com. I went to town in my first draft detailing my personal harrowing experience at the movies with my daughter, which I later edited down.
Be a Reader and a Writer: Good writers need to read. I curate lists of essays that I enjoy and share on my Facebook page, and sometimes on my blog. Try to stretch yourself by reading poetry, plays, and op-eds. The more you read good writing you will see different ways of structuring essays, starting with powerful openings and compelling endings.
Change Your Location: My writing place is at my desk. I got out of a recent slump by moving my keyboard to the kitchen table where there was more natural light.
Say Sayonara to Social Media: Give yourself a moratorium on Facebook time. Say to yourself: if I write for an hour than I’ll check in to Facebook for a half hour and then resume writing again. Apply that reasoning to Twitter, Instagram, Periscope, Blab, Texting, and any other way of reaching out to the public.
Find Yourself in Socialization: While writing is a solitary process, I have no desire to hide out in a cave and avoid the human race. Often, when I’m blanking out, I crave companionship and will make a lunch plan with a friend. These connections stimulate me and afterward I find myself full of inspiration, motivation and ideas. I often take notes from these conversations (nothing is ever wasted when you are a writer—as my family and friends know), and use them in my pieces.
Music of the Mind: Some people swear by classical music for getting them to start writing. I’m a purist and prefer to pen my pearls in silence, perhaps with a slightly muted TV on in the background for atmosphere.
Change the Form: Write your essay in a poem, or letter. It breaks up the “you should do this”, organized, systematic, analytical left brain thinking which halts creativity, and enhances right brain thinking, the home of creativity and intuition.
Get Those Endorphins Pumping: Working out or taking a walk outside is often a break for your mind (if not your body). While you are getting the pleasure hormones to peak out, you can be doing mental gymnastics about your article.
Water on the Brain: I find that taking showers fuels my creativity and helps me figure out the structure or arc of a story. Perhaps there is a scientific explanation for it, or perhaps it is just because water is relaxing and the mind is free to be creative when you are relaxed.
Get Your Just Rewards: If it’s chocolate you crave, make that the result of your action of writing. Ditto if it’s a quesadilla with extra cheese. 20 minutes writing = 200-2000 calories. A fair trade, I believe.
Repetitive Action Relaxes: I think there is something to this. My best ideas come to me when I’m doing something over and over again (such as licking and sealing the envelopes on birthday party invitations). Perhaps that is because doing rote activity allows me to daydream, when the mind wanders, so I can tap into my creativity.
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Take a Mental Vacation: Give yourself permission to check out of writing for an hour, a day, or a weekend. According to a recent New York Times article procrastination is actually the mark of a creative person. The mind needs its downtime, to think, to ponder, to create. When I veg out I spend time with my family, cuddle with my daughter, watch reality TV shows like Housewives of New York or Bravo, or binge watch The Mindy Project on Hulu. When I do that I always come back refueled. And not just on coffee.
My goal is always the same: to get to a state of flow, a mental state in which you are so completely absorbed in a task that you lose a sense of time and place. It’s a destination that isn’t easy to achieve but when you get there, it is worth the wait.
Trust in the process and you will get results.
I can’t wait to read what you write.
Estelle Erasmus is an award-winning journalist; blogger, former magazine editor and writing coach who helps bloggers and writers structure and refine their essays and pitches so they can get published. She is a 3-time BlogHer Voice of the Year and has been widely published in The Washington Post, Salon, Newsweek, Redbookmag.com, Your Teen, Good Housekeeping.com and more. Estelle writes “The Practice of Parenting” for PsychologyToday.com, where she takes peer-reviewed and empirical studies and applies them to mothering in real-time. Sign up for her weekly newsletter here. Connect on Facebook and Twitter