Writers, like long-distance runners, tend to hit the wall at some point of the composing process, that point where the writing threatens to shut down, when we feel totally disengaged from our material, and the words are wooden, or won’t come at all. In my own case, this has led to hours of staring out windows and to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. We all know that feeling of wanting to write and not being able to. Norman Mailer once said, “Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.” Here are some tricks we can try to get the writing started again.
- “Let’s Pretend”: Try being bold. Do whatever you have to do to convince yourself you’re the greatest writer who’s ever lived. Take a passage from what you’re writing and rewrite it with confidence and style, or create a new passage in this manner. Let yourself be a big personality on the page. You can always go back and cut out the arrogance, the grandstanding, the panache. This is a game to get words down on the page. Who knows what you might find out about what you’re writing in the process? Let it be a game of discovery.
- “Ask Yourself”: Where are you in what you’re writing? Challenge yourself to articulate why this material matters to you. If you’re writing nonfiction, do a freewrite that begins with the words, “I have to write this because. . . .” Let that freewrite lead you to your personal stakes in the writing. If you’re writing poetry or fiction, start a freewrite that begins, “When I think of this story/novel/poem, I remember. . . .” Make a list of anything from your own experience that may connect to the material you’re working with. Make yourself more present in the fiction or the poetry.
- “Criss-Cross”: Maybe it’s time to try a different genre. If you’re trying to write fiction or creative nonfiction, try taking something of your material and using it in a poem. Poets, try expanding your subject matter into prose. Or try writing only in dialogue. No matter what genre you’re working in, challenge yourself to reduce it to only what people say to one another.
- “Make It Small”: 750 words. If you’re a prose writer, give yourself that many words and no more. Make it tight. See what gem emerges from that pressure. Poets, try reducing your poem to a haiku. You prose writers could try this, too. Sometimes making it small leads you to the pulsing heart.
- “Stop, Go!”: Wherever you are in your draft, stop! Then go directly to the end and write it. The last scene, the last line, the last image, the last whatever. Force yourself to write the last thing of the piece. You’ll have something to write toward as the work continues. Even if this last thing ends up not being the last thing, at least you’ll be moving forward.
And that’s what it’s all about in those early drafts—keep moving. You can come up with your own games to prime the pump and keep the words coming. Sometimes we need to remember that writing can be fun. A slightly unusual approach can free something in our creativity that will return us to our work with renewed energy and connection. In the process, perhaps we’ll open something up in the material that would otherwise remain closed.