Ditch the Drama: Michelle’s Tools for Smashing Through Creative Block

I know I’ve mentioned, more than once, that I suffered from writer’s block for an entire decade. Actually I’m not sure writer’s block is the best word for what I suffered–it was much more like paralysis. I WANTED to write. I had ideas for WHAT to write. But whenever I sat down to write, I froze. I couldn’t do it.

But I recovered, and I write every day now. And I thought maybe you all would like to know the things that helped me recover, in case you find yourself in a similar situation.

So here are Michelle’s tools for busting through creative block. Maybe some of them will be helpful.

1. Navel Gaze. If you desire to create, but just feel like you can’t? It might be a symptom of some bigger issue. If you can find a way to figure out WHY you are frozen, you will have an easier time overcoming the freeze. My own breakthrough wasn’t a single big “Ah HA!” moment, but self reflection really did help me work my way through the problem. I used a very self-helpy book called The Artist’s Way. I did the exercises, I did the journaling, I let myself be really self-absorbed and annoying for a while. And startling things happened. I learned a lot about myself. Maybe the book I used isn’t the one for you–maybe you need a different book, or a therapist, or a patient friend, or a week alone with a journal and a pen. There are as many ways to work it out as there are people who have writer’s block. Just keep trying.

2. Ditch the Drama. I don’t know why the idea of the tortured artist has captured the popular imagination so much. It’s not that I doubt the EXISTENCE of the tortured artist–I know many, many brilliant artists led lives that were f*cked up like a football bat. Maybe it’s because I’m not a creative genius, or maybe it’s because stress causes me to freeze rather than launch in to frenzied action, but whatever the reason, drama does NOT feed my creativity. If I want to create, I need to be able to focus, and when my personal life is full of explosions, my creative life suffers.

Now, I’m not talking about the run of the mill stresses of life–sorrow, loss, illness, those things are difficult, sure, but they don’t freeze my creative process. I’m talking about DRAMA. I’m talking about friends and lovers who like to play mind games, about making decisions that you KNOW are not good for you, I’m talking about abusive work environments and not taking care of yourself. I’m talking about the millions of self destructive things we do for reasons that may always remain a mystery.

Austin Kleon said it well in his blog post “How to Steal Like an Artist”:

That whole romantic image of the bohemian artist doing drugs and running around and sleeping with everyone is played out. It’s for the superhuman and the people who want to die young.

The thing is: art takes a lot of energy to make. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff.

I have found this to be true for myself. If you want to have a healthy, steady relationship with your creativity–do yourself a favor. Ditch the drama. Find nice friends, make your life more boring, save the intensity for your craft. I keep my life pretty uneventful.  I channel most of my melodramatic tendencies–and believe me, I have  a LOT of them–into tormenting my characters instead of myself. I’m happy, my family is happy, and I’m producing writing at a steady pace without a lot of suffering. It’s awesome.

And even if ditching the drama doesn’t bring your creativity back–dude, you’ll feel better. Trust me.

3. Play. Once the urge to write again started feeling strong–not just the desire to be able to write, but an actual urge to start writing something–I got really lucky in two ways. One of them was that I had a very, very silly idea for a novel. Lesbian Pirate Erotica, with magic and supernatural beings. I thought the idea was ludicrous–but I mentioned it to a friend who said, “WHY haven’t you written it yet?”. So I decided I would. This was the best decision I ever made, as far as my writing life was concerned.

It was perfect because I didn’t think it was IMPORTANT. It was completely and utterly absurd. It was really, really fun to talk about with other people. I didn’t get stressed out, and I didn’t get in my own way, because I knew from the start I wasn’t doing something earth shattering. I sure as hell wasn’t writing the great American novel. I was able to just sit back and enjoy the ride (wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more). I did have moments of panic during the writing of that first draft–agony over my lack of talent, feeling like I was crazy to even try something like this. But I just kept going because even when I was freaking out I was still having fun.

When we are blocked, it’s so easy to see writing as this unattainable height–and it’s even easier to get caught up in our fears that we will try to be brilliant, and fail, and look like fools. We lose sight of why we want to create–for the joy of it. If there is no joy in creating, then just go get a day job and forget about it. If you’re going to be miserable, you might as well do something that’s guaranteed to provide a good paycheck. My silly novel was a game, it was play. It helped me break through years of immobilization because it was So. Damn. Fun. Play is freeing.

4. Trick Yourself in to Writing. I mentioned that I got lucky in TWO ways. The first was that I chose a fun, silly first project. The second was that I found out about NaNoWriMo. Anyone who has read my blog has heard plenty about NaNo, so I’ll just say that the thing about NaNoWriMo is that it helps us to turn off that inner critic, to stop thinking about it, and to just pound it out. Run like hell, and worry about where you’ll end up when you get there. This is such a great way to get out of your own way. Worries about brilliance don’t really matter. You’ve got a goal, you’ve got a deadline, and you’ve got thousands of other wackos running alongside you. It’s exhilarating. It’s a game.

NaNo introduced me to some other tools to help me trick myself in to writing. Things like Word Wars: you and another writer, 15 minutes on the clock, she with the most words win. The second time I did NaNo, I wrote over 100,000 words in 3 weeks–in 15 minute sessions. If you don’t have someone to have word wars with, you can always try Write or Die.

Maybe the timer doesn’t work for you. Maybe you need a system of rewards. I knew someone who wouldn’t let herself get up and use the bathroom until she’d produced a certain number of words. Another friend won’t sit down to read a novel until she’s met a certain word count for the day. Some people uses a program that disables the internet on their computer for a set amount of time. All of these things are tricks we use to help us write in spite of our inner critic, in spite of our Attention Deficit Oooooh Shiny!, in spite of the laundry and dishes that need doing and the phone that is ringing and the garden that needs weeding. Experiment. PLAY. Find a way to make it a game rather than ART. In the end, you will get art. But you have to start by getting out of your own way.

And finally:

5. Find the Right Friends. I am convinced that the reason my creative recovery worked was that I found other creative people to commune with. If you want to write, you need writing buddies. I’ve harped on this topic a lot so I won’t rehash it too much here. The main thing is, make sure that these friends a) write actively b) are nice and c) like to encourage other writers, rather than tear them down. A little friendly competition is fine if you like that kind of thing, but no toxic “friends” who like to rip on other people. You want cheerleaders in your fragile early days of recovery.

So what about you? Have you ever had writer’s block? Have you ever OVERCOME writer’s block? What were your tools?


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