For almost 20 years, I taught college writing. These days, I work as a freelance writer. Even though I’m no longer teaching, people still confide in me about their writing woes. They ask a lot of worried questions, the very same questions that my college students used to ask. One of the most frequent worries writers of all backgrounds have is what to do when they feel stuck.
And wow, do ever I know that awful, sinking “stuck” feeling. It’s horrible. It also happens to me regularly—several times a week, on average. Really bleak periods have found me stuck for months on end, making zero progress on my novel. It can be extremely disheartening, and even deeply depressing.
But a while back, I realized that I’d managed to survive all those psyche-wrenching times where I just couldn’t get the ideas to come to me. I’d shared pieces of this advice with my former students. Why not share my advice with a lot of people, in one long post? Even though I’ve reassured literally thousands of worried writers with this same advice, I don’t mind doing so over and over. People will meet the right solution when they’re ready, and when the time is finally right. As Ernest J. Gaines once wrote, “Everything’s been said, but it needs saying again.”
All that said: Take what you need from this list. I hope you’ll find something in here that helps you free yourself from feeling as if you’ll never write again.
1) Remember: You are NOT alone! Feeling stuck is common, and even normal. As Catch-22 author Joseph Heller once noted, “Every writer I know has trouble writing.” Many writers will tell you that when the material flows easily from the start, it winds up being crap. So if you’re having trouble writing and getting into your “flow” space, know that you’re in good company.
2) Try not to beat yourself up. You’ll get past this stuck feeling. Really, you will. The fact that you’re reading this means that you’ve managed to keep writing through and around all your other “stuck” points over the previous weeks and months and years. (If you hadn’t, you’d be off doing something else instead of reading this post.)
The blocked feeling may seem extra-strong right now. (To me, it nearly always feels that way.) Just keep being kind to yourself. Keep taking your writing in small steps. You’ll eventually move past the stopping place you feel right now. It may not be instant, but it’ll happen.
3) Let yourself write utter crap. Even the most experienced writers sometimes fall into the old lie of feeling like the words have to come out perfectly on the first try. This is what stops so many people from ever setting a single word on the page.
I saw this all the time with my college writing students. Many of them were in a perpetual perfectionism deep-freeze. To get around this, I gave them a low-stakes (small grade) assignment with a challenge: “I want you to complete this assignment as badly as you can. Follow the instructions, but make it your goal to write badly. Write garbage. Don’t focus on making it perfect. On Monday, I want to see who’s written the worst draft possible.”
When we returned to class the next week, my students were in much better moods. They were even ragging one another as to who had the worst paper. Sure enough, as I walked around the classroom checking assignments, I saw some atrocious grammar and spelling (which students could always fix later). What struck me most was the amount of strong thinking on those sloppy, “badly written” pages. I saw a lot of 12-point Times New Roman griping turn into thoughtful insights. Once they felt free of that it’s gotta be perfect the first time I type it feeling—once they knew I’d given them permission to “write poorly”—the ideas came more easily.
Let yourself write badly, for as many pages as you need. Chances are that the good stuff will come along once you feel free to write a bad draft.
4) Write in small, short bursts. For me, this removes some of the pressure of sitting at the keyboard for long periods. Try keeping a few sheets of paper and a pen (or a cheap memo pad) in the places you spend the most time: by the sofa, in your car’s glovebox, by the toilet, and so on. Keep the paper inexpensive; you don’t want to have such a pretty notepad that you’re afraid to use it. When a tiny idea fragment comes to you, write it down. If there’s more coming behind it, write that down, too. Otherwise, stop and come back to it later—when your next piece of an idea comes along. Before you know it, you’ll have committed to paper a bunch of small snippets that can help break up that block.
5) Try writing longhand. (Note: If you have dysgraphia, you can skip to the next item.)
This advice came to me from Natalie Goldberg’s classic “self-help for writers” book Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg suggests writing by hand, in a notebook with pen or pencil, as a direct way to access one’s creativity and memory. That’s how she writes every day, and how she’s drafted all of her books. It’s also how Alice Walker composes her drafts—and if writing by hand is good enough for both Goldberg and Walker, then by God it’s good enough for me.
When I read Bones a couple years ago, I was desperate. I’d been stuck in one place with my novel, and hadn’t written anything new in months. Sitting in front of my computer keyboard got me nowhere. So I figured, why not try it? I bought a cheap spiral-bound notebook, grabbed a fresh pen, and began writing whatever junk came to mind, by and. Before I really knew what was happening, I had 20 handwritten pages of quality material. Since then, I’ve used longhand about half the time, when I’m getting new material onto the page. It helps a lot when I’m trying to write emotional scenes or deal with painful memories.
6) Change the font color. That’s right—change your font color to white, so you can’t see what you’re putting onto the page. Then start typing. When you’re done, press CTRL + A (highlight All), or COMMAND + A on a Mac, and then change the font back to your usual color. I’m not sure why this works, but it does seem to free me up from looking at and worrying about what’s going on the page. If I can’t see it, I can’t do my usual perfectionist overcorrection thing. Ha!
7) Change your physical location. Maybe you’re stuck because you’ve been sitting in one place, and in one position, for far too long. Try moving your writing spot somewhere else: to another chair, another table, looking in a different direction, looking out the window. Move to another room, if you can.
Or get out of the house altogether, and write for a while at the public library, a coffee shop, or a diner. (Note: You’ll want to buy a little something and tip your servers, if you go to a retail establishment.) Writing outdoors, while I sit on the front steps of my house, or on a large rock on a local hiking trail, also helps jolt my mind into action. Even half an hour in a new location can dissolve a writing block.
8) Read through old literature textbooks. Maybe it’s all the years I spent teaching from them, but reading back through old “Intro to Lit” anthologies often helps me work around feeling stuck. Most old lit anthologies are available at used bookstores, and don’t cost anywhere near as much as their latest-edition counterparts. (I’ve found some great ones, such as the early-2000s editions of the Norton Intro to Lit and the Bedford Intro to Lit, for $5 to $10.) These textbooks also often include discussion questions. I like trying to answer those questions once I’ve read a selection; often, I’ll just open the book to a random page, and go from there, whether it’s poetry, drama, or short fiction. The ideas often come flowing back to me after an hour or two of this.
9) Read your favorite authors’ work—out loud. Reading aloud forces us to read and then hear exactly what’s on the page. (If you can’t read aloud, try listening to an audiobook.) Hearing the words we’ve grown to love can help dissolve a writing block.
10) Work on another writing project. Often, I forget that my mind needs a break from these same words. That’s when I know it’s time to look over my friend’s screenplay draft, or look at the poem I wanted to revise for another journal. This way, I’m still writing, but I’m also letting this particular creative story rest a while. Even if I don’t have a “Eureka” moment while adding a little more to that album review due next week, I’m still getting some distance on this piece before I look at it again.
11) Set up a “work day” with a friend. Knowing that I’m meeting my friend on a specific day to sit down and work together often helps. Having another person holding me accountable for showing up, just being present, and working quietly does wonders when I’m feeling stuck.
12) Do something that doesn’t involve writing. It doesn’t have to be fancy or exciting—just make sure it’s not writing. Cleaning is my go-to solution. Ancient Buddhist monks were on to something when they came up with the phrase “Chop wood, carry water.” It’s in the humdrum everyday activities that our lives happen one small task at a time.
So when I’m feeling extra-stuck, I know it’s time to clean out that dirty litter box, scrub those greasy roasting pans, or mop the kitchen floor. I also have some great ideas while I’m in the shower, washing my hair. No, I don’t know how this works. Somehow, though, it does.
13) Play an instrument. You don’t have to be “good” at it—the secret is to do it. I’m barely a beginner at guitar, but playing for even half an hour uses the non-writing creative areas of my brain. It lets my “serious writer” side relax and wander off, only to return later feeling better and having a couple new ideas.
14) Listen to music. If I’m having difficulty with a scene, or if I feel as if my words have all abandoned me, listening to music often jolts me into a new frame of mind. This works for many people I know, and not just for writing problems. When I finally feel the need to turn down the volume, or turn off the music altogether, I know I’m making progress past my mental block.
15) Draw (or paint/make other art). As with #13, you don’t have to be “good” at it. Suspend all self-judgment, and then draw (by hand or electronically). Don’t worry about what you’re drawing; reassure yourself that you’re the only person who’s going to see it. Use the non-writing parts of your brain for a while. You may notice that, before long, ideas begin sneaking back into your imagination.
If you have PTSD, like I do, this technique may help when your symptoms seem to have put your words into a deep freeze. Sometimes, when I’m having a particularly bad day, I’ll draw what a crucial scene, or the end of a story, feels like for the main character. Or I’ll draw what finishing my book would feel like. This helps me for reasons I don’t yet fully understand—but, hey, I’ll take whatever I can get.
16) Play like a little kid. I have a box of Legos that I keep around for times like this. All the pieces are mismatched, and they’re at least 30 years old. When I start snapping Legos together, I remember the great ongoing stories that my sister and I used to tell when we were kids. Being a writer is a lot like telling those little-kid stories for a living! Before I know it, I’ve come up with a new paragraph or two in the back of my mind. Playing by myself, with a few old kids’ toys, is often fun and refreshing.
17) Get ideas and wild prompts from unexpected places. You may have one of those old Magnetic Poetry sets floating around somewhere. Maybe you know someone who’ll let you use theirs (or sell you theirs for cheap). I like shaking the plastic box and then seeing what kinds of weird prose poems I can make with the handful of words I pull out.
Pinterest and Tumblr also have great boards and accounts to follow. Just search “writing prompts” and see what turns up. If you’re on Twitter, try following some popular storytelling bots. Here are a few of my favorites:
@MagicRealismBot (“generate[s] a magical story every 2 hours”)
@horse_bluegrass (random, bittersweet, and sometimes inadvertently risqué snippets of old bluegrass and country song standards)
@rewrittenbible (if you’re in the market for Biblical hilarity and heresy)
@poem_exe (random yet beautiful and occasionally funny short poems)
@str_voyage (“a bot forever voyaging [...] endless nautical story generator”)
@fairytaletext (mashups of lines from classic fairy tales)
Prompts from these accounts have led me in surprising new directions. A few have turned into stories of their own. Some have been flat-out corny. No matter the weird, random prompt, this little exercise often gets me putting words on the page again.
18) If none of the tips above work, it may be wise to leave your project alone for a while. Sometimes, the story just isn’t ready. We feel stuck because we’re trying to force ideas before they’ve percolated long enough in our subconscious. Return to the story in a couple weeks, or a month. Let it simmer on your creative mind’s back burner.
Note that not all of these tips will work for everyone. Feel free to combine two or three. Experiment with them as you see fit. The most important thing is that you’re trying something new. The fact you’re reading this—that you’re making an effort to move past your writing difficulties—means there’s hope.
R.S. Williams taught college writing for 19 years before starting a new career as a freelance writer-artist-editor. She lives in LaGrange, Georgia, where she’s completing her debut novel, Songs My Father Barely Knew. Find more of her work at http://rswilliamswrite.com/