Have you ever felt … stuck?
As if no matter how fast the wheels in your head were turning, you weren’t moving even an inch in the right direction?
It’s not writer’s block, exactly. It’s more like feeling you’ve been writing the same old things for so long that you’re beginning to question whether you’re even capable of coming up with an original idea anymore.
Even writers who have been doing this whole “start dumping your brain thoughts onto a blank page and just see what happens” thing for many years often find themselves stuck or bored. And there’s nothing worse for creativity than feeling like you’re trapped in a box with no way out.
There are plenty of ways to combat this, of course. Some authors swear by writing retreats, refueled by escaping to a location outside their normal route and spending time away from the “real world.” Others believe it’s not just healthy, but necessary, to take writing breaks. Days, weeks, maybe even months spent not writing so that your brain starts to miss it, and your itch to write — and the motivation to do so — returns.
But let’s say these things simply aren’t options for you. You can’t just drop everything and spend a week or even a long weekend writing in a cabin next to a lake or in the middle of a forest. Or you have these things called deadlines, or you’ve already “taken time off” from writing and can’t afford to take any more.
What then? How do you get yourself to feel unstuck without drastically changing your routine?
Whenever I feel trapped or as if I’ve been running on the same creativity treadmill for weeks on end, it’s usually because I’ve been working on the same three projects day in and day out. As much as we humans love repetition, we also get bored. This is why some people “project hop” — moving from one writing project to the other, never finishing or barely starting each one before moving on to the next. So I’m not going to suggest outright that you abandon everything you’re working on and start something new.
What you can do, however, is allow yourself a little exercise. No, not the actual running on a treadmill kind, though that really can clear your head and give you plenty of time to think about things, maybe stumble upon a new idea without stumbling over your own feet.
Beginning writers spend a lot more time exercising their creativity than most of the more seasoned writers out there. That’s because the more we write, we trick ourselves into thinking we don’t need to jog for five minutes before breaking into a sprint, so to speak, even though we’d have a much better run (writing session) if we took the time to warm up a little.
I’ve gotten into the habit of playing around creatively for a bit before I dive into a more serious project (e.g., a novel or an article), and it consistently improves my thought process and the way I approach everything I work on. All it takes is thinking like a beginner, even if you aren’t one.
When you were first learning how to write, either in school or on your own time, there were probably specific exercises you did to get your ideas flowing and begin practicing and developing your skill.
For me, it was essays. In elementary school, I felt like we were ALWAYS writing essays. Our teachers would give us a topic (e.g., write about a time you were surprised) and remind us of the general format we were expected to follow (remember transitions? Oh, transitions!).
Prompts are extremely helpful for beginners, but you don’t have to be a beginning writer to use them. There are days I wish my creative writing teacher from high school would walk into my home office and tell me what to write about. Of course, that would also mean he would make himself comfortable, let me write for a few minutes, and then interrupt me and tell me where the story needed to go next. Man, I hated that. And loved it all the same.
You can, of course, just look up writing prompts online — there are plenty of them.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing this. It’s not lazy and it’s not hurting you creatively. It’s kind of like jumpstarting your car when it’s struggling to get going. The car still isn’t going to do the driving for you. But that jolt gives you the push you need to allow your mind to begin working through an idea.
Writing like a beginner doesn’t mean you return to your former life of clichés and predictable storylines, necessarily. It just means you allow yourself to approach writing a little less seriously, with a little less pressure. Most true beginners may have dreams of publishing a book someday, for example. But they’re not worried about that. They’re focused on what they’re doing right now to learn the basics, put in the practice time, and improve gradually but significantly over time.
You can return to that, if you’re feeling stuck. You don’t have to toss aside what you’re working on. But maybe what you need is to take a step back from all the pressure and just let yourself write a little more freely. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Allowing some room to breathe and take it easy with some fun prompts and aimless prose can help reset your mind and get you back on track — without even having to leave your couch, home office, kitchen table, wherever it is you normally write.
Beginners are taught to slowly ease into their craft, take their time, and open their eyes to a world full of creative possibilities. Learn from them. Be one of them, even if you technically arent’t.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.