Written by Trent Becker, edited by Nathan Weaver.
Balancing being a human and being a writer is quite a difficult task, especially when it isn’t one’s career or greatest source of income. For me, one of the hardest aspects of making time for writing is that I see it as a hobby; often, I feel pressured to take care of every necessary task before picking up my pen. And sometimes, unfortunately, when I get everything done that needs doing (just kidding—is this even possible?) or I put some things off to make time for writing, I find I can’t write. I can’t tell you how frustrating this is when I have as much passion for it as I do. Writer’s block is not something I’m proud to admit I face. Maybe because I think it’s weak? Or because it isn’t talked about as much in my circle of writing friends? Whatever the reason, I’ve accepted it as a real issue that needs to be dealt with.
Over the years that I’ve struggled with this phenomenon, I’ve developed some skills and techniques of working through it. They’re not bullet-proof, and I don’t use the same method every time, but it’s definitely helped me overcome it and get something on the page.
Use writing prompts
The internet is your friend. Seriously. There are hundreds of platforms out there that provide different types of writing prompts. Some will generate a first line for you to use. Some give you an entire situation. My favorite, though, are the three-element prompts. They’ll give you three random words to incorporate into a story.
Example: clock, dolphin, brother.
In some way, you use those three items to create characters, a setting, and a problem, and take it from there. Maybe you don’t even need all three items to get the words flowing. After all, the goal is to get you writing, so if you’re struck with an idea after the first word or two—whatever the prompt might be—go for it!
Change your environment
A large reason I struggle with this issue is because I try to write at the dining room table when I can see the dishwasher needs to be loaded. Or I write on the couch while the television is staring at me. Or I write at my desk, which is just so cluttered, I feel as though I should organize it. In situations like these, the only solutions are to either abandon writing altogether and complete the task at hand or leave that work space and go to the library or a coffee shop. Abandoning the distracting work space allows my work to become the center of my focus.
Eliminating distractions is a key way to actually producing words.
Take a break
Sometimes the more I try to figure something out, the harder it is for me to actually reach that solution. Writing is no different. If I find myself getting frustrated by my lack of writing, I’ll literally leave it and do something else for a while. It really helps me to take a step away; whether that’s by taking a walk, doing a quick chore, or even doing a few pushups (to be really sure that my mind is not on my writing AND I get some frustration out). I choose the task I do wisely—something that has a clear end to it. I avoid watching TV because I could always just watch another episode. I avoid taking a nap because who knows how long I’d sleep (or if I release my frustration enough to actually sleep). The most important part for me personally is that I must—MUST—get back to writing that same day. This obviously isn’t always feasible. Life has its obligations for us. But my result is always a thousand times better if I sit back down, pick up my pen, and dig up more effort within an hour or two of my break. Even if I only get one word down on the page, it’s something. And taking the time to try keeps it in my head more. There’s a much higher chance that I’ll sit and try again the next day—and usually with success—if I give it more than one go.
This one might be my favorite. Especially for creative-minded people, this can be fun to explore. There’s only so much a person can tell about someone just from their appearance or behavior, so filling in the blanks with whatever made-up story comes to your mind can be quite thrilling. If you see a man in his late thirties wearing a dark suit at a coffee shop, it’s up to you if your character based on him will be a lawyer heading to meet a client or a son who just buried his father. The choice is yours, and I think that’s a great way to get those creative juices flowing.
In a way similar to the people watching, being aware to what goes on around you can be a perfect way to brainstorm story ideas. For example, just a few weeks ago, I was sitting at my table writing while my lunch cooked in the oven. My mind was everywhere, and I could not for the life of me settle on a situation for a short story. Suddenly, my oven made a loud pop! and—after verifying that nothing was going to blow up—I was thrust into an idea in which the oven contained a bomb and this guy blew up his house. Weird connection, but there is the connection. And thus, a short story was born.
As many great writers have said, reading other works is an amazing way to achieve success, gain ideas, and expand vocabulary. Generally, I personally prefer some distance in genre from what I’m currently working on. If I’m writing a memoir, I will read either fiction or non-creative nonfiction. If I’m working on a thriller or mystery, I will read a coming-of-age story or romance. That way in my mind I’m not comparing my work with that of what I’m reading. The more different the reading material, the fresher my eyes will be when I sit back down to write.
Journal or change topics
A little self-discovery never hurt anyone, right? Journaling is powerful. It can be as simple as writing about the day you had at work or a dream of yours. Whatever the topic is that gets the words flowing from your head to your fingers is success in my book. If writing about yourself doesn’t suit your fancy, how about switching up your genre? If fantasy/sci-fi is your go-to, try to write a romance story. Or try poetry—even if you think you’re terrible like I do. Even if you never tell or show anyone what you’ve written, you’ve still used your writing skills to produce something.
I wish I could tell you the one sure-fire way to avoid writer’s block. Sadly, that one thing does not exist that I have found. Rather, I hope I’ve given you a few ideas of how to cope and overcome this struggle that so many writers face. Plus, I know it was helpful to me knowing that I wasn’t the only one who experienced this issue. Writers write, right? Sometimes it’s hard to convince yourself it’s worth the effort of getting through, but trust me it is. Good luck and keep writing!