How to Free Up Writer's Block and Release the Malaise
Updated: May 7, 2019
I had a good run of three blog post ideas that came to me very naturally, and got good readership, but then I hit a snag. What to write next?
Because I was feeling a bit stuck, what better topic to tackle than how to break through writer’s block, or any creative block, for that matter. Because writing this blog post is actually a good illustration of how I do just that: try to figure out what is blocking you and try to work through it. Find solutions, rather than allowing yourself to feel paralyzed, and you will be able to move forward.
I had already compiled a list of possible blog ideas after posting a query on my Facebook page and asking my friends – who are both writers and readers – what they would be interested in reading. Because I knew a day would come when I would see no clear path forward. And this subject was actually requested by several people. It’s always a good to have a contingency list ready for the next block. In the news biz, some people called this a “tickle file.”
Because my neck was out since last week, (I had a back spasm, my neck got out of alignment, and then I also had a measles shot, which caused an immune system response), I tried to stay off the computer. Instead, I sat down with my journal and jotted down some ideas, first for the blog, and second, to explore what might be the root causes of the block.
I actually recommend doing both of those things: first, to pick up a pen and paper (it can be a journal or my book of lists, I use both at different times) and second, to get the white noise out of my head, to see what is disrupting the natural flow—whatever that is—and try to determine what might be contributing to the malaise.
Something about writing with pen and paper often frees up whatever it is, releases it onto the page. Then I can come back and focus on that certain task. Sometimes, though, I don’t want to do the task at hand, so that’s when I refer back to past to-do lists or come up with a whole new list of tasks, then pick one I do want to do. (Or I’ll do a task that isn’t on the list, come back, write it down, and check it off.)
Whatever it takes, I know I need to feel like I’ve accomplished something, to re-establish the confidence and positive feelings, before a task I’ve been putting off will feel more do-able. Certain tasks are harder to get unstuck than others, and it may take feeling bored before I am ready to approach one of those.
Sometimes, I can also turn around a blocked state of mind simply by listing what all is bothering me.
Finding the positive in each issue that is nagging at me in my subconscious, may also free it up. When you can reduce the size and shape of the “thing,” and see that it’s not as bad as you thought, all buried and pushed down in your mind, you can bring it to the surface, tackle it to the ground (or to the page), and your creative energy will follow. Like mental acupuncture.
A creative block, or malaise, as I call it, may also have a physical cause, and sometimes it’s as simple as low blood sugar. I used to go straight for the caffeine. In the old days it was Diet Coke and cappuccino, but in recent years, I’ve tried to stay away from such acid-producing temptations (which also can cause my muscles to tighten up, and also contribute to worsening these blocks that I’m trying to eradicate), and try healthier options.
I ask myself, did I eat or drink the wrong thing, and is there sometime I can do with my diet to counteract that, like drink more water, eat more veggies, or drink a pea protein shake? It’s amazing to me how drinking 30 grams of pea protein powder with almond mild and alkaline water will jazz me right up, and get me back on track. I also drink green tea mixed with peach chamomile with stevia, which is a good picker-upper too, without the ragged feelings that my old go-tos used to bring. I also find that eating healthier in general, with more protein, fewer carbs, less sugar, more veggies, and less bread and wheat in general, has made a world of difference.
The trick is to keep working on something, even if you purposely ignore the task that is blocked, until you can clear out the clutter or remove an obstacle. Like doing a “Marie Kondo” on your psyche. That’s where my book of lists come in. I write down all the things that I need to do, and sometimes that helps, because although I might feel stressed, and that I have so much to do hanging over my head, I often feel better after realizing that many of the things that seemed so pressing really aren’t. Literally decluttering my work space or other parts of my house can also help free up mental and emotional space.
Sometimes, I’ve found that a task that I actually want to do is being blocked by outside circumstances. It can get really frustrating when I go down my list of book projects on my to-do list, and identify all the external forces that are keeping me from moving forward on each one. That’s when I tell myself that it’s just not the right time yet. I might try to come at the project from a different angle. Or just move on to the next one. Or move away from those projects and find something I can do on a different type of list—like marketing, building my website (I was blocked on that one for 4 years until recently!), or the never-ending list of home renovation projects. That’s why I’m able to work on multiple book projects at a time. It’s often a matter of timing when something changes and that project moves to the front or back of the line.
When I’m on an extended deadline, it can become a struggle to get something done, because what I really need is a break, but I’m trapped by my own stress and topic fatigue, and that starts feeling like a block. I’ve learned that it’s pointless to keep at it when my brain is not “feeling it.” Force yourself to shift to a different task and come back to the one you “have” to do.
Taking a walk, or doing something physical, also can help re-energize my creativity. After working for myself for the past 13 years, I have pinpointed my best thinking hours, my best times to take a break, and how long I can work before my body and my brain give out. All of this helps me make the most of my brain.
So I actually build exercise breaks into my work day, which allows me to spread out the work hours, to shift to different tasks throughout the day, to use the best parts of my brain when it’s most effective, and to even work fewer hours.
That’s the best part of not working for someone else anymore. It’s really a waste of everyone’s time to force someone to sit at a desk and punch a time clock, “working” during hours when he or she isn’t as productive.
I’m also not a spring chicken anymore, and my body won’t allow me to work 12-hour days—and weekends—without breaking down. I have learned to give myself permission to take days off, even in the middle of the week, especially if I’ve worked both days the previous weekend. And that’s OK. I just read in the New York Times today that we should build times into our busy schedules to purposefully do nothing. It actually makes us more productive and creative.
Another block-remover is to take a creative break and do whatever it is that makes you happy. For me it's singing or playing the piano, and playing in our acoustic group, breakingthecode. For others, it may be painting, taking photos, or quilting. Not everyone thinks they have this option, but, really, you just need to find a creative interest that makes you happy, and get your creative juices flowing. Now if I can only silence the songs in the middle of the night when I'm trying to sleep.
Changing your environment, finding a new place to work, coming home to work, going on a work vacation, or even going outside to weed for 45 minutes, can also help your brain refocus. I have come up with some great breakthrough solutions while I’m walking or swimming. Sometimes I come up with great ideas, goals or dreams, by simply leaving the house and sitting in the sun at an outdoor café with my book of lists or my journal. After 45 minutes, boom, I will get up, come home, and suddenly feel ready to tackle whatever it was that I’ve been putting off. Like this blog post.
I’d love to hear if you find any of this advice helpful. Also, if you have other approaches that have worked for you, please feel free to contribute them in the comment section or on the Facebook page where I’m going to post this. We can all learn from each other.
Thanks for reading the blog!