Freeing ourselves from creative blocks
When we experience a block in our writing, we may blame our deficiencies in the technical aspects—grammar, word use, sentence structure, consistency of details. Often, though, when we fixate on technical problems, we’re avoiding the more pervasive creative blocks. After all, editors can fix our technical errors. Only we can fix our creative snags.
In my work as editor and coach for writers, I can point out the faulty technical aspects in their manuscripts—repetition of “pet” words and phrases, passive voice, overuse of adjectives, overload of clichés. I can recommend grammar guides, style resources, and lists of synonyms.
But these practical aspects don’t address creative blocks. They require other approaches, and we need to use a form of therapy, accomplished by ourselves or with others’ help. To tackle the blocks, we must be willing to delve honestly into our feelings and motives and admit them.
Ask Yourself . . .
Whether a block crops up at the start of a piece, the middle, or near the end, we can begin to crush it with questions that get to the heart—and write down our answers.
1) Do I really want to write?
For academic writing, you may feel you must write for career reasons, to use your dissertation beyond the library archives, or because you’re actually interested in your topic and know it will contribute to your field. For this and other types of writing, you may also feel a deep inner drive to write. In her book on writing, novelist and essayist Joan Frank (2012) captures the basis: Because You Have To. Declare your motives and accept them.
2) What would/could I be doing otherwise today?
As a writer, of course you could be doing research, collecting or analyzing data, or searching out synonyms for peremptory. Such activities may be necessary but they can consume you, and you’re tempted to put off the writing even more.
Or you may find other activities (almost) as rewarding. I thoroughly enjoy editing and counseling clients about whatever may be bothering them, writing-related or otherwise. If you don’t have to write, consider those other activities. If you’re fully committed to what you’re stalled in writing, ask yourself . . .
3) What is my purpose in writing this piece?
More than one is permissible—the classic dual purpose, according to Horace in Ars Poetica, is for the reader to find the work dulce et utile—pleasant and profitable, or in more contemporary terms, entertaining and enlightening.
Think about your personal purpose: Writing for catharsis? Sharing discoveries, results of research, insights, feelings? Responding to another’s article, blog post, or critique? Capturing the essence of a person, relationship, argument, significant life experience, or personal victory? Identifying your purpose helps motivate you to continue.
4) How well have I fulfilled my purpose(s)?
With the stuck draft, be honest and relentless. If your answer is “not very well,” in later drafts you’ll be able to insert what’s missing, revise what needs simplifying, add what needs clarifying, and give examples.
If you’re not sure how well you’ve fulfilled the purpose of this piece, as many writing teachers instruct, leave it alone for a day or more. The distance magically produces your greater critical eye when you return. Usually, if I’m stymied, if I leave the piece for several days and come back, somehow my purpose becomes clear and I know where to go next—and want to. Or if I’ve finished the first draft and think (modestly) it’s not bad, when I return, I see my purpose has become muddied by the sloppy writing, vague references, lapses in logical progression, lack of transitions, off-the-mark passages . . . .
5) How do I feel when I’m writing (other than in blocked sessions)?
Clients have responded with many exclamations: “On point,” “Fulfilling my purpose,” “Nervous but excited,” “Exhilarated,” “Proceeding with an unaccustomed calm, knowing I’m doing what I should be,” “Looking forward to sending this piece out.” I often feel too a quietly elated feeling as the words flow, as if from a source beyond my conscious mind.
This is “Flow,” the feeling that positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote extensively and brilliantly about and documented with descriptions from athletes to artists to rock climbers. In an interview (Gierland, 1996), he describes the feeling:
The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost. (para. 2)
Recall when you’ve experienced the Flow. If you haven’t yet, know that you can. Editor-in-chief of Author magazine, writing workshop leader, and sublime essayist Bill Kenower (2017) reassures us that the Flow
Is always there, always waiting for us, always available. It doesn’t matter if you doubt its existence . . . . It’s still there because it’s you, and the moment you believe again in that flow, you also restore faith in yourself. (p. 25)
But to access and allow our Flow, we may need some help.
How to Cut Through That Block and Release Our Flow
The restorative principle is, as you may have heard, to write. About anything.
1) Julia Cameron’s (1992) “Morning Pages” (don’t tell, but you can do them, as I did, any time of day or night, as long as you do them). Very simple: three handwritten pages daily, about whatever you wish or is uppermost in your mind–feelings, rages, hopes, doubts, disgusts, piss-offs, promises to yourself, the impossible to-do list, impressions, descriptions. No one else will ever see them.
To spill out our feelings and preoccupations on the page is cathartic, freeing, and often productive. In my Morning Pages, my rantings sometimes led to memories of people, events, experiences. As I scribbled, I saw that a particular memory would make a strong short story. Eventually, from the MP germ, I wrote the story. And later published it.
2) Again on the principle of writing anything, set a timer for 6 minutes and describe one thing or event—your fifth-grade teacher, your latest shouting match with another driver, weeping at Bach’s Mass in B Minor. You probably won’t even hear the timer ring. When I do the timer technique, my thoughts often turn to that jammed piece, and I’m not afraid to pick it up again.
3) An extension: Write a passage based on an innovative writers’ site called Six Sentences (2019). The only condition is that your passage must be a maximum of six sentences, with each sentence any length you choose. Read a few passages on the blog to see the great range of styles and subjects. This is an excellent exercise for discipline, evocativeness, and dramatic effect (I’ve done a few, and one became a poem). From your six sentences, your block may simply fade or you may realize you have the kernel of an essay, story, or novel and can’t wait to dive in.
4) Mind map. A mind map is a diagram you create. The central idea is in the middle and you record “branches” of ideas, labeled with a word or phrase, springing from the center. Popularized and elaborated on by Buzan (2018), the mind map isn’t actual writing your free association of snippets of ideas. Use a mind map for the piece you’re blocked about or any new piece. Your mind map can be as simple or elaborate as you wish (see Ingemann, n.d., for some good examples).
A variation, “clustering,” is offered by creative workshop leader Rico (2000) in her inspiring book Writing the Natural Way. “Clustering is a nonlinear brainstorming process akin to free association” (p. 14). You’re not restricted to one central idea and branches but with your right-brain mind allow “clusters” of related ideas to emerge. See how you use clustering and mind maps for ferreting out what’s blocking you in your current piece and where you can then go to complete it.
5) Before your next session, especially to pulverize the block, set your intention. This is a predictive statement of how you want to feel while creating or having created. It is an exercise taught by creativity and productivity coach Chlup (2016). Some examples of intention from her clients: “’Flowing easily and effortless,’ ‘Extreme acceptance,’ ‘Magnificent outcomes’” (p. 6). When I was avoiding a particularly knotty section in my latest project, pacing for five minutes before sitting down, I set my intention: “Right answers falling into place.” And they did.
6) Finally, to smash your block, here’s a rather audacious suggestion: Refuse to give the idea of “block” any credence at all. What we tell ourselves we believe. Use statements of intention or other declarative sentences (also known as affirmations) to regain your power and eviscerate that block.
Blocks aren’t inevitable in writing. Experiment with these techniques and see how one or more works for you. Or invent your own. We can all free ourselves from any so-called creative block.
Buzan, T. (2018). Mind map mastery: The complete guide to learning and using the most powerful thinking tool in the universe. London, England: Watkins Publishing.
Cameron, J. (1991). The artist’s way: A spiritual path to higher creativity. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Chlup, D. T. (2016). From blocked to breakthrough: The art of stress-free creating. The Academic Author, 3, 5-6.
Frank, J. (2012). Because you have to: A writing life. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Geirland, J. (1996, September). Go with the flow. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/1996/09/czik/
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (Eds.). (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Ingemann, M. (n.d.) The power of mind mapping. Retrieved from
Kenower, W. (2017). Fearless writing: How to create boldly and write with confidence. Cincinnati, OH: Writers Digest Books.
Rico, G. (2000). Writing the natural way: Using right-brain techniques to release your expressive powers (rev. ed.). New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Six Sentences. (2019). http://sixsentences.blogspot.com/
© 2020 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com