How does a novel, story or poem come out of someone’s head and make it to the paper or the computer screen? How does an artist face a blank canvas each day and find the will and the vision to daub pigment on it until a masterpiece emerges? How does the composer know which notes will become a symphony or simply noise?
It’s the universal problem that all writers face: what to do when the muse deserts you. How do you catch that fickle butterfly of creativity and harness its iridescent beauty into your work?
If you Google writer’s block, you’ll find a host of suggestions. Some of them, like “begin in the middle,” offer concrete solutions. Simply skip that bugaboo opening scene and write another. You can always go back, and the middle might be where you need to begin anyway.
Others are vague. “Meditate,” or “Right a social wrong.” How does that help with writer’s block? I think the intent is to clear your mind, or distract yourself. But meditation takes practice, and writers with families and day jobs don’t always have time to play Batman or Mother Teresa. It can be difficult to find time to write even when you’re on a roll, if your life is full. Easier not to, especially if you’re stuck.
Ralph Keyes, in his excellent book The Courage to Write, makes a great case for writer’s block stemming from plain, ordinary fear. Fear of offending someone, fear of failure (that’s a big one for a lot of people), even fear of success. I must admit, I’m no stranger to shifting perceptions of my own efficacy. Sometimes I feel brilliant; other times, completely mediocre and trite. When inadequacy squeezes the breath from me, I can’t seem to focus on anything other than how much I suck.
Writers who get a break can sometimes choke on their next project. They second-guess themselves: What if it’s not as good? What if everyone hates it? What if nobody buys it and my promising career goes down the crapper? Some writers are afraid that success will bring criticism; Mom and Uncle Bob may love their writing, but if other people don’t like it, does that mean they are bad? Not necessarily. It may only mean that Neighbor Jake or Online Critic Susy doesn’t care for allegorical stories about giant interstellar ants ravaging the world, or whatever the subject might be. To them I say, buck up, little camper. Obviously, someone thought your work was good enough to publish, for money, contributors’ copies or both.
Any writing keeps the machine oiled. Blog posts, homework, tweets, emails, everything counts. If I can’t get to work (did you guess yet why I’m writing this particular post?), then I turn to a different project. It’s a trick I learned in college. Take a break from the subject or element that has bogged you down. Do something else for a little while. When you return to your assignment, you’ll be lubed up and ready to go. That’s the idea, anyway. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. You might have to stop and tackle it another day. But that’s okay, as long as you recognize that it’s a problem with the work, and not with you.
I’m sure people in other media have the same issues. Creativity can be fleeting for anyone attempting to spin something from the air. When I asked a very talented artist friend of mine what she did when she got stuck, she said ” Sometimes I’ll get re-energized by looking at my old work, and find new energy to drag the [unfinished] things out and bring it to a good stopping point.” (While you’re here, check the Blogroll for Playing with Crayons and see her beautiful illustrations.)
I can get behind her concept. An old story or essay might be good enough to remind me that I don’t really suck, or show me how far I’ve come if it’s not. Something in it might spark a new idea.
What helps you break through that wall of despair and capture the butterfly? Leave a comment and let us know.