Got writer’s block?
Don’t worry, I know the feeling.
You sit down to write something, but you just can’t.
Oh, you know how to write, and you know that you’re good at it. It’s just been a while since you’ve written anything that you’re really proud of. Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve written anything at all.
Good writers go to university, and each year of study they write less and less of their own works, until finally they hardly write a thing. Does that make any sense to you?
Hack writers never seem to get writer’s block, do they? How is that fair?
Why is this? What can you do about it?
Well, I’ve worked out the germ of a theory, and this theory suggests a practical exercise that you can do. I can’t claim that it will cure your writer’s block. In fact, it may not work for you at all, but it certainly won’t hurt—at least, not much. You may even find it fun.
The theory here (and it’s not necessarily a new theory) is that a creative person is held down by the weight of their creative failures. Every time you have fallen short of your own standards holds you back from being able to create. This becomes a downward spiral. You stop yourself more and more, even as you push yourself more and more to produce something. Eventually you give up in disgust.
By the way, this could explain how bad writers keep going; their standards are low enough that they don’t ever fail to achieve them. Like Kraft Dinner, McDonalds, or Budweiser, they have a mediocre (or worse, truly bad) product, but by sheer volume alone, they survive. Some even make an absolutely obscene amount of money at it. That’s just speculation, of course.
Meanwhile, the talented writer is busy trying to prevent himself from writing something that doesn’t suck, and in the process not writing anything at all.
In an effort to remedy this situation, I’ve put together a little exercise.
Alright, maybe it’s not so little. More like it’s a little involved. However, it’s worth the work.
It consists of revisiting those crippling creative failures, so as to lift their weight off of you and free your attention from them.
Take a blank or lined piece of paper and divide it into four by drawing a line down the centre of the page and another one across the middle. Over on the left-hand side, write READ, and on the right-hand side, write WRITTEN. At the top, write SHOULDN’T’VE and at the bottom write SHOULD’VE.
Now you have four quadrants for the things you shouldn’t have read (but did), the things you shouldn’t have written (but did), the things you should have read (but didn’t), and the things you should have written (but didn’t).
Start writing a list in each box.
In the box for things you shouldn’t have read (but did), write down all the books, articles and other material that you read, but didn’t like, and those that you “had” to read, even though you didn’t want to. Maybe you read an article for an elective course that you really weren’t interested in, or had to proofread or edit something that you didn’t really like. Add it all to the list.
In the box for things you should have read (but didn’t), write down all the books, articles, and even authors (their major works, or even their entire catalogue) that you haven’t read, but feel you should have. Maybe you always meant to, but never got around to it. Maybe you started, but put it aside for some reason. Maybe you never picked it up because someone else said they didn’t like it. It all goes on the list.
In the box for things you shouldn’t have written (but did), write down everything you’ve written that you didn’t like, that didn’t live up to your standards. Write down the things that you wrote that you didn’t mean, or meant but didn’t articulate properly, or that were true at the time but aren’t now, or where you goofed up the facts, or where you wrote in an atrocious style. Write the things that you “had” to write; for school or for work, but that you wouldn’t have done on your own. List out the ones you think you could have done better.
Finally, in the box for things you should have written (but didn’t), list out everything you ever thought of writing, but never did. Anything you had the idea to write, but didn’t follow through on. Ideas never given form. Unfinished assignments, where you missed the deadline. Pieces you started, but abandoned. Everything you can think of, or remember.
You may find as you go along that you remember something that should go in a previous box; add it to the list. You may remember things that people said to you about items on the lists. You may find you need to start a second piece of paper. Keep going until you feel you are done, until you’re satisfied that there’s nothing else you can think of.
The very fact that you can remember these things and assign them to these categories mean that something still bothers you about them.
So, let’s do something about that.
Look over the list of things you should have read, but didn’t. Well, what’s stopping you from reading them now? Is there anything on that list that appeals to you, that you can get your hands on? Put a star next to it. If it’s something that you have close to hand, before you go any further you may want to pick it up, and start reading it. Get a whole chapter read. Do you have a taste for it? Take it with you, and read it in every moment you can spare. If you don’t have what you want on your list, get it, and start reading it as soon as you can. When you’ve finished reading something, cross it off the list and pick something else.
Next, look over the list of things you shouldn’t have read, but did. Why shouldn’t you have read them? Were they bad? Why were they bad, and how? You may find some items on that list that someone (a friend, professor, or teacher perhaps) insisted were Great Works of Art, but you didn’t really find all that spectacular. Pick one that seems the most clear and obvious to you. Now, get some paper or your computer and write what was wrong with it. Don’t hold back; you’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings (unless you get bold enough to go pin your criticism to the author’s study door). Be honest, and clearly articulate your opinion as to why it was not, to you, worth reading. If you need to go back and read it again to make sure, do so. It probably wouldn’t hurt to do that for any one of the pieces you didn’t feel you appreciated fully at the time. Keep doing this for each item on the list.
Look over the list of things you shouldn’t have written, but did. What was wrong with them? Do you feel differently about the subject now than you did then? Have new facts come to light that change your mind? Was it really awful style? Were you “helped” (by a friend, professor, or teacher perhaps) to write in a way that just wasn’t you? This time, pick an item off the list that didn’t seem so bad. Find the original piece, or if you can’t (did you burn all the copies?), work from memory. Rewrite it the way it should have been written.
You may feel, as you do this, a certain resistance (or shame, or anxiety) when you think about the ones you’re really not proud of. Compare this feeling to the feeling you get when you sit down to write and you can’t. Do you find them similar?
We come now to the list of things you should have written, but didn’t. Maybe you showed someone and they scoffed at you. Maybe you just couldn’t finish it in time. Well, you’ve got plenty of time now. Pick the one you feel that you could do most easily, and do it. Write the assignment, finish the article.
It’s probably best to go from one list to the next, doing something from each box in turn, and some (like the reading, for example) at the same time, so that you are balancing things out as you go.
Obviously this isn’t something you can do all at once. However, you may find yourself experiencing small improvements as you go along. Go at your own pace; but keep at it as long as you find it is useful. Copy the paper and keep it with you; make it a part of your routine to review it and add new items as you think of them.
When you’ve made some headway on these four lists, and feel good about it, there’s a fifth step to the exercise.
Turn your page over.
Write down all the things you were really proud of writing. Every piece that you got praise for, every time you felt you “nailed it.” Remember what it felt like. Remember what was really good about it. Keep going until you feel you’ve got a complete enough list.
Did you find anything from the “shouldn’t have written (but did)” list on this page? Were you surprised?
This can be a long exercise. I daresay you could make it last forever, if you really wanted to. However, there should be a point where you know you’ve achieved the primary goal of the exercise, which is to take care of a good, chronic case of writer’s block.
Somewhere along the line, you will sit down and find you can write, effortlessly and freely, the way you always knew you could, the way you want to.
That’s when you know that the exercise is complete.
Of course, you may want to go back to it from time to time if you feel like you need or want to; that’s up to you.
A lot of creative people get blocked from time to time: painters, photographers, musicians, actors. I can paint a wall, take an iPhone snapshot, play the pentatonic scale on a guitar, and act nonchalant, but that’s about as far as I go in those disciplines. I’m writing in terms of writer’s block because I’m a writer, but there’s no reason you can’t adapt this exercise to your field of artistic endeavour.
You owe it to yourself to give it a try.
Let me know how it works out.