What to do when you get stuck

5 tips and tricks for freeing up your imagination

It happens to all of us at one time or another. You sit down to write and stare at the empty screen until you remember your sock drawer urgently needs reorganising. Or you get to a certain point in your draft and draw a blank—what comes next? You have no idea. Sometimes self-doubt can throw a wrench in your creative process. Sometimes you’re simply unable to move forward because you’re still working out where your story or poem is going.

The good news is that pretty much whatever the cause, if you persevere, you will get unstuck. Here are some tips and tricks to speed the process along.

  1. Tell yourself you are going to write the most terrible, messy first draft that has ever existed. It’s going to be so awful it’ll be funny. Nobody will ever see it, just you, and you’ll have a good chuckle about it to yourself. Rename your piece “Terrible, Awful, Shitty First Draft” and then sit down and finish it. You can fix anything in the next round of editing.
  2. Listen to soundscapes. It could be sounds of rain or cafes or singing whales—whatever relaxes but doesn’t distract you. Take a minute or two and put yourself there—in the middle of the thunderstorm or the crowded cafe or the pod of whales deep under the sea. Then try to keep that door to your imagination open as you go back to your story or poem.
  3. Switch up your writing routine. Try a new location—maybe someplace inspiring like a park or library surrounded by books. My personal favourite is the old library in the middle of the Rijksmuseum. If you normally write on a computer, try going old school with a pencil or pen. Or typewriters are great—all of their disadvantages compared to a laptop can actually work for you. Because they are loud, they drown out that mean little voice that tells you your writing is no good and you should just quit right now, and because you can’t delete what you just wrote, you have to keep writing forward instead of trying to edit yourself as you go, which is often counterproductive.
  4. Give yourself permission to take a break. Do something else for a while but pick an activity that allows you to keep your creative mind engaged (so watching Law & Order reruns or scrolling through your Facebook feed doesn’t count). Go for a walk or a run or a swim. Repetitive tasks like washing dishes or cleaning windows also work well because they’re so boring your creative mind has no choice but to step in.
  5. Do an exercise to help you get to know one of your characters better. Make a fun list of things your character loves and things they hate. Describe their bedroom or their appearance or a personal milestone, such as the first time they climbed a tree, kissed someone, or got into a fight. Try making a young character old or an old character young and putting them in a small scene—maybe they’re celebrating a birthday or being interviewed on a chat show. Let them take a walk through their neighbourhood and describe what they see. Regardless of whether or not you’re able to use some of what you’ve written, more often than not, the process will have given you the insight you need to move forward.
8 October 2018

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