7. Creative Writing Exercises: Overcoming Writer’s Block


A writer may experience anxiety for a variety of reasons: having to meet a tight deadline, disappointment with one’s work, pressure to produce, etc. This anxiety is often a source of writer’s block.

In addition to tapping into your subconscious, brainstorming, stream of consciousness, and establishing a routine to stimulate your creative juices, there are other techniques to help you overcome writer’s block.

Below are some effective strategies for six common writer’s block scenarios.

Beating Writer's Block

Beating Writer’s Block

Scenario #1: You do not feel any desire to write.

This one is very simple.

If you do feel any need to write, then stop writing. Writing is not your calling.

Writing can be a painful and arduous process, no doubt, but the people who do write do so because they cannot live without it. They may put it off for days, weeks, months, even years, but ultimately, they will return to it because they have a story to tell and they are determined to tell it.

Scenario #2: You vacillate between writing short stories like Hemingway, poetry like Pound, and the next great Tolstoyian novel.

You read Palahniuk and fall in love with the coolness of his style; but then you read Manzoni and realize that you are at heart a neo-Romanticist kind of writer. You have so many favourite authors, and you feel that if only you can “borrow” a little from each, your composite novel will emerge as the greatest novel of all time.

This is a fallacy—a really big one.

Ask yourself what is the purpose of your work. If it is to emulate the likes of Tolstoy, then stop; no wonder your ideas are all petering out—you are not and will never be a Tolstoy, or anyone else for that matter.

Writing in a voice that is not yours will never ring true and the reader will call your bluff.

Stop reading fiction for a few weeks. While immersing yourself in novels and learning plot and metaphoric language through osmosis is definitely one of the best things for you to do, at a certain point you have to stop reading the works of others and start redirecting your energy to writing. Rather than focus on the greatness of other authors, focus on your own stories.

Scenario #3: You have so many different ideas for plots and characters that you cannot decide which one deserves your focus.

This has to be the most maddening situation in which to find yourself: with a tremendous hunger you arrive at a buffet of ideas, only to discover that none taste all that great. What seemed so impressive right before going to bed seems so lacklustre in the morning; your main character loses her poise once the pen hits the paper.

You probably have not done enough introspection, your mind is all over the place, and you lack a clear focus. It is very likely that the reason why you cannot develop any of your ideas is because you actually have very little interest in developing them. You are not writing about what truly interests you.

Delve into the murky waters of your subconscious and explore the myriad untold thoughts and secret desires that are protected from the outside world. If you are churning out banalities, it is because all you are putting into the pot are cheap clichés and endless platitudes.

What do you really want to say? What are you really thinking, but won’t say because you are afraid of being criticized and rejected?

Together we could produce a list of hundreds of authors who have written of the most terrible and strangest things—from incest to murder to sadomasochist desires—and rather than being cast as social pariahs, these very authors are among the most celebrated of our times.

The only way to overcome this obstacle is to be honest with yourself and through lots of introspection and meditation, determine what it is that motivates you to write. You have to start having faith in yourself and in your own writing abilities.

Scenario #4: You stare blankly at a computer screen that returns your stare in kind.

You are having a bout of writer’s block. The trick is to continue with your routine and to simply keep on writing. Try any or all of the following:

  • Plot Synopses. Creating 20 simple, one-sentence plot synopses per day;
  • Metaphors. Think of 10 objects, situations or things people do, and describe each one using a metaphor.
  • Rewriting Classics. Find a descriptive passage that you admire from your favourite story. Rewrite the passage using your own metaphors.
  • Dialogue/Narrative. Write a dramatic scene between two strangers on a train where a secret is revealed. First, write the scene using only dialogue. Second, rewrite the scene using no dialogue, only narrative. Third, rewrite the scene using a mix of both narrative and dialogue.
  • Character Sketches. Do a character sketch. Create a character from scratch, or base him/her from your personal repertoire of friends, family, and acquaintances. What is his/her primary motivation in life? What are his/her fundamental beliefs about humanity? What is his/her “essence,” that underlying impression of life that colours every single action and word? Now put your said character in action. What actions would a person with such convictions do? How would this type of person react in a crowded room, or while filling up at an empty gas station in the middle of a secluded town?
  • Observation. Take public transportation to another part of town. Focus (unobtrusively) on some of your more colourful co-passengers. How do they pass the time? How do they react when someone steps on their toes? What is the one physical feature that defines them? What actions do they do that strike you as most interesting? What could these actions say about their views on life?

Scenario #5: You get so nervous writing that you are either running to the fridge, the liquor cabinet, or your pack of cigarettes, depending on your choice of vice.

Anxiety right before writing is very common.

When you sit down to write, regardless of where you have reached in your story, you are entering a world different from your current reality, albeit one of your own making; it is a world where you have created conflict and tension, and unless you are writing a very boring story about a man staring at a chair, there will be strong emotions to be felt and big decisions to be made. This can be emotionally challenging, yet naturally invigorating for you, the writer of these dramas.

It takes me a great deal of chocolate and Internet browsing, depending on the time of day, before I can start entering my state of writing flow. So long as it is not detrimental, indulge in whatever you need to overcome your daily bout of nerves and start writing.

Scenario #6: Right in the middle of your story, you hit a roadblock.

Discussing your ideas with a literary confidant is the best solution to this problem; this person whom you trust can provide you with perspectives different from your own, some of which may be exactly what you need for your story and characters.

Unfortunately for them, many people would rather run outside naked than show others their work (although both are quite similar). There are two main reasons for this:

  • they fear that someone will steal their ideas;
  • they are extremely self-conscious of their work and are scared of criticism.

Although the fear of someone else stealing your ideas is very real (think of the Leibniz-Newton calculus controversy, or in our times, the Yann Martel/ Moacyr Scliar controversy), a writer cannot live with this paranoia. You have to eventually show your work to the world, or else you are just writing for an audience of one. Take common sense precautions, but have faith that at least in the beginning stages, group discussions and feedback sessions may provide more good than bad.

The second fear is quite widespread. When you show someone your writing, you are making yourself vulnerable to that person’s impressions. But remember that it also puts your poor reader in an awkward situation: if his comments are positive, you might think that he is simply afraid of hurting your feelings; conversely, if the comments are negative, then you might think that your reader is simply jealous of your great literary talents and wants to destroy your ego.

Perhaps you are so afraid of making a bad impression that you keep your work in hiding. However, no matter how great a writer you will eventually become, there will always be those who will castigate your work as mere pablum. I remember the sensation of coldness running down my spine when one of my favourite authors, Vladimir Nabokov, lambasted another of my most beloved authors, Fyodor Dostoyevsky; both great writers, and yet even their ideas of what constitutes good plot and characterization could not be further apart.

We cannot change how people perceive our work, but we certainly cannot shelter our delicate egos from the comments of the outside world. And just as we should not take negative criticism too much to heart (in the sense of discouraging us from ever writing again), we should also never let praise get to us (praise can be just as debilitating as criticism, because then there grows that terrible need to produce another, better work).

Scenario #7: There is no one with whom you can discuss your work.

While the writing process can be entirely private, often it is not. Many writers (and scholars) have their significant others proofread and provide feedback on their work. Nabokov’s wife, for instance, listened to and typed up all of his stories.

There is a problem if you have no one you trust, or if no one is capable or willing to read your work. In this case, you either need to take a leap of faith and show it to the least inappropriate person that you know (at your own risk), or you can join a writer’s group where you can meet with likeminded individuals (a much preferable option).

Sites like Meetup and the community forums on Craig’s List or Kijiji can be of invaluable help when looking for other writers who want to create a literary-salon feel in a 21st-century setting, where writers can share their work and get and receive feedback. Another option is attending a writing conference or taking a creative writing course, both of which can be found on community forums.

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