Some months ago I started noodling on an idea I had for a book, and suddenly it started coming together. I was going to cafes to write, and coming home with drafts of entire essays, feeling very smug and happy. This book was coming along fast, and although I knew it would be a short one, I was thrilled because it was something very different to my existing style, and something I really was enjoying writing.
Then something happened. Life got in the way, I had other projects, goals. I decided to up my fitness level and didn’t want to be sitting around in cafes drinking calorie-laden frappucinos. I somehow decided to revise an earlier book I had written, thinking it would take me a few weeks to edit it, at most a month. Then months went by, and every time I tried to work on the book, I couldn’t capture that old easy flow, that excitement of words hitting notes that I could only hear in my head. I kept waiting to be inspired, to feel that old rush, and kept feeling annoyed at myself for not being able to get back to the rhythm. In the meantime, this revision that would only take a few weeks, was turning into a bear, and so much time had passed that I was embarrassed to talk about my work, and started to break down in public if anyone asked me the dreaded question: so what are you working on right now?
So the last few weeks, I have been trying any manner of methods to get me back into the flow, to get my work done and out without compromising quality, and to stop rueing the day I decided writing would be a good thing to take up. And these are a few of the strategies that I have uncovered. Of course none of them are particularly original, and no one strategy seems to work on its own or for very long, but feel free to cycle through and try them out, and maybe if you’re stuck like me, you might find yourself excitedly getting back to the page.
1. Lower Your Expectations
Yup, this is the first one. And I know its not terribly glamorous or exciting, but promise me, this alone might jumpstart you back to work. With both my projects, high expectations has been constantly tripping me up and causing me to waste time. When I first started writing my little book of essays, I was doing it for fun and just to see if I could. Then it started to seem like it would be good, at least to me. And then the voices of expectations started off in my head. This book would show people another side of me as a writer. My friends and family would be amazed at my breadth of ability. I started to write the answers to imaginary interview questions about my work in my head. And obviously, the writing dried up. I couldn’t put down another word no matter how many caramel frappucinos I sacrificed my health on.
I found that lowering my expectations - by telling myself that this was a very very first draft, a zero draft (a term I learnt in law school, and has been very useful since then), I could give myself permission to do it badly, to suck. This is something you read all the time, usually a paraphrase of Anne Lamott’s famous phrase: “write sh*tty first drafts”. The only problem is that for the book I was revising, I was meant to be revising it, making it better, not writing crap drafts. So then I found myself stuck trying to perfect the book in one draft, until it hit me.
I could write many sh*tty drafts, not just the first one. This is also from Hilary Rettig by the way, who advocates many many drafts, and I wrote about this a few posts ago. My process is such that I anyway do many drafts, I even label each document I am working on by the number of draft and version - so this revision was usually Chapter 6 2.2 or 2.3 or whatever. (I know that makes me sound OCD, but whatever works.) But because this was a revision, I was somehow counting the previous several versions as my many, many drafts, and trying to get this done in 1 or 2. When I let go this ridiculous notion, I could give myself permission to just do my best with this draft and move on, knowing I could come back in a few days and improve it. That freed me up to get through my current draft faster, and actually made the work better, cleaner, and the whole process less stressful.
There is another aspect to lowering expectations. Not just for this draft, but for the whole work. Sure, no one wants to write a bad book, or create something that isn’t as good as they can make it. But here’s the thing - the best you can do is as of this moment. As creatives and artists, we keep growing and improving. From one week to the other, one month to the other. Which is why I am revising the book I mentioned, because my ability to write that sort of book has improved, and I know I can make it much better. But that basically also means, that maybe right now you can’t write as well as your favorite author, or even how you initially imagined the work in your head.
This is definitely the case with my little book of essays. I imagined it to be in the vein of some of my favorite humorous writers, whose essays I absolutely adore. I really want someone to chuckle to themselves while reading my prose. But alas, perhaps that’s too much of a burden to place on the very first book of (hopefully) humorous essays I am writing. Maybe by the third or fourth one I will have gotten better. But by putting all this pressure on this book right now, I essentially found it impossible to write a word, strangled all the fun out of the process, and brought it all to a screeching halt. So now I have hopefully learnt my lesson, and am trying to just write the essays for my own amusement, see what happens, see what I can make of them.
2. Do Something Else (Creative)
So you can’t make progress on this project. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else. Sometimes exercising a different creative muscle, doing something else that also brings together the different ways we think and experience the world on to a specific canvas, can blast away the block on the project we wish to work on.
Work with paints, glitter, washi tape, notes, iambic pentameter, your iPhone camera, Play-doh, the possibilities are endless. Make a painting, a candle, take a photograph, make a 10 second video, write a poem, create something to decorate your bedroom, paint some furniture, cook a gourmet meal, paint handprints on the wall - do something that gets your quirky juices flowing, that gets you doing and not thinking about doing. Something that you can point to and say, I made that. Whether its physical or only exists in the cloud doesn’t matter, what matters is something exists when before it didn’t.
At the very least you would have made something, and remembered what that feels like. As a bonus perhaps, you might have a breakthrough in your stuck book project.
3. Eat In Bite-sized Pieces
The cliche goes - how do you eat an elephant? A bite at a time. And I have found that eating as if you were a hummingbird, taking the littlest, barely visible, tiniest of bites, can remove the fear of tackling even the largest pachyderm.
Maybe there is a small part of your project that you can handle. You can write the introduction or the preface. You can write the scene that you have mapped out clearly in your head. You can write the chapter for which all your research is done. If nothing else, you might be able to write the acknowledgements, or work on the bibliography.
With this revision I am working on, I was finding it difficult to move forward. So instead of focusing on the chapter level, I started to think about each individual section. Some of these sections were only a few 100 words long, but breaking the chapter down mentally meant even when I was stuck on one section, I could complete another one. I made a little map, and kept track of which sections were done, just to generate a feeling of progress.
4. Track Your Progress
Talking of progress, I find that tracking how much I have done and how much I have left to go is usually incredibly motivating, and serves to jump-start me out of my block.
You could do a very simple-drawn table or just make notations on a spare sheet of paper, or you could be like me and create color-coded and highlighted tables. It doesn’t matter what your particular method is, but I find that what gets tracked gets done. Usually before I track my progress, I bumble along, and try to hold the whole book in my head. I think, oh I really need to work on chapter 6, but then again, hmm I am not sure about the ending. What about chapter 4 - but there is that part in the middle. And I talk myself out of working on it, or open all the documents, stare at them and run away from the computer in a panic.
After I make my detailed table or map (which has the added benefit of taking some time that is clearly marked work, but isn’t writing), I find that it is much clearer to me which parts I can safely work on. The easy parts, the ones I know exactly what to do, are suddenly clearer.
This of course ties in to the previous point - break down your work into smaller pieces, and then track how many pieces you have completed. Suddenly the picture of the elephant will start to fill in. You will see that there is a leg here, and a foot there, and an ear over here. The pieces that are done are increasing, getting sharper and more into focus. And then you find, that the next lot of sections that you can tackle comes into relief.
Use whatever method you think will help you track - I have experimented with stickers, labels, colored highlighters, fancy charts in Excel, OneNote and Evernote. The point isn’t how to do it, but that you do. Remember, what gets measured gets done.
5. Have Some Fun
The final trick up my sleeve? Get away from it all and do something fun. Watch a movie that you’ve been looking forward to seeing, preferably something that sets off your creative senses (for me its usually something with brilliant special effects or an exceptionally good story). Go window shopping at your favorite department store. Share an ice-cream sundae with your best friend or significant other. Go for long walks, or take a dance class. Follow Julia Cameron’s sage advice and go on an artist date. The point is that sometimes we just need to get a little perspective. Maybe your creative well is spent and you need a refill. Maybe you just need to spend more time out in nature, or getting your blood pumping through some vigorous exercise.
Usually one or a few of these activities is all I need to get back on track. The problem however, is that I am stubborn, and I waste far too much time struggling with the book before I am ready to admit defeat and just go do something else. Invariably, I come back from watching Dory find her family, or a long walk along the beachfront near my house, that I found the solution and it seems incredibly simple now, when just hours ago I was banging my head against the metaphorical wall.
So there you go, five tactics that between them usually manage to get me out of my feeling of being stuck or blocked, if I remember to use them. So pick one, try it and get back to your WIP. And let me know how it worked.