JUST THE TIPS: Busting thru Writer's Block
"If you've got nothing to worry about, you've got something to worry about..."
Until now, I had never waited until the last minute to produce my weekly dispatch, and to be fair, I keep a few mostly completed drafts on standby in case of illness, catastrophe, or pique. The topic this week, however, seems so on the nose I thought I would go ahead and see if I couldn’t flesh out the few notes I’d scribbled but procrastinated writing until yesterday.
As I’ve mentioned, over the last month I’ve had a variety of low-grade ailments which on their face are not terribly awful, but had sapped my energy and focus. First, I got a cold while traveling in April, and then last week, a flu. Yes, yes, pedestrian maladies, all to be taken in stride, of course, big boy pants and whatnot. But in between, I also had that severe case of vertigo—extreme dizziness with a variety of unmentionable associated effects.
It seems to be under control, and I will trouble you no further with unseemly details. But pressed, sometimes, to meet our commitments and obligations, the stress can lead to:
Anxiety. It can paralyze anybody. If you have chaos in your mind, turning down the volume through ordinary means can be monumentally difficult. Think of the instinct to turn down the stereo in the car when traffic gets hairy, and you have a pale comparison to what the anxious artistic mind must accomplish in order to simply discern the raw materials of their vocation. It’s the root of many evils, especially the most dreaded by writers far and wide: Writer’s Block.
And yet anxiety and writing go hand in hand for so many reasons:
the inherent vulnerability of any artist producing work out of personal experience that will also be judged by the public;
the sheer difficulty of identifying thoughts, ideas, images from the abstract plane;
the further problem of manifesting the dynamic, kaleidoscopic nature of awareness, consciousness—LIFE—into mediums that are often static.
Because procrastination is often the biggest problem we have. Because there’s just too much going on in there. Because we need some structure and format, but nothing too rigid—here are three strategies you might try to get out of your head and put your butt in the chair to WRITE.
The 10+5 Strategy - 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week
You, yes you, can do almost anything for 10 minutes no matter how difficult or egregious—stand on your head, listen to your mother/brother/best friend blather, hold your breath, run away from kidnappers, exercise. Also, it’s only 5 days per week—I am not a big proponent of WRITE EVERY SINGLE DAY because, well, life. It’s a nice idea, I get it, it’s cute, but just too draconian for me. This way, if you miss a day during the week, you can still make it up on the weekend and not feel like you’ve failed.
I got this idea from Gertrude Stein, after I read an article about her writing practice: she only wrote for 15 minutes a day, and look at the volume of work she produced (nobody said what you write has to make any sense.) I tried this during the early days of the Covid lockdown when we couldn’t leave the house for three months, even allowed myself just 10 minutes instead of Gertrude’s 15, and gave myself a ⭐ for each week I succeeded. (And by ⭐ I mean cookie.)
The beauty of this strategy is that once you start, you almost always end up going longer than 10 minutes, and yet if you quit after only 10 you still win. With this little procrastination work-around to cut through the noise, not only did I write my first novel, but also I managed to develop a meditation practice I maintain to this day—yes, me, ol’ squirming-toad-for-brains Ford.
Surely you can do 10 minutes, Shirley. Drip, drip, drip.
“Touch the important things every day…” - Kate McKean of
The Power of 3 - 3 things are digestible, more than that is a bog
Make a list of your Top 3 items/ideas/To Dos and just stop. That’s it—no more. If, like me, you simply have so much going on in your head you don’t know where to start, or you make a fetish out of lists and have a mild addiction to Post-its, you might find this strategy helpful.
Think of it as the three legs required to hold up a table and keep it stable. You might have a fourth leg for fun, but it’s unnecessary. (You could go further and say a pedestal table only needs one leg—one day/step at a time and all that.)
If you already have a long list, choosing those Top 3 is usually pretty easy, but be sure you choose the most important 3, rather than the easiest—someone said this recently, I can’t remember who, and it makes sense if you usually try to knock out the quick wins (*guilty*) and never get to the most impactful stuff.
Have a hard time choosing the Top 3? Eliminate the Bottom 3—just cross them off your list, goodbye, see ya later—this applies to emails, tasks, all sorts of sundry less pressing items. Suddenly, your list is shorter, and the Top 3 easier to identify.
Five Things - courtesy of
I adore this strategy I found over at Summer Brennan’s “A Writer’s Notebook” because it just gives that little bit of structure to keep your fingers tapping or your pen/cil moving across the page. Write “#1” at the top of your page and just start writing.
I know, I know—I just said THREE things, and you could modify this to stop at 3, but part of the Five Things exercise is to push through the first few easy ideas and get to something unexpected.
Each thing can be as short or long as you want, connected or unconnected—several paragraphs each, or just a single word if you are running short on time. The idea, as she describes it, is to treat each number as a prompt, or little shove, to keep moving until you have five things that can later be revised, rewritten, collated into coherent essays or posts.
“These “things” usually included a mix of observations, thoughts, confessions, memories, recommendations, or questions, each ranging in length from many paragraphs to just one short sentence apiece.” - Summer Brennan
Click on “Read More” below for her complete run-down. I use this format now when I’m just journaling or need to flush out the think tubes. Pair this with my 10+5 Strategy, and you’ve got the makings of 5 rough drafts in just a week!
And there you go. Remembering that different things work for different people at different times—like a plateau in exercise, sometimes something that worked for a year might suddenly stop. Keep trying! Keep going! Try a different system if you find the old one getting stale. YOU can do it!
Got any strategies of your own to whip writer’s block? Please SHARE in the comments!
Hope you're on the mend and feel better, Mr Troy. Doesn't sound much fun at all.
Good tips, good tips. I feel somewhat lucky in that I haven't had much of the dreaded block. (Perhaps I shouldn't commit that to the page.) I am a big fan of the "just write something" mindset, though. I've really enjoying writing morning pages this year. And by pages, it's anywhere from a paragraph to sometimes a full page or more, stored in a Google Doc that is now monstrously large and could effectively be a small novel if any of those daily pages had a coherent or winding narrative. Instead, they're just: hey, look, this is how I'm feeling today, and oh my isn't coffee just a beautiful thing, and oh-no, now I'm trying to cut my coffee intake down a bit, and LOOK AT THE FOG OUT THERE IT'S ENCHANTING and etc etc.
I think it's helped stimulate things. Sometimes I've ruminated on plot issues I've stumbled over and even just writing those to the page helped unravel a few things. Even this, right (write) now, is turning into something that is just keeping my fingers over the keyboard and tap-tap-tap it's nearly 7am.
I like the top 3 notion. I'm one plagued by long long to-do lists with work such then when I get home and at the weekend the idea of life-admin to-do's often feels overwhelming. I'm gonna go cull some of that bottom-end of the list and approach the top end with a priority-cleaver and get to it :)
good list of tips! i often get waylaid by existential angst (what is the POINT?!) but find a nice walk, or switching projects for a while, or a cookie, seems to help. :)