3 ways to combat writer’s block

typeriter writers blockRecently, a writer friend asked me how I combat writer’s block. Before I share what I told her, let me just tell you that writer’s block doesn’t discriminate. I don’t care if you’re JK frickin Rowling, every author is afflicted with this curse. Case in point, I gave this friend my answer for battling writer’s block. But later that week, I found myself daunted by a blinking cursor, the only thing moving on the blank page before me. It’s absolutely ridiculous how inspiration bleeds from my pores when I’m in the middle of something, but then vanishes once I am in the position to write. I’ll have the plot of a story coursing through me in anticipation for my scheduled alone time, only to have forgotten every bit of it when I open my laptop. Or worse, my brilliant idea transforms into something completely stupid.

So while I can’t tell you the absolute cure for curbing writer’s block, I can share some of the things that have helped me to climb over this albatross.

  1. Write every day.

This is probably the #1 advice any author will give you. I liken the practice of writing every day to the practice of training for a marathon. You wouldn’t wake up one day and run 26.2 miles without months of training beforehand, would you? The same goes for writing. You have to strengthen your writing muscle before you can take part in regular word sprints and inspirational prose. Set aside a certain time every day when it’s just you and your writing. It can be as short as 30 minutes, if you want, but it’s best if you can plan for this at the same time every day. Then write what you want. Write a poem. Write a journal entry. Write a description of the room where you’re sitting. Write anything. At first, it will feel daunting. That blinking cursor might plague you just as it plagues me. However, if you keep showing up every day ready to write, there will come a day when your muse will arrive at the same time.

If you’re stumped on what to write, here are 365 writing prompts, one for every day of the year.

  1. Turn off all distractions.

My phone is my nemesis. It’s what I reach for whenever I can’t figure out what to write, or how to perfectly word what I’m trying to say. If I’m frustrated with my writing, I’ll reach for my phone and scroll through social media or my email, waiting for inspiration to hit. Thing is, digital distractions are creativity killers. I will never find the right words or feel the pull of inspiration while scrolling through perfectly filtered photos on Instagram. To be honest, I’m actually going to feel much worse, much less inspired, and way more frustrated. This is my current issue. Is this your issue, too? The best way to free yourself from these distractions is to get them away from you completely. I know it can feel uncomfortable freeing yourself from busyness, but creativity craves the quiet. If it’s your scheduled writing time, keep your phone out of the room, or at least on airplane mode. Turn the internet off your phone. Close the door and lock it. It might even help to set a timer, mandating distraction free time, and then permitting that distraction when the timer runs out.

Hey, you can even write about that distraction during your writing time. 🙂

  1. Do something else.

Sometimes the well is dry. The words are gone. The ideas have scattered. The muse has left the building. It happens, and fighting it won’t make reality any different. If you find yourself completely sapped of creativity, it’s time to take a break (and no, not a scroll through social media break). Go do something that will refill your writing well. What recharges you? What fills you with inspiration? Is it a walk in the woods? Is it a day to just watch the waves roll in at the ocean, the clouds drift by overhead, or the grass blow in the wind?

Give yourself permission to go slow. My favorite poem by Mary Oliver perfectly encapsulates what an escape like this might look like:

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver

I mean, to sit and contemplate a grasshopper for an afternoon? To distance yourself from the rapid pace of this world? To spend a moment being slow and deliberate with your focus? Pure bliss.

I cover the issue of blocked creativity quite a bit in my book, Reclaim Your Creative Soul. The book is split into sections that cover calming techniques, soul exercises,  organization (uncluttering your life so you can focus), boundaries (protecting your writing time and self-esteem), and how to apply all this to your life. In the final chapter, I wrote this:

Our jobs as artists is to capture pieces of what we perceive, transform it into something new, then offer it back to the people of this world so that they can see it in a different light.

Our tools are our imagination, our experiences, and our emotions. We also draw from our community and beyond. This is why it’s so important for us to not only pay attention to our surroundings, but we should also be with people and in environments that inspire us to go further with our art.

Inspiration won’t always meet you at your desk. There are times when it’s necessary to leave your chair and search for it. You’ll find it in nature, in art galleries, in interesting people…and even in spending the afternoon with a curious grasshopper.

What do you do to combat writer’s block?


The messy blending of a … story

About a week or so ago I announced that I believed I was done with the rough draft of Prelude to Forever, the story of how Rachel and John met and fell in love before A Symphony of Cicadas. Having planned on this book being a novelette, I was satisfied with the shorter length, and the place I would leave off at. I hand-wrote the whole rough draft of the book, and have been spending the time since that announcement retyping everything I wrote. It’s been an arduous process, though somewhat satisfying as I am able to edit as I go, creating a much cleaner version of what I’ve been writing. And the story is evolving slightly, adding a few interesting layers to characters and their situations.

Of course, a few details I’d planned have changed too. In doing so, I have opened the door to continuing the story beyond what I have already written – meaning this might be more of a full-length novel than a novelette. The original story was just going to focus on John and Rachel’s romance. But now I am expanding to what it’s like to blend a family – all the messy and awkward parts of it.

Thing is, this is a scary thing to write about, mostly because it hits so close to home. When I had first planned on writing this story, the family blending was the biggest reason why. But slowly I started to phase that part out. I see now it’s because writing about it would make me have to face things in my own home that were uncomfortable or unpleasant.

I see step-families all around me, and some of them act as if blending their family was the most natural thing in the world. The others act as if their stepchildren were spawn of the devil. Our family is somewhere in the middle, where things are neither terrible or all that great. There are some days where it feels like our family is just cruising along, and everything is going like clockwork. And there are other days when we’ve never felt more disjointed. Both my husband and I have a mental list going on how much better the other person’s child would have been if we’d raised them with our opposite ideals. Our children have a mental list of why their stepparent is weird and unapproachable. And the list of inequities on all sides is a mile long.

And then there are the little surprises, like the other day when my teenage stepson greeted me with a heartfelt hug when I came home from work – the second or third hug we’ve shared in the six-and-a-half years we’ve known each other…and it made me so happy I did all his chores for him.

Today I was listening to a podcast on writing, and the subject was about the creative process. The point in it was to put energy towards the things you’re excited about. If a project is draining you, it might be time to set it down and walk away. It may be the wrong project.

Listening to this, I realized how draining this story is to me right now. And all day long I’ve been mulling over whether it’s time to set this down and start on something new. It’s tempting – there’s one project I’ve placed on the back burner that I’m itching to dive into. But I’ve also realized that I’m struggling with this story because it’s edging a place in my own life that’s difficult to write about. As I get closer to that part of the story, the temptation to walk away from the book grows.

So for now, I’m sticking with the story. I’m not sure how many people will actually be affected whether I write this story or not, but I realize I need to at least try. There still might come a day when I decide I need to put this down for my own sanity. But for now, I’m going to let Rachel, John, Joey, and Sam share their story through me, and maybe even offer a few answers towards my own messy family.

Let your characters hijack the storyline

It was a month ago when I tossed out almost everything I had written in “Forever Thirteen,” the sequel to my first novel, “A Symphony of Cicadas”. Nothing had been working, I couldn’t connect with my characters, and the storyline was heading down a dark path of the afterlife that made the story more sinister than beautiful.

That was not the direction I wanted to go in.

“A Symphony of Cicadas” was, underneath it all, a story of hope. If anything, the sequel should hang on to the hope and run with it. So I cut more than 12,000 words and started over.

The first book told of Rachel and Joey dying in a car crash and being sent to the afterlife. Joey was never found again, and the story focused on Rachel’s journey. “Forever Thirteen” will follow where Joey was. So the first thing I did was to think about Joey and his reality of dying at thirteen years old. And I thought about what life was like when I was thirteen.

It sucked.

I took one of my memories of being thirteen and I played with the details. What if Joey went through something similar? I placed him in the scenario, and I gave him a friend. Suddenly, things started taking shape. Joey and this friend started talking, and out of the blue, new characters began showing up – characters I hadn’t even planned for! Soon, things were just happening in the book and I was merely writing them down as they occurred. It was like the characters said, “We’ll take it from here,” before they hijacked the storyline. I tossed any form of timeline – the one that kept me chained to my own ideas for the novel – and I started to just write freely.

Sometimes we aren’t the captain of the ship we are sailing. Sometimes we are the ship itself.

It’s every writer’s goal to reach that point when the story is just happening without them molding it a certain way. But to get to that point, it takes a little bit of strategy. For me, it was putting my characters in a scenario and then letting them work it out. Get your characters talking, and then just listen to what they come up with. Take notes on what they’re saying – it might lead to a rabbit trail you can use later in the story. And besides that, it’s guaranteed that anything they come up with will be much more interesting than what you had originally planned out.

At any rate, I have more than made up the lost words from my first attempt at “Forever Thirteen”. And the storyline is touching on that same hope that existed in “A Symphony of Cicadas”. I can see glimpses of where the story is heading, but I’m letting go of all expectations as I write.

In the book, “On Writing,” Stephen King mentioned how writing fiction was like rowing the Atlantic in a bathtub. I’m still slogging along in my own little porcelain vessel. I can’t quite see my destination yet, but the journey is proving to be quite an adventure.


Crissi Langwell is the author of fantasy novel “A Symphony of Cicadas” and single-parenting memoir “Golf Balls, Eight Year Olds & Dual Paned Windows“. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Prompts to chase away writer’s block

by Autumn’s Child*
Words fly through my mind, in my eyes and out my ears,
Through my pores and rest on my lips.
As I walk through grocery stores they dance on melons.
Sitting by a fountain they gurgle with the falling water.
Adjectives and pronouns flutter in the whirring of the wings of bees.
A baby puts the words that were clinging to her rattle into her curious mouth.
A dog runs and jumps, catching the words that fly through the air.
And I pluck the words one by one from the literary tree growing in front of me,
Placing them in the growing tablet of my mind.
But as soon as I put the pen in my hand to the notebook in my lap,
Words scatter and vanish to secret hiding places
That even I cannot find.

* a poem I wrote in 2008

You finally get the time to sit down, uninterrupted, alone in a room with just you and your computer. You may have brought all your best ideas, or you may have come open-minded waiting for inspiration to hit. But as soon as your fingers hit the keyboard….it’s all gone. The words you’ve been mulling around have scattered into the wind. And you’re left grabbing at anything within reach as all usable ideas vanish from your sight.

Welcome to the huge boulder of writer’s block.

A few weeks ago, I attended an inspirational workshop on writing with Cheryl Strayed. While there, she led us through a series of writing prompts to get our creative juices flowing. We wrote about a time when something was over, or more specifically, when we KNEW it was over. We wrote about a time when we changed our mind about something we were once certain of, when we did something we never thought we’d do. We thought about the common theme in our writing, what one thing kept popping up that was screaming to be faced head on. And we wrote about a time we went “too far.”

When the project you’re working on just isn’t flowing the way you want it to, you may need to step away from it for a moment. But don’t just stop writing. Writing prompts are an excellent way to get your mind unblocked and encourage creativity once again.

Here are a few prompts to get you on your way:

– The moment in your childhood when you realized everything was NOT okay.

– A superpower you’d love to have, and what would happen if you had it.

– The moment when everything changed.

– Your favorite childhood toy. Bonus – make it come to life.

– Make a story out of the lyrics to a song.

– Go outside and people watch. Find the most interesting person within view. Write their story.

– What is something you’re struggling with? What if you had a magic object that could help you overcome it? Write about that.

– You’ve just won a million dollars. What happens next?

– Make up a conversation between you and your favorite author/hero/person.

– A time when your heart was broken.

– What it feels like to be lied to.

– Something about yourself you’ve never told anyone.

Here are a few other places to look for writing prompts that I found while trying to overcome my own writer’s block:

Cheryl Strayed shares her Writing Prompts

Writing Prompts 101

Writing Prompts Tumblr

50 Tips to Battle Writer’s Block

Have a surefire writing prompt? Share with the rest of us by leaving it in the comments!

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