Updated: Nov 30, 2021
How to get over writer’s block: something I’m asked about all the time. I don't know about you but I find it's a vicious circle: while some people work really well under pressure, for others there's nothing more stunting to creativity than a looming deadline and a skimpy word count. And the problem feeds back into itself.
In an earlier blog, I explored some of the reasons why writer's block occurs and why authenticity, finding your voice and telling your own story are important. In this piece, I look more in-depth at three of my favourite ways to get over a hiatus in creative flow and the science behind them.
The cursor has been blinking for what seems like hours. You glance over at the clock. Two hours until pick up time/your 3 pm meeting/your 5 pm copy deadline for the website designer. You check your socials. Again. You idly read an article about Cara Delevigne and her L.A. home, watch another kitten video and rearrange your pens.
One and three-quarters of an hour to go.
When the pressure is on, the last thing you might think about is getting up and leaving your desk but there is no better way of busting through a blockage. As a writer with an often heavy workload, these are my favourite hacks to give my creativity a nudge.
Get your duster
Agatha Christie once famously wrote that “the best time to plan a book is when you’re doing the dishes”. If you thought that something lowly like pushing the vacuum cleaner around or hanging some laundry is a pointless waste of time during your workday, think again.
“The creative urge can come out in any form: in embroidery, in cooking of interesting dishes, in painting, drawing and sculpture, in composing music, as well as in writing books and stories. The only difference is that you can be a great deal more grand about some of these things than others.”
In other words, high art and opera might get the cogs going but don’t discount doing a fridge clearout while belting out a few Miley Cyrus numbers.
And science backs this up. A study found that alternating creative work with periods of low-pressure, low-cognitive strain activity was beneficial for overall performance (not to mention better mental and physical health).
Don’t work from home and stuck in the confines of an office all day? If you have a kitchen at the end of the corridor, snap on the Marigolds and do the dishes. Spend a few minutes sorting your desk drawer or take the contents of your waste paper basket down to the bin.
A word of caution here: creative block and procrastination are good buddies. So set yourself a time limit and create a positive frame of mind where you’re choosing to let go of the pressure of doing the task rather than the task itself. This is about making space for the ideas rather than hiding from them.
You’ll be dashing back to your keyboard or notepad in no time.
Or needled. Christie mentions needlework above and there’s a good reason. One study found a link between knitting and cognitive function, along with the kind of calm and happiness that definitely aids the writing process.
Now I’m not one to indulge in the dark art of the two needles – my knitting always looks like it’s been knotted by a yak using a rolling pin and a piece of pipe. But I can crochet and the fact that I can slip a needle and a skein of yarn into my rucksack and take it anywhere means I’m well known for whipping it out and getting busy wherever I like: the train, a cafe, waiting in a car park.
I also keep it by my desk. I love intricate patterns but my favourite for zoning out are repetitive ones, like corner-to-corner blankets or granny squares. There’s also the advantage of slowly working up Christmas and birthday presents as you go.
If you’re not already a happy hooker, read anything by Debbie Stoller (I learned to crochet using this fine manual). Of course, you could take up any needlework or in fact any craft - just as long as it’s quick to pick up and put down. You don’t want to be doing lengthy prep or clearing up.
Trust the process on this one. As you work away, your mind will clear. If your boss gives you funny looks, say you’re making her a special hat for autumn walks and point her in the direction of the studies mentioned above. If it’s good enough for Agatha Christie, I think it should be good enough for your department head.
If you opt for needlework in the bathroom, just make sure you don't drop anything on the floor.
I was introduced to the pleasures and benefits of nature connectedness by the lovely Sonya Dibbin of Adore Your Outdoors. She’s a Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing) practitioner. Guiding groups of tired, stressed people into the forest she delivers a series of mindfulness invitations and creative opportunities to help them to reconnect, recharge and relax. (Book one of her in-person sessions or download her course – they really are worth it.)
It’s a beautiful way to spend a morning but how can nature connectedness help with this afternoon’s looming deadline? Let me explain. For me, the process was natural and intuitive from a young age. I wrote a lot of very bad poetry as a teenager and I knew the best way to get the words flowing was to sit by the sea. I grew up on a council estate in Cornwall and to escape the kind of step-father who could have come straight out of a Roald Dahl book, I spent hours sitting on cliffs scratching away in my notebooks.
Today, I wander out into my garden and sit on the bench next to the brick-built shed. If it’s warm, I turn my face to the sun and stretch out my legs and listen to the birds. If it’s chilly, I wrap up in a thick jumper and take a hot cuppa with me.
I get lost in the little things: new shoots, woodlice crawling in the leaves, the scent of my little herb bed, the rough, broad leaves of the rhubarb, the blackbird up in the hawthorn. Within minutes, my mind clears and then the ideas crystalise.
Sonya will tell you that it takes more than a rush through the park or a chatty ramble with a mate through the woods to achieve this. You have to slow down and be absorbed in the detail. I realise that a ten-minute immersion into nature won’t necessarily bring this level of engagement but even a little time spent with greenery and wildlife is beneficial.
It might involve sitting on a bench under a tree around the corner from the office, tending to a few plants on a windowsill or gazing out of the window to the park across the road. Studies have shown that there is a positive link between cognitive function, mental wellbeing and exposure to nature. Again, trust the process. It works.
Get back to yourself
What do all of these things have in common? As one of my coaching or therapy clients would say, it gives you the opportunity to get out of your head and back into your body.
We tend to think of our brain as a thinking machine but it’s just another organ in the body - a body that’s developed over hundreds of thousands of years, most of which were spent immersed in nature and in low-cognitive, low-pressure tasks. It’s no wonder that innovation comes from allowing time to play, ruminate, calm down and delight in our surroundings.
In my experience, pushing through without stepping back is false economy. I know that if I don’t move away from the keyboard when I’m fatigued or uninspired, my time will be gobbled by editing or even rewriting later.
So I wish you a happy and productive time writing today but if it’s not working, pop the kettle on, slip your shoes on your feet or pick up something blissfully creative. Hollow out a moment of time in which to nestle so that your neurons can recharge, regroup and reconnect.
I’ve a whole arsenal of creative block busters, which I have every intention of writing about in the future but in the meantime, what are yours? Are you going to have a go at anything new? Let me know how you get on with Debbie Stoller's books or Sonya's nature connectedness.
I’m a writing coach as well as a copywriter so if you’ve really hit a block and you’d like a hand, don’t know where to start or if you’d rather hand the whole lot over and walk away, then I can help. Book a friendly chat today.