May 20, 2007 12:32 PM   Subscribe

help me shake my writer's block!

i have had writer's block for, oh, almost a year now. i have been working on a book for a couple of years, even taking time off from my job to concentrate on it at one point. about six months ago i scrapped my original idea (same story, different telling) and made good progress on a new version i like a lot better.

about three months ago, i stopped writing. completely. i've gone a month without even thinking about my characters. i'm not able to keep up with my blog as much as i used to. i can't even read as much as i used to. it's like my capacity for narrative has completely vanished. this is a pretty big problem considering that i have, up till now, invested a great deal of my hopes and dreams and time and energy and most of my conscious lifetime into making a living as a writer.

i don't know how to explain it--it's like a mental numbness has descended on me. i've been seeing a physician about some insomnia and hormone problems (still unresolved--thyroid and pituitary are fine), but i don't think they are to blame. my lifestyle hasn't changed much otherwise, although i feel like i've withdrawn a bit more from the world. i exercise and eat healthfully, and feel okay about my life--i'm not where i want to be, but i feel positive about my future and certainly do not dispair of my happiness. my doctor (although not a psych.) has tossed around the idea of subclinical depression and i've been taking lexapro 5mg for about 3 weeks now. once the initial side effects subsided, i didn't notice much of a difference in my difficulties, except that they don't bother me as much. :)

has anyone had this happen? do i need a therapist? or just a kick in the pants? i'm hoping to take a trip somewhere exotic and difficult this year (haven't decided where yet) in the hopes that the culture shock will make the creative juices bubble up, but that won't happen till the end of the year, if at all. so any other ideas to try in the meantime would be most appreciated.
posted by thinkingwoman to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The planned trip might inspire. There's one trick that always helps me change tools. Fisrt, force yourself to sit and do your book X hours at X time every day, and second use totally different tools do it. Draw the book. Paint the book. Write the lines with crayons on wrapping paper. Draw outlines of characters lives crossing each others paths on watercolor paper with finger paint. It's messy, but it's the odd kick in the pants that I need. Oh, and since you already i exercise I won't suggest running which everyone else says works for them (swimming helps me).

Might not be perfect, my job is more about getting quick little ideas out rather than producing a large work of fiction. But little ideas might help move your story forward.
posted by dabitch at 12:47 PM on May 20, 2007

If you still have time off from work, it sounds like to me that you need a vacation. Go get thee travel on.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 12:48 PM on May 20, 2007

Get off the drugs, you don't need something to dull things.

Take a day trip somewhere to experience something new.

Stop being withdrawn. Go out into the world and experience it. That can often give you inspiration.

Finally, writers write. Sit down and write. It might be complete shit, but keep going, it gets better.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:48 PM on May 20, 2007

Have you tried doing some writing exercises? If it's simply a matter of kickstarting the creative juices without the pressure of writing about your characters, that might work. I have a little book called The Writer's Block that has done the trick for me before.
posted by amro at 12:51 PM on May 20, 2007

Best answer: i don't know your age, but I do know that estrogen deficit leads to problems like trouble finding words and that even if you are younger, sex hormones influence the processing of language in premenopausal women. I'm also a writer, and from personal experience, I know that if I don't have the right balance of estrogen, I feel...thick. I can't seem to find the right words, even when they're just simple words I would normally use every day.
posted by misha at 12:53 PM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

How about signing up for a workshop to crit the work as it stands? The participants might give you enough questions and commentary that you get a second wind on developing the piece. They will see threads to follow that you cannot.
posted by xo at 1:12 PM on May 20, 2007

Oblique strategies says ... "Use an unacceptable color".

I second what others have said -- put yourself into a different situation. Walk somewhere nearby but look straight up (safely) to see if you notice anything different. Go to a shop and ask the owner if you can interview them for a few moments. Zig where you normally zag.

Also, downtime can be useful. For all you know, your brain is chewing on a complex idea right now, and you may be close to having a eureka moment.
posted by jragon at 1:31 PM on May 20, 2007

The drugs don't necessarily dull you. I actually flourished as a writer after getting on meds. It did the OPPOSITE of dull me, it brought me to a level of normalcy from which I could FEEL things.

The symptoms of wanting to withdraw, mental numbness, are actually symptoms of low grade depression. HOWEVER, you may not necessarily NEED drugs. And if you do, Lexapro may not be the right one. But, let's just negate the whole drug worry and concentrate on getting you writing.

There are MANY things I do when I have writer's block. It all depends on WHY you're tuck and HOW DEEPLY you're stuck.

Number one reason: I often think I am struggling because I don't know enough about my characters. So, I do nothing but sit and think about the main character or characters. I ask questions like, "What is distinctive about them?" "Why have they chosen this profession (the one I have given them)?" "What has happened in their life that has made them make these choices?" Where were they born? What was High School like? Then I just brainstorm, free asociate. I cull from people I know, or from my own life. As I answer these questions, what my character needs to do net bedcomes clear to me.

Number two reason: I'm stuck because I'm feeling overwhelmed, and the desire to write sort of leaves me. In that case, I sit somewhere really pretty, usually outside, with a notebook and hand write all the things I am struggling with that are making me frozen. I ask all the questions I have been secretly asking in my head. I may start by writing out: "Why am I struggling with this so much?" Then, a number of things flow out and I write them down. For example, in my latest screenplay, I was stuck with a second act that I couldn't crack. I came to the conclusion that it was because it LACKED CONFLICT. I then thought, "Where is the natural conflict? How do I dramatize it?" A lot of this is like automatic writing. I wrote for a number of days. After about 2 weeks, I came up with the solution, and the second act calls me back every day now.

During this process I also write "sample" scenes or dialogue, as I come up with a possible solution. I give it a "test run". I do this knowing it most likely will never get into the finished script. I mean, it's just writing, right? It's not like I'm pouring out gold and only have a limited amount. This helps me identify problems much more easily. It also helps me build the characters. I mean, if the narrative isn't working, sometimes, working with how my characters SPEAK often gives me insight.

The third reason is I am struggling with fear. Many, many times, I get stuck because I am afraid my shitty writing will expose me as a shitty writer. Maybe I won't be able to execute what, in my head, seems inspired. Not writing means I don't have to face that fear. I don't have to find out that I might not be as good as my heart thinks I am. In that case, I give myself permission to write shitty. I mean REALLY SHITTY. Like, I will have a character's dialogue be: "I say something funny and drive the next plot point." JUST SO I CAN GET A DRAFT DONE. That's because, after 17 years as a paid writer, I have learned that great writing is REWRITING. I will do 10 drafts of some scenes. And each pass, I improve something, until, I've written something great, or REALLY GOOD.

The fourth reason: It's too fucking big and overwhelms me. In that case, I break down what is the ONE thing I can write. A scene, a page, or TACKLE a difficult plot point. ONE THING. And I work on that.

Lastly, here is something I just discovered (YMMV because writer finds their own rhythm) but, DON'T WRITE ALL DAY. It's friggin' exhausting. I JUST discovered that I write as much in 3 hours as I do 6. I now write 3 hours a day. I love it. It makes me leave wanting to do more, which makes coming back to it fun. And it gives me time to cook, grocery shop, be with my family.

Lastly, when all this fails, I write in a journal. Brandon is correct. Any kind of writing can get you back in the rhythm again. And the other thing he was right about: SOCIALIZE, with the people who make you laugh and stimulate your intellect.

One other thing you might need to know is, sometimes NOT writing is part of writing. I can spend weeks mulling stuff over in my head, making notes, doing research, but, just because I'm not writing doesn't mean I'm not doing the work.

Now, about whether you need a trip or therapy or a kick in the ass. If it were me, I'd do all three. I'd take a weekend trip, drink wine, swim, hike. I'd call my therapist and go see her a few times. And, lastly, I'd sit myself down at my desk and write ONE SCENE. Or ANALYZE what needs to be done next. I'd solve one problem. That often breaks the block.

But, DON'T BE AFRAID. You have not "lost" it. I've been doing this 17 years, and I struggle with not writing all the time. Try one of the things I listed. Tackle something small, or definable, and the rest will come. Good luck.
posted by generic230 at 1:34 PM on May 20, 2007 [6 favorites]

Best answer: When I hit a dry spell with my photography, the thing that helps the most is to just get out and shoot. I'm a perfectionist, so sometimes I put it off because if I don't have some grand vision. But, if I just go out and shoot, no matter how cliche, trite, and unoriginal, it gets my juices flowing. No one has to see anything I am not proud of.

In writing... just start writing. Write a simple story. Rewrite some other author's short story from memory, but write it your way. Steal someone else's idea. Write the ending to a book or a movie the way you would want it to end. Make your goal to just fill one page. This will get you writing. And sometimes, just going through the motions will give you the jump start you need.
posted by The Deej at 1:36 PM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: misha, the estrogen thing might be part of the problem--i did start having these problems (and others) only after beginning my current birth control pill. i do feel unfocused and "thick" and it was actually menopausal symptoms that caused me to go to the doctor in the first place. (i am only 30)

i'm sure it's not the entire problem, though, so keep the ideas coming! thanks much.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:37 PM on May 20, 2007

All else aside:

Being a writer starts with writing; if you're gonna make it then writing is what your hopes and dreams are about, not being-a-writer. I second whoever said above that you should write, and whether it's good or bad, keep writing. Keep the mechanism oiled and running smoothly so that when inspiration strikes you're ready to run with it. As it is, would you even know if your head clicked into gear again?

If you've got an outline, just work on filling out the outline with text. If you don't, why are you undertaking a two-year writing project without an outline? No matter: keep working. Any first or intermediate draft will be bad, just get through it. Let your reptilian reward mechanisms do the work for you; give them something to work with, and finish the text.
posted by waxbanks at 1:48 PM on May 20, 2007

Is it guilt? Give yourself a goal that is completely meetable. Eg, write for 1/2 hour a day, write anything at all, and if you do that you can stop and not feel guilty at all.

Is it lack of stimulation, which allows you to get "stuck in your own head"? Are you getting out of the house enough? Do you draw energy from people and you're not seeing enough energy-giving people in your current routine?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:01 PM on May 20, 2007

1) Write some really short stories—start at 20 word stories, and work your way up in increments of 10 until 100, and then in steps of 50. Play tricks with your stories—rewrite them with genders of characters reversed, or shift them into the past/future.

2) Get lots of exercise.
posted by humblepigeon at 3:02 PM on May 20, 2007

Response by poster: i would say that the problem is more one of inspiration than industry. again, i mentioned that i was feeling foggy in the head earlier, and that has a lot to do with it. i feel unfocused and scatterbrained. i do try to write a little every day, whether on the blog or at work or whatever, and i do fine when i have an assignment or give myself an assignment.

i guess my problem is that i no longer feel inspired by any of the creative projects i have been working on (there are others lying around unfinished). i abandoned my last project at page 180 because i felt like i was just filling in blanks in the outline--i was really losing the vision of the story in a way i never have before, and although i think i had the solution, i haven't been able to recover the momentum, or start anything new (that's my usual tactic--to keep writing, even if it means changing gears completely).

i'm not a perfectionist--it's hard to declare something "finished" of course, but i have always been able to do it. i'm not new to writing, or even to writer's block, but this has been hugely different. i'm distracted in ways i never have been before. maybe it is depression, i'm not sure.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:12 PM on May 20, 2007

I've recently started doing a set of writing prompts every day, ideally first thing in the morning. I set up a blog for this purpose. I've been finding it makes me feel better about my writing even if it hasn't yet led to any spontaneous masterpieces.

I mined The Daily Meme for a list, but many sites also have writing prompts.
posted by loiseau at 3:13 PM on May 20, 2007

Best answer: I had this exact same problem about a year ago, where my creativity almost completely shut down. I didn't write, read, listen to music, anything interesting at all. I just felt really blah, and I described it as feeling "mentally numb" as well. I saw a therapist and she put me on 10 mg of Lexapro. It took awhile for it it to work in general, and longer for my creativity to come back, but I am definitely glad I'm on it. I wouldn't give up on anti-depressants just yet, but the Lexapro might not be right for you.

Also, keep trying with the writing! After I got depressed last year it was hard to get back in the creative groove again and it seemed really daunting. Don't fall out of the habit, because it can be difficult to get back into it.
posted by lilac girl at 3:56 PM on May 20, 2007


I think that going to a therapist isn't a bad idea. It would help to figure out where that block comes from. Moreover, it could put something unconscious on the move.

take care
posted by nicolin at 12:10 AM on May 21, 2007

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