Writer’s block: how to be creative even in crisis
How do you overcome internal resistance and use the time you’ve set aside to create?
Jamie O’Connell’s writing desk
I sit at my writing desk in Kenmare looking out at the sky. It is November 3rd; the horizon alternates between bursts of golden sun hitting the spire of Holy Cross Church followed by the charcoal clouds racing over the town from Mucksna Mountain. Somewhere, a few fields away, children are laughing and screaming in the yard of St John’s National School, though I expect the next shower will turn their screams into shrieks as they race inside.
Presently, I have a few creative projects I’ve been working on: the Blackwater Writing website, the Good Luck with the Book podcast, a new novel, as well as various new video content for social media. Each of these beginnings, as with all new beginnings, have come with some form of resistance. I am often overwhelmed by these words: “Where do I even start?”
I feel the terror of the blank page. As I write this, I wonder what might be of use to a reader who would like some encouragement and guidance with their own prose, something to inspire them while they are at home for another month of lockdown. So, I’m going to write about the very thing that I am now challenged with: writer’s block.
Sometimes, it is external resistance that is holding me back: work commitments, family, not having a quiet space to work – juggling all the elements of a busy life. Writing has often felt like one commitment too many.
However, it’s the internal resistance that is often harder to overcome: I don’t know what to write, I’ve just woke up with a foggy head (perennial rhinitis) or, the pandemic, the US elections, and of course, the real biggie, the belief I’m not good enough and everything I write is terrible.
Of course, there are always payoffs for not beginning, the biggest is that I don’t have to put myself out there; I’m safe from critique. So often, imposter syndrome kicks in and I hesitate.
Right now, I can feel resistance within myself. My ankle is nervously tapping, in my chest I can feel an unpleasant nervous energy, while my brain has a heaviness (I didn’t sleep well; the pandemic/US election anxiety; me waking up on the hour throughout the night).
And yet, despite resistance, the creative impulse remains, a frustrated niggle, that leaves me unsettled every day I don’t harness it. Edna O’Brien said it well. When asked what she’d be if she wasn’t a writer, she replied, “I’d be in a madhouse”. I feel that way. Maybe, you do too.
So how do you avoid the madhouse. How do you overcome this resistance and use the time you’ve set aside to create? I have a technique, entirely personal, that I use to overcome internal resistance.
I have come to realise that every negative emotion is best faced, not ignored. It is intense, and often increases the discomfort for a period time, but what is the alternative? Sitting down with your laptop, wasting the precious time you have set aside to write, itching to put words on the page, but somehow paralysed?
What I do in this situation is a “write out”. It’s a widely used therapeutic technique, not one I’ve come up with myself. I believe it is suited to writers, as it uses your writing stills to challenge your writer’s block head on. I’ve tweaked the technique to work best for me and I hope for you too. The steps are as follows:
Get your pen and paper, or laptop (whatever you prefer to write on, either is fine) and sit at your desk. You need to be uninterrupted, so make sure you’ll have calm and silence for 15 minutes at least.
Now, commit to writing for 15 minutes non-stop. I must emphasise non-stop for the time you’ve committed to. This is not about good writing; this is not about writing that anyone else will ever read. In fact, you will likely delete it afterwards. Find the freedom in that. You can literally write nonsense.
For example, you can write: “Oh, for goodness sake, I don’t know what I’m writing, this is stupid etc…” for the full 15 minutes. That’s okay. It’s still going to get momentum going. I guarantee you that you will begin to clear that internal resistance.
However, to make the most of this spontaneous writing flow (this where my adaptation comes in), write down what emotion you are feeling and where exactly you feel it in your body. For example, right now, I would write:
“I feel anxiety in the middle of my chest, if tight around the muscles of my ribs and there’s a weird butterfly-y feeling as wall that makes me even feel a bit queasy, it’s spreading out from there going into my shoulders and even as I sit with it, it’s also on the surface of most of my skin. In my head, between my eyebrows there is a heaviness, like there is a grey rock lodged behind the forehead and I can’t stand it because it’s making me feel thick headed and useless…” (nothing wrong with a few swearwords here – you won’t be submitting this for the Booker Prize).
Go deeper and deeper into the sensations, and if the thought “this is stupid, what possible good is this doing me?” comes up, write it down too. Sometimes, I’ve literally hammered out “AHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHHAHHAAHH” on the keyboard and it’s felt great.
As you write out the feelings going through your body, random thoughts will rise up. Write them all down, let the mind relax and from here see where the thoughts lead you, one to the next. It can be a bit Alice in Wonderland, you’ll fall down the rabbit hole but I guarantee you, once you find the flow in this, and you follow the string of thoughts and feelings from one to the next, you will find the thing that is bothering you, the central resistance.
You may find you go well over your 15 minutes.
If you are like me, if once you’ve done this, you go back to your actual writing project, your mind will be fired up and ready to write. You’ll have got the momentum going and pushed through the writer’s block. You have words down.
You may find, as you glance up through the stream of consciousness you have just written, there’ll be a real gem, a nugget that you can take aside, and use as inspiration to begin a story. A memory from your childhood, or perhaps you mention a name or a situation that is playing on your mind. Take that out and work with it. Follow the thread. Because, so often as writers, we are archaeologists – we are uncovering what is already there. Follow the naturally arising creativity than trying to force something out.
As you use the “write out” technique, it gets easier. It’s a great tool to have in the writing arsenal, so that you don’t have to fear the days you can’t write. And even if you don’t write after it, I guarantee you’ll feel better, something will have cleared in your energy and you will feel lighter. It’s a technique that works not just for writing, but for life.
Right now, having done this “write out”, I’ve found some clarity. It is my hope with this first post, as with my future blogs and videos, you’ll find encouragements and guidance to help you with the challenges of writing prose.
Diving for Pearls by Jamie O’Connell will be published by Doubleday next May