We all know the story: You sit down at your computer screen to write (an article, a novel, a poem, a blog post, etc) and your mind goes blank. This could be for many reasons; you feel you’ve run out of ideas, you’re worried what you’re writing is going to be garbage, or maybe you don’t feel divinely inspired by the topic you’re addressing. You’re frozen in place. You’re stuck. You have writer’s block. You can’t bring yourself to make progress.
I have a cure for writing paralysis, but you’re probably not going to like it.
Step 1: Get Away From Your Screen
We all have the vast potential to be idea machines, pumping out content if only our brains would behave. But our brains aren’t the best at this while we are at rest or sitting in front of a blank page in a word processor. Neuroscientists tell us that there are three things that get us to a flow of creative ideas: increased dopamine levels, distraction, and being in a relaxed state.
Brains are most likely to yield good stuff when they’re happy. That means dopamine is being released, much like it would be when we’re exercising, having sex, listening to music, or taking a shower. Neurologist Alice Faherty argues that some people are built to be more creative than others because of the way our brains are wired. So remember: A happy brain makes for a happy writer.
Freeing up the subconscious from its usual tasks of problem-solving and keeping us from walking into walls gives it the opportunity to dig deep and find the creative seeds it’s been burying all day. Something as simple as getting into the shower after a day at the office can trigger a big change in the way our brains work. With this “incubation period” for ideas in full swing, tiny idea seeds can start to take root in the conscious mind.
When our brains are rocking out on alpha waves (when the brain is, or is in a state close to sleeping) we get a chance to focus internally instead of on the world around us. It’s not just sleep that can bring on this state of deep relaxation – soothing, familiar, repetitive tasks help us achieve this sort of mental quiet. With the phone off and the responsibilities of the day finally out of reach, we are able to better cultivate the creative ideas that have been trying to grow just below the surface.
The keys to helping those creative juices flow are doing something that makes us feel good (dopamine), being distracted from the everyday (distraction/incubation), and being relaxed while doing something familiar or nothing at all (alpha waves). Find ways to farm your brain for ideas at times other than when you’re sitting down at your computer. Take verbal notes into your phone’s voice memo app while driving or jogging, get a waterproof white board for ideas while you’re in the shower, keep a note pad on your bedside table, do something repetitive with your hands like knitting or drying dishes to let your brain run wild and then be ready to jot down what springs to mind.*
Step 2: Lower Your Expectations
This is the best jumping off point I can offer for getting past the trial of writing paralysis. I have, in the past, tortured myself by insisting that whatever I am writing must be perfect right out of the gate. This is such poison for creative flow! Here’s a reality check: Not every idea is going to spring forth, fully formed and armored, from your head a la Athena.
Remember Anne Lamott’s essay Shitty First Drafts? Read it. Take it to heart. Don’t aim for perfection on the page with your first attempt. Not holding yourself to an unrealistically high bar will aid in creativity; just focus on getting words on the page. Don’t edit while writing. Turn your editor brain off while you’re trying to generate original content up front.
Remember: Not every thing has to be perfect. It doesn’t necessarily even have to be good. It just needs to be.
Step 3: Just Write
This is the one that no one likes to hear, but I find that the solution to what is called “writer’s block” is simply push through the wall and surge forward into pumping out words. Remember, the words don’t have to be the next great American novel. They just have to exist. Once they’re out there on the page, you can come back and cull your content, only salvaging what is good and polishing it until it shines.
Use tiny goals to keep moving forward. Maybe that’s writing for just ten minutes a day. Ten minutes is better than nothing. Ten minutes a day is what I do every single day without fail. Even now, I’m on vacation and I’m taking some time to work on my manuscript and to put several articles in the hopper for the next few weeks. It’s a completely plausible goal to write for ten minutes a day (more is great if you can manage it, but you don’t have to) and because the bar is so low, you’re more likely to reach it and feel encouraged by your success rather than feel guilty because you set a lofty word count goal and didn’t hit it.
So get out there! Harvest ideas and get them on the page and then edit them until they sing. Your brain can be your ally if you only give it the best conditions in which to thrive.
Looking for some insider knowledge on the dreaded query letter? Look no further!
Deidre Delpino Dykes, an author of speculative fiction, may actually be three birds in a trench coat. She is the co-organizer of the Columbia Writers critique group in Maryland and a passionate player and GM of tabletop role playing games. She is working on a novel-length manuscript and enjoys writing short and flash fiction, some of which has appeared in Wizards in Space vol. 1, Ghosts on Drugs, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Deidre tweets as @DeidreDykes and previously worked as a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.
*Articles Read, Referenced, and Otherwise Enjoyed for this Piece: