A student at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival asked me what he should do when he came to dead ends or flat spots in his writing.
The idea of ‘writer’s block’ is very common. But I don’t like the idea. I reject it. It sounds like a disease, or something you can’t avoid, something that can just land on your desk and bring everything to a screeching halt.
My writing background is in TV. There is no such thing as writer’s block there. There are just deadlines. And you’d better meet them, or no more scripts for you!
So I think there are times you don’t have great ideas, or times you don’t feel like writing, or times you don’t love what you write. But you can always write.
Here are my top four tips for avoiding the feeling that you’re stuck.
Sounds like a plan.
Write a rough plan for your writing project. This is equally helpful whether you are working on an essay, a short story, a script or a novel. Lots of people speak about planning as though it’s something very restrictive, or even uncreative. I love a plan. It holds my hand and reminds me where I think I should be heading. I give myself the freedom to change plans whenever I like, but the plan gives me the direction I need. A plan lets me write freely. I can choose to work on any part of it at any time. Projects that grind to a halt often do so because they are incomplete. A plan will show you the bits that might be missing.
Have a couple of projects on the go.
I think I read somewhere that Tim Winton used to do this. It’s a wonderful idea. When you feel stuck or stale on one project, move on and play with another one for a while. The fantastic thing about writing is that so much of it happens when you’re not thinking consciously about the work. So while you are busy focusing on one thing, your other projects are simmering along happily on the back burners.
Don’t be afraid of a totally crummy first draft.
Really, you could chew your way through a thousand pencils waiting for the first perfect line. Just start writing. (Straight after you’ve sketched out that plan.) Whatever you put on the page is better than nothing on the page. So much writing happens in the rewriting – the second or third drafts. So take it easy on yourself and don’t expect miracles immediately.
Be an observant reader.
There are so many ways to solve any problem. I can remember Helen Garner writing about writing years ago saying she would be working on something and wonder – how would Chekhov handle this? – and go away and do some reading. I’ve heard Paul Kelly say the same thing about song writing – choose a song you like and use it as a blueprint for writing your own song. If you feel a bit lost it’s often a good idea to take some time to read or reread something you think works really well, and ask why? how? and do any of these structures or strategies relate to my work?
So, I hope that’s helpful – and I’d love to hear about anyone else’s strategies to keep the ideas and words flowing.