Music, Writing, & Art
Expert Advice: How to overcome writers block?
One of the hardest part of any new project is getting started and figuring out how to overcome writers block or any other creative block that may come up. CJ gets expert advice from Tina Welling who conducts workshops around the country on creative writing. Learn how to tackle some of the most common problems you’ll encounter when writing a song, poem, or a book.
How to handle the most common problems when writing?
- Inspiration: How to tap your inspiration and vision for your master piece?
- Obstacles: How to handle writer’s block? How do you know when to cut something out of your book, keep it, or recycle it (short story)? What to do with perfectionist tendencies?
Avoiding the Creative Blues
by CJ Liu
What is writer’s block or a block in creativity?
Merriam Webster defines writers block as:
the problem of not being able to think of something to write about or not being able to finish writing a story, poem, etc.
As a life coach, I experience creative blocks as a time in my creative process when I’ve lost my vision. During these times I feel like I’m stuck in a rut. My foot is on the accelerator, mud is splattering everywhere, and I’m going nowhere fast. Psychologists call this spinning stage being in a state of denial. When I’ve talked to clients in a rut, their experience is that they too feel lost, clueless, and full of self-doubt. While this suffering is natural, the pain can be eased when we take a big picture view of the whole situation.
A more helpful way of thinking about a creative block is thinking about it as a pit stop that may be part of the creative journey. Think about it. Any great hero’s journey involves roadblocks designed for our growth and learning. During these times, my Coach-self says to my neurotic self, “I just don’t know where to go RIGHT NOW. It’s ok. I’ll know when I know.” I’ve often wondered what professional writers, musicians, artists do when they hit this point.
Recently, I talked to author Tina Welling, who has taught the last twenty years at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference. She questions the whole idea of writer’s block and the idea that you need a muse to get inspired. Instead, she believes that writer’s block is a form of self-imposed fear and that you psych ourselves out by judging our work too early in the creative process. Check out what Tina says about writer’s block.
But, part of me still wonders. What should I do when I’m blocked? Plow forward or take a break?
Two Approaches: What should you do when writer’s or creative block raises its ugly head?
Approach 1: Heed nature’s calling
During slow periods when your creative juices aren’t flowing, some share a story about how its nature’s way of getting you to rest, relax, and go dormant for awhile. You’ve had a nice full stretch of growth and productivity, now it’s time to chill. It’s natural. It’s good for us. Now, just SLEEP, SLEEP now.
Frankly, I find these romantic depictions of nature annoying. Darn it, this is NOT what I want. I’m an American, and like a convenience store, I need to be open for business 24×7. What is this “rest” thing anyways?
Often, I try to push through these periods with a “no pain, no gain” attitude. This often works, but is it the best thing to do? Based on my conversation with Tina Welling, the answer is “NO”. She views these forced disciplined actions as going against nature. She draws the analogy of a diet, which she also considers unnatural. Tina believes that it’s not natural for us to force ourselves to be creative. Creativity is a process and our body, mind, and soul need to be involved for inspired writing to happen. Orson Scott Card and Ray Bradbury seem to agree on this approach, based on their quotes on writer’s block:
Writer’s block is never solved by forcing oneself to “write through it,” because you haven’t solved the problem that caused your unconscious mind to rebel against the story, so it still won’t work – for you or for the reader.” — Orson Scott Card
“In the middle of writing something you go blank and your mind says: “No, that’s it.” Ok. You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying “I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.” You’re being political, or you’re being socially aware. You’re writing things that will benefit the world. To hell with that! I don’t write things to benefit the world. If it happens that they do, swell. I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to have a hell of a lot of fun. – Ray Bradbury at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea 2001:
During my interview with Jerry Wenstrom, he expresses a similar sentiment. When he creates a sculpture, he needs to wait for the wood or art piece to speak to him about what needs to happen. To me, this takes waiting and listening into a whole other dimension.
Approach 2: It’s about commitment and discipline
While there are those that swear by the wait and see approach, there are equal numbers of creative people who say “just do it” and express sentiments like Philip Pullman.
“The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business. ..Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. …Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.” — Philip Pullman
Regardless if you are a painter, writer, or musician, the conventional wisdom is to just keep the creative juices flowing. It’s about forcing yourself to create every day, whether it’s painting, writing, etc. I’ve certainly talked to people who believe that creatively expressing yourself is something you do to honor and respect your soul on a daily basis. Awhile back, I talked to Will Hewett who made it a daily practice to sing every day. So, he sang on airplanes, cars, in the shower. He sang like his life depended on.
When I read Maya Angelou’s quote on writer’s block, it is as if her writing is akin to a devotional prayer to the gods so that she may be blessed with their creative genius.
“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’” — Maya Angelou
My normal go-to approach is forcing myself to solve the problem. I’m impatient and would rather be doing, then just waiting for something to arise. If this resonates to you, then you may enjoy trying these ideas from my interview with Sam Bennett on moving from a stuck place. Sam Bennett is an actress from Second City TV and creative coach.
Which approach is best for me? How do you know if you should move through the pain – or just stop trying to try?
In the end, it’s hard to say which approach is better or more natural. Personally, I’d say it’s a mix of these two approaches. In my opinion, the key is really being able to discern if you need to stop your journey, check into hotel, and sleep –OR- if you have hit a short delay and just need to take a detour. The key is trial and error.
For better or worse, I first try to gut through it. This is sort of like taking the alternate highway to my destination. If this doesn’t work, then I realize it’s time to throw in the towel and wait. Sadly, I used to try three to four alternate routes versus just one. Over time, I’ve become wiser and have realized that one dead end is just as good as four dead ends. Since time is always a consideration for me, I rationalize that it’s a better use of my time to rest then driving all around exploring dead ends and emptying my tank further.
Most of the times these road blocks require a few days rest and worse case up to a week’s rest. But don’t be surprised if you need to take a six month hiatus. If you’ve hit these gaps enough you get smarter and realize that the best thing to do with these gaps is to relax into them.
During my interview with Tina, she mentions a similar process of opening up and accepting the challenges that these gaps present to us during our creative process. I really liked the way she describes her gap periods. After writing her book, she said that she sat on her porch reading books or walking through the woods, and that she viewed this as an integral part of the creative process. Even though she was not at the computer, she was still a writer during these periods. Her nature walks, which she calls spirit walks, were a way for her to be in the moment and collect the raw materials she would then use in her next book or article. In the video she describes the process she uses for getting in the juicy creative zone.
Here’s a beautiful passage that I read today, by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum who I interviewed about effort and ease that helped me think about this question in a practical way.
“Sometimes you may feel tired and need to rest, and sometime you may feel tired and need to persevere. Sometimes when we feel pain it is a signal that continuing on will cause injury; other times the pain we experience is a phantasm caused more by anxiety than by actual physical threat. This also applies to efforts of the mind: Pushing yourself to work on a task when you feel you’ve reached your limits may result in a breakthrough or may lead to errors and exhaustion… Which signals do you listen to, and which do you need to override? When should you put forth more effort, and when should you let go? To answer these questions you must know yourself well, you need to let go of the ideas you have about yourself and be sensitive to how you actually respond… At any particular choice point, you cannot know the answer beforehand: if you could, it would be a selection, not a choice. When faced with a range of possible paths, you can never know how your choice will turn out. No matter how much information you collect, no matter how carefully you map out contingencies, you cannot foresee the eddies that will result from your actions until you actually undertake them. ” – Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum, Walking the Way.
When creating, how do you know when enough is enough? When should you just stop tweaking and just publish or share your creation with the world?
Tina describes this beautifully in our interview. She says that the rewriting, polishing and pulling things together is when the art comes in. She feels that if it’s a good piece that it still holds energy for her and she will continue to edit it until the energy is no longer there. Tina describes how she wrote the first draft of “Writing Wild” fifteen years ago and finished writing it twelve years ago. While she’s edited it hundreds of times, it still held the energy for her. She knew when she was done because she got to the point when she thought “this is my best”. Another one of her litmus test was her sense of aliveness and authenticity. When she lost her sense of aliveness and authenticity, it was her clue that it was time to stop. Personally, I love this idea.
Paul Ellis, an acclaimed singer-songwriter, describes in these two interviews: 1) In this interview how descries when he knows he’s done with a song (see quote below) and 2) In this interview describes what constitutes a “good song”.
It means that you are serving the song; you are doing what the song is asking you to do. It is asking you to take it to the place that’s believable and moving for people to hear. Are you serving the song? Are you writing it as well as you can? Is it doing what the mission statement of the song is asking? The song Rose Tattoo is about a guy driving home from work on the day that he is being laid off and he’s calling his wife to tell her the story. He is frustrated, and she says “We’ll fight for the best case scenario”. You need that dialogue to be very believable; you need scenes to be really believable. You have to have all the details of the song spell out the image in peoples’ heads so they can picture it happening. And that’s when I feel like I am doing some greater good. But the first step in that, is serving the song, which is writing it a way that really makes people get transported to where you are writing.
Here’s how I look at this whole situation. Ultimately, life is all about co-creating with the universe. We have free will and it is a driving force that will propel us to great discoveries and progress. This energy and effort is worth honoring. But in this process of creating, how different would it be if we pursued these co-creations with both effort AND ease? What would shift if we truly believed that we are not separate from creativity, but we are one with it? How freeing would it be if we could let go of the idea that we have to do ALL the work and think about the work being done through us? Personally, I can let out a big sigh of relief when I truly believe that we are one with this creative energy. It’s necessary to both think logically about it and tune into the creative energy within.
Want advice on writing a book. CJ Liu interviews Dan Millian (author of 17 books) and Sierra Prasada (author, blogger, writer), a father and daughter team share a book that they co-wrote, The Creative Compass. Get inspired to write a book.
A Blog Post on the Creative Process by Tina Welling
Take it away Tina…
The ABCs of writing into our own truth are attention, belief, and courage.Attention means offering awareness to our body sensations and our emotions;belief means trusting our responses; courage means taking action based upon our responses. Each time we follow these ABCs, we strengthen the access to our inner authority. When we write down the discoveries our attention brings us – our emotions and body awareness – and read it back to ourselves or someone else, we are taking a step toward trusting our findings and taking action upon them.We don’t have to know something to write; we write to know something. We write to bring into our consciousness the inner authority that so often remains in the unconscious. If you doubt at all your inner well of knowledge and creativity, stop right here and write a paragraph about any object in your vicinity. Report the findings of your senses and body sensations. Allow associations to occur and images to arise.
People often ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas, your stories?” Even we wonder sometimes where our material comes from, especially when we are writing in a concentrated way that flows with newly unearthed material. Some writers give over their power and their reverence to the product – the book or poem – rather than the source of that product: their own inner authority.
That’s another result of thinking the source is one of luck, of mystery, and feeling superstitious about examining that too closely, fearing it will disappear. Possibly, this accounts for those writers who have enormous success with one book and then can’t write another. They’ve put all their power into the outcome of what is an inner process.
Sadly, this sometimes happens with a person’s first poem or story. It receives rave responses, and the writer believes it was a fluke because she can’t trace the flow of the work from within her to the product without. She believes it was a one-time accident and, after the immediate exhilaration of her experience, becomes depressed.
Oddly, this can happen even after multiple successes. One of my workshop students reports that he sees each publication as a fluke and fears he can’t ever do it again.
It’s this inner process of arriving at our own material that intrigues me and that I demystify in WRITING WILD. For if we don’t understand it, we feel that creative energy is in control and shares itself with us only on whim. Our relationship to writing and to ourselves must be more intimate than that. Intimacy, in partnership with another human or in partnership with our inner selves, demands trust and faithfulness. We can’t write if we think a disembodied muse may or may not show up to unlock our creative vault and give us access to our own personal material.
This kind of thinking is irresponsible, as if we are refusing to be accountable for our own creative lives. Material can occur to us with such rapidity that we cannot immediately trace the steps our minds took in connecting two seemingly unrelated ideas. But when we are very alert to the data our senses bring us and to the memories, hopes, fear, and dreams that the sensory data triggers, we will make instantaneous links. It’s this fully traceable process that many of us mistake for mystery, luck, and visits from the muse.
Based on the book Writing Wild. Copyright © 2014 by Tina Welling. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.
More about our Guest Tina Welling
Tina Welling is the author ofWriting Wild: Forming A Creative Partnership With Nature, and the novels Crybaby Ranch, Fairy Tale Blues, and Cowboys Never Cry. Her essays have been published in Shambhala Sun, The Writer,Body & Soul, and other national magazines, as well as four anthologies. She conducts creative writing and journal keeping workshops around the country. Welling resides in Jackson Hole.
Interesting Websites for Resources
- 13 Famous writers on writer’s block: http://fla
vorwire.co m/343207/1 3-famous-w riters-on- overcoming -writers-b lock/13
- For kids, but still interesting for new writers: http://www.imschools.org/images/files/menufiles/Overview6Traits.pdf
- Interesting article on types of problems writers encounter: http://io9.com/5844988/the-10-types-of-writers-block-and-how-to-overcome-them