This is a guest post by Sarah Kathleen Peck
I wrung my hands, trying to figure out what to write next. It was a typical afternoon at the computer: Somehow I had amassed more browser tabs than laundry quarters, each of which was threatening to pull me into an endless loop of reading more things on the internet — all conspiring to collect as a massive wave of procrastination in the way of writing the essay in front of me. I closed all the browser tabs. I sighed. Why was I stuck again? Why couldn’t I just WRITE this thing?
While procrastination and distraction are two of the biggest weapons against making your art, the third hurdle to jump is often the problem of getting stuck.
When you’re stuck, you can’t find the right words, time passes endlessly, and you wish fervently for that flow — that moment when words come quickly, your thoughts spill out, and you’re itching to write more. Yet sometimes even when I return to the white page of my blank screen, I get stuck. My thoughts grind to a halt, and I’m not sure where to turn next.
What do you do to get back in creative flow and get un-stuck? As a writer and creative, these are the tools I return to again and again to get myself back into the writing space and find my creative flow.
Start with predictable statements.
Blank pages, as a writer, can feel demonizing and cruel in their blankness. Sometimes I need to write anything down just to get started. Ray Bradbury found, after several years of writing, that word association was a powerful way for him to start. CARNIVAL, he would write in big capital letters. DANDELIONS. The project continued, each word unfolding into a paragraph and a study, his obsession with these strange, everyday elements turning into prize-winning stories. His word associations turned into explorations of the attic — finding the nooks and crannies in his mind, and chasing what he found both exciting and weird.
Write the banal. Start with where you are. Sometimes it’s garbage, and sometimes the simplest statements are powerful, raw, and beautiful.
Recount your day.
Often writers begin with “throwaway text” that they use to warm up. Summarize your day. Tell the story of where you are, what you’ve been doing, and what you’re trying to do. Even when crafting, I often write out a page of blank notes that describes the type of project and fill pages with sketches of the thing I want to make.
We often get stuck because we’re trying to tackle too much. An entire essay can take me days and weeks — or longer — so today, I focus on one paragraph. Just on one piece. In writing a story about two characters, I begin with the scene, coloring in the frames and spaces with more and more detail. I might spend an entire hour polishing the color and frame of the street lamp and the sidewalks, capturing the changing weather patterns as the seasons move into fall, describing the slippery stoop and broken stairs that the woman calls home. Get specific about one small piece of your project, and focus on that first.
Peruse articles until you find one that stirs up your emotion in some way. Set a kitchen timer if you’re prone to getting lost in browsing, or set up a system that lets you read for a limited time. Browse and jot down notes about what you click on, and what pulls you. Observe that emotion. Find an article that makes you mad or enthusiastic enough to want to write a response. Begin by writing that response.
Mine your conversations for clues.
Often, my essays evolve from comment threads, email chains, and conversations that lead to longer and longer pieces. A comment turns into a paragraph. A paragraph turns into a page. A page turns into an essay. When people ask me questions and I know the answer to them — and I jump in, with lots of ideas and things to say — I’ve learned to become aware of these as golden nugget opportunities for future essays.
Go analog. Slow down.
By pulling out a pen and paper, clearing the table, and simplifying, we can slow down to capture our thoughts and ideas. Slowing down helps us pay attention. As Gwendolyn Bounds writes in the Wall Street Journal, handwriting trains the brain, and slowing down to write by hand helps us learn, convert to memory, and explore new ideas. “It turns out there is something really important about manually manipulating out two-dimensional things we see all the time,” explains Karin Harman James. Using our hands — and crafting physical works, even written works — unlocks new spaces and ideas.
I write not just to record what I already know, but to discover what’s in my mind.
A cluttered mind can often be the result of a messy situation. Set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes or fewer and give yourself permission to clean and sort. The process of using my hands to clean, sort, and organize often unlocks powerful thoughts in my brain. Doing the dishes is meditative at times. Forcing myself to fold laundry can slow my brain down long enough to catch the thoughts that drift in after I release the pressure to perform.
Set deadlines and use timers.
I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique and kitchen timers. Sometimes less time and more urgency can push us over the edge into massive creation, stimulating our brains with a sense of urgency. I’ll sit and write for one hour, making a bit of a game out of my essays. “Alright, it’s 10AM. Can I get the first complete draft of this done by 11AM? Let’s see if I can get 700 words and a structure all put together by then. Ready? Go!”
Release the negative harnesses.
Ever feel like you’ve got someone watching over your shoulder, breathing down your neck to make sure everything is perfectly done and correct? As best as you can, remind yourself that you are allowed to stumble and stutter, that your writing does not have to be (and likely will not be) perfect the first time around, and that messiness is part of the process.
When the critic comes, which she does predictably for me, observe her. Watch the thoughts pile up, and write them all down. Say to your critic, “Thanks for all of this, I know you’re trying to have my back. I’ll keep these criticisms over here in my notebook, but for now I need to work.” Let your critic take a break.
Add detail and narrow the focus.
For this moment in time, on what you’re creating, focus on one particular element. Find a soothing or repetitive rhythm to it. Perhaps, as a writer, you’re writing about the scene and setting the stage for the actors’ patterns. Describe the street lights in detail, from the luminescent glow in the aftermath of a rainfall, to the painted-black iron stands. Do micro-histories on the pieces. If you’re a craftsman or a technician, begin with one small piece and polish and craft that section until it’s gleaming.
Forget about the entirety of the project. At this moment, be within this moment.
Talk it out. Use your voice.
Explain your idea to someone. Use a voice recorder to explain it. Sometimes I’ll get on the phone with my parents or friends and ask them to chat about an idea for a quick minute. I’ll set a quick record on the voice memo and capture myself explaining it to people. Sometimes I set my voice memo down on the counter and start explaining to the blank walls how things work. I play back the voice memo and write down the notes. The notes on the page start to make sense, and I edit them with my writer’s eye.
Despite how many times we’re told to get moving, many of us never get up and stand up from our desk to take a break and move our bodies. Sitting is terrible for us, and we sit for an average of 9.3 hours a day (nearly two more hours than we spend sleeping!), causing our bodies to lapse into sedentary norms.
The best way to get myself back into flow is to shake out my body for a bit. Do a few jumping jacks. Go for a walk. Take a short jog around the block. Go for a 10-minute bike ride to pick something up. Plan afternoon or evening swims for when the day is winding down and your brain is chattering. Jump in the shower for a 10-minute dunk. Turn upside down and do a handstand against a wall in your office or living room. Stand up and do a few squats. Do a seven-minute workout.
By increasing the blood flow and circulation in our bodies, we can change our thoughts. (For more on this, read SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, which looks at the mind-body connection).
Breathe. Lay flat across the floor. Sink into child’s pose or downward dog for a few minutes. Take a darkness nap — one of my favorite tricks. Do a darkness nap by going to a very quiet place, eliminating light, and reducing all of the stimulation (close your curtains, put an eye mask on, put earplugs in) and lie flat on the floor or a bed for 7 or 8 minutes. Use a timer to let yourself sink into rest. Like a power boost on a battery, getting your body and mind very still can re-set your mental and creative engines for hours.
Notice and adjust the stimulation.
Adding movement or stillness, as above, are about adjusting and equalizing the stimulation levels in my mind and body. Many times the creative flow is stalled when I am out of sync between my mind and body. My mind is racing forwards or backwards and my body is tired of being still. When the stimulation in my mind — and all of its dissonant bits and starts and bursts of energy — are out of sync with the stimulation in my body, I check in with a quick evaluation: Which one is racing more? Am I twitching and itching in my seat and in my body? Does my mind feel overwhelmed?
Sometimes our brain needs a rest, and our body and senses need to take center stage.
— Stephanie Guimond
Like a washer’s spin that’s gone off cycle, I need to put the two links together again, apace with each other. Adding movement, adding stillness, or adding a counter stimulation (music, water flow, massage) can help ease the frustration and pull me back into balance.
Disrupt your “stuck” with movement or stillness and find a way to balance the simulation in your mind and body.
There’s something magical about water. Drinking a large glass of water cleanses the thoughts in my mind and refreshes my energy levels. In addition to the enormous benefits of hydration, adding water reminds me to get up more often by forcing me to use the toilet more consistently as well.
Creativity is largely about creating systems and patterns that reveal (and allow) your best self to emerge. Read any great writer’s habits — Hemingway, Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art, Stephen King’s On Writing, Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing — and you’ll hear them describe their habits and routines. Some of them race to their desk for hours of uninterrupted morning writing, and others write late at night, but they all have habits and systems that help them get unstuck. The less you have to think about when or how you’re going to do what you’re going to do, and the more you do it automatically, the easier it is to do well. (For more on this, check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg).
Have an opinion. Sometimes “stuck” is part of getting angry, upset, or frustrated. You’re pissed off that the piece you wrote hasn’t been picked up yet, you’re upset that a friend treated you poorly; you’re mad at the universe for delivering blow after blow to your health. It happens. Sometimes when I try to write a chipper post and my feelings are anything but, I walk smack into a massive brick wall that says, “Nope, no way. You can’t fool me here.” The way out, fortunately or unfortunately, is often through: I need to work through each of these thoughts and feelings. That’s the heart matter of the day.
More often than not, however, these posts — these raw, vulnerable, frustrated essays that pile up — become the meat and story of future essays, pieces I surprise even myself with.
Remember that getting stuck is part of the creative process — and is often a precursor to great breakthroughs.
If you’re having trouble solving a problem or finding your way back into the flow, try any of these tips or let me know if you have your own peculiar habit that works to get back on track.
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Sarah Kathleen Peck is a writer, designer, and storyteller who teaches writing workshops to help people unlock their creative potential and create great stories. She is the founder of several websites on design, urbanism, and writing and is the author of It Starts With, a blog about psychology, motivation, and human behavior that was ranked one of ProBlogger’s top 20 blogs in 2012 and the founder of the award-winning Landscape Urbanism journal, a website that explores the future of cities from a design perspective. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.