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7 Tips To Get Unstuck from Writer’s Block (Day 5 #yourturnchallenge)

January 23, 2015

085_to_practice_brain_chemistryMy students always want to know what to do about writers block: that deep dark dreadful painful place.

That constipated place. That prison block. That place in the shadows.

How do I get my bowels moving? Where’s my get out of jail free card? How do I find the light in the shadow?

“Ever see a plumber who has plumber’s block?” asked blogger, marketer, and author Seth Godin in 2010 in Boston on his book tour for Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? “Or a talker who has talker block? No! So? No writer’s block. It’s part of who you are.” (Here’s the rest of my blog post where this quote comes from).

Sorry Seth, most of my students  don’t find this too helpful. I thought it was insightful, and it’s inspiring to me, but for my students? No.

Because they don’t see themselves as writers yet. They don’t know they are writers. They don’t know the power of their own minds.

They don’t know that “to think is to practice brain chemistry” in the words of Deepak Chopra.

What follows are some ideas that my students do find help them get unstuck. And these ideas help me too, as a student, a poet, an academic, and an essayist.

In the first chapter of Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg outlines the Rules of Writing Practice and akins writing to sex. There are 7 Rules and those 7 rules can translate to 7 Tips. Goldberg’s words are in bold and I paraphrase or my own ideas follow.

1. Keep your hand moving. No matter what, don’t stop. Write whatever comes to your mind. Outrace the editor with your writing hand. If you keep your hand moving, the writing will win.

2. Lose Control. Let it rip. Don’t worry that someone will judge you.

3. Be specific. Get in the habit of using nouns, verbs, colors, textures. If you realize you’ve written a sentence that’s full of general vague language, don’t scratch it out but make the next sentence more specific.

4. Don’t think. Stick with your “first thoughts” not your thoughts on thoughts. forget everything else outside of the immediate words you are writing down. Stay with those words, in that moment.

5. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. That’s right! Who cares? Why does this matter? Keep your hand moving and write clearly enough so you can read it later if you want.

6. You are free to write the worst junk in the world. Yep, you are. So don’t let that fear stop you.

7. Go for the jugular. If something comes up while you’re writing, keep writing about it. Let it out. Hemingway said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

 

Every semester I read this chapter aloud to my students. Usually on the same day that I blindfold them and lead them around campus. While I read to them and describe to them how writing is just like sex, I tell that not to worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. And then I tell them they are free to write the worse junk in the universe.

I know, I’m terrible. I’m a terrible influence, and  one day a dean is going to call me in and say that a parent called complaining that their child is babbling about “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” –like Burning Man, and that I

1. blindfolded their child and led their child blindfolded around campus

2. talked about sex

3. told their child that spelling, punctuation and grammar don’t matter.

I will have to tell the dean that it’s true, all true, and I’m proud of all of it.

So does this mean I am telling you that you need to get someone to blind fold you? And your writer’s block will go away?

Not necessarily.

What it means is to get unstuck you need to break out of your box, to get uncomfortable, nervous even. To push your boundaries.

Going to Burning Man, playing a game, going for a walk, it is these kinds of activities that lead to getting unstuck–whether it is in writing or in life. I mean there has to be some reason why all those people go out to the Black Rock Desert in the middle of nowhere Nevada for a week under extremely harsh conditions. They can’t all be masochistic.

And here’s a bonus tip:

8. Writing leads to writing. (Craft of Revision by Donald Murray.)

I would even go so far as to say this is a universal truth: writing leads to writing. Walking leads to walking. (Sex leads to sex?)

If you are stuck, any movement at all can get you moving more.

So not good, not bad, just is. The writing just is. Just as you are not good or bad–you just are.

I also learned that idea from Natalie Goldberg in a workshop with her at Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin, CA many years ago.

John McPhee is one of my favorite natural history writers. When he’d get stuck, this is how he’d get going, how writing would lead to writing for him: he’d write a letter: “Dear Mom, I am trying to write about how writers get stuck and I’m stuck. You see when writers write, they sit down when they can and then the ideas aren’t there and…”

Writing leads to writing. You can write a letter, you can do a free write, anything that gets your writer mind, your creative mind awake, and that puts the editor to sleep or exhausts the editor or ?

Just keep your hand moving. Write about anything. The writing will lead you. The writing will change your thinking and you too will practice brain chemistry.

This post is for Day 5 Fri. Jan. 23 of the #yourturnchallenge which prompts us to offer advice about getting unstuck. For each day, organizer Winnie Kao has offered these optional Daily Questions which you can use for prompts. Or not. Links below to my posts in response to each question.

Day 1 Mon. Jan. 19: Why are you doing the Your Turn Challenge?
Day 2 Tues. Jan. 20: Tell us about something that’s important to you.
Day 3 Weds. Jan 21: Tell us about something that you think should be improved.
Day 4 Thurs. Jan. 22: Teach us something that you do well.
Day 5 Fri. Jan. 23: What advice would you give for getting unstuck?
Day 6 Sat. Jan 24: Tell us about a time when you surprised yourself.
Day 7 Sun Jan 25: What are you taking with you from this Challenge?

Read a few of the over 3000 responses to the #yourturnchallenge here.

Detail of a silk applique thangka by Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo. His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave his blessings to Leslie’s work and encouraged her to make images that speak to the spiritual aspirations of people across religions and cultures. Her Weekly Wake-ups like this one provide a thread of inspiration to set your week on the path to awakening.

Each week Leslie’s images and the quotes she chooses help me get unstuck, and often lead to writing. If you need a prompt to get your creative juices flowing, subscribe!

PS You want to know what else Seth Godin said? You can’t make it as a poet. And while I’m not making a living off of my poetry per se, I am making a living from being a writer and teaching writing, and I am reading this Saturday, Jan 31 at the Flying H Theater Company 6368 Bristol Road Ventura. The free event is titled “Is that a poem in your pocket? Or are you just happy to hear me?” and while I’m not getting paid, I will have some of my poetry there for sale.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2015 4:36 pm

    Writing leads to writing. Yep heard it before but it NEVER gets old. Most of the insanely prolific authors simply don’t believe in writer’s block. They show up to work.

  2. January 25, 2015 11:01 am

    Great advice and what i would tell my students. Just let it rip, don’t overthink, dont worry about the technicalities…yet. There is a reason it is a “rough” draft.

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