Alex and Sophie go for a walk in order to write in Music and Lyrics
I've been quite adamant, if not forceful, about my dislike and contempt for the concept of writer's block. I've told you that it doesn't really exist and that it is an excuse not to work. Thus what I am about to say today may sound like a contradiction, for if I don't think block exists, then why write about ways to unblock ourselves? It depends on how you perceive block, dear reader.
If you think of it as a virus that we will all catch sooner or later and that we must sweat through until it has run its course, be this days or months, then you will find the next few paragraphs against the very principles that I have outlined in past articles. If, instead, you recognise that block isn't an entity you are at the mercy of, but a fleeting change in your creative patterns, then you will understand why we don't have to believe in block in order to come up with ways that transmute negative practices into positive creative steps.
Super-massive guilty confession: I have a soft spot for Hugh Grant. Among all of his movies there is one that I feel most in tune with, Music and Lyrics, for it is, in a roundabout way, about the creative process as much as it is about surprising partnerships, catchy tunes, big hair, hip thrusting and love. As Alex and Sophie are working furiously in order to write a song over a mere three days, Sophie suggests they 'go for a walk. It unlocks your mind'. When we are stuck in the same room, often for hours on end, we never work at the same level of quality, or even speed, throughout. When we encounter this creative fog, we may have to do something other than sitting through it.
Resistance does not uniformly present itself. Most of the time we can tackle it and meet our deadline just by concentrating harder, by making the effort, even if it takes two hours of supposedly 'wasted' time (this is my favourite method, I must tell you). Other times the 'work through it' is no use and doing something else is the only way out of the rut. But, careful on this one, resistance and procrastination are hopelessly intertwined with the life of a writer. The former is addressed by shifting the focus to something else, the other makes the focus on something else your only focus.
You can always recognise procrastination because: it always, no exceptions, feels pressing and it involves tasks which are mundane, irrelevant to your work and, crucially, non-urgent, such as cleaning the bathroom, ironing, filling up the car, colour-coding underwear and/or pencils, sorting out books, the laundry or the garage. Procrastination is the subconscious transliteration of a linguistic hyperbole: 'I'd rather crawl on broken glass than doing that!' transmutes inconsequential tasks into vital ones which will halt our progress. Yes, writing is hard; the longer you leave it, the harder it gets, and this is a fact, not an opinion. Next time the urge of doom sneaks on you, watch this video and get back to the desk pronto.
If, like Alex and Sophie, you are a little stuck and the place you're working in is starting to feel claustrophobic, you can step away from the work momentarily. You can...
Go for a walk. Seeing things, hearing things, smelling and eating something other than what you have at home wakes up the senses. Many writers say that their best ideas have come to them as they were walking in solitude, in a vague state of trance. I can personally relate to this one as, when I walk at Tatton Park with my dogs, my mind is free to wander and yet can stay focused on any given project for however long it takes us to do our usual circuit. I've written entire articles while walking in the park and then committed them to the computer upon returning home.
Go to a museum or an art gallery. Writers, painters, sculptors, artistic types in general have always cross-infected their work. Going to look at some up close is extremely helpful for it awakens our responses to others' work and makes us question our ability to consolidate thoughts to paper, as others create worlds on canvasses or by chiselling a block. A tiny warning on this: don't feel small and irrelevant when you trail the British Museum or the Louvre. This is not a comparative like-for-like exercise aimed at undermining your inability to write as fabulously as Turner could paint.
Go and work in a library. If the house feels same old same old, and if the lure of housework is impossible to resist (see above), up sticks and take your work to a library. There are no dogs to walk, no screaming kids to pacify, no plants to water and no floors to clean in a library, it's the perfect place to sink into your writing and float on and on as it pleases you. Added bonus: you can progress on your research and it still qualifies as work.
Go and work in a café. I am one of those writers who cannot work in libraries at all and who cannot work that well at home either. When I first read The Creative Habit, I came across a passage where Twyla refers to a writer friend of hers who needs to write in the garden because he feels that life is 'out there' and if he is inside at his computer, then he is missing out. When I told my PhD supervisor that I could only work at Starbucks, he told me I should not fight it and that whatever gets me into the creative zone on command is a good thing (he writes well at night). If you too feel that silence isn't your thing, a coffee shop is the great alternative. When I am sitting at my little table, the white noise keeps me going for hours and yet I usually cannot even tell whether the place is busy, what music is playing or how many babies are screaming their heads off.
Go and talk about your project with someone. Proceed with extreme caution on this one dear reader, because I am not telling you to fish for compliments from someone who likes you. I am suggesting to sit with a person in order to articulate your chapter, your proposal, your plan, your whatever in a way that will oblige you to turn your scattered images into intelligible content. This exercise is unbeatable when you don't really know where you're heading because it silences the mental chattering and forces you to create a logical path. Talking to a pet or on your own, standing in your room as if to an audience, works too.
Go and watch a movie. I don't know about you but, even though cinema in the afternoon and on one's own is considered one of the greatest time luxuries, it isn't something I like to do. And yet, when it does happen, it really gets clunky working gears into motion. I remember going to Watchmen multiple times when I needed to write about it and, of course, were it not for some furious post-movie note-taking about The Dark Knight, my book would be 6,000 words shorter. Take notes after a movie, think about it and its structure, characterisation, plot, resolution and moment of crisis. Artistic expression is always useful to a writer. There's a lot you can learn just by watching.
I hope these pointers will help you next time you hit the invisible wall of resistance. But I am sure that you too will have discovered little tricks that work every time. What do you do when you seek to unlock your mind and progress your work away from the keyboard?