We’ve all been there. It can happen at the start of a project, at the beginning of a chapter, or in the middle of a sentence. You stare blankly at the computer screen; sweat breaks out on your brow and your heart beats a rapid tattoo. It is the terrifying feeling of not knowing what comes next in the story.
My writer friends have helped me out of the dreaded state of stuck on numerous occasions. Here are some of the valuable things they’ve suggested I do when I get stuck. I pass them along in the hope that they may help you too.
- Don’t panic
Relax. Take deep breaths. Getting stuck happens to everyone. Treat writing like you would a seventh grade science project. Try to feel curious about the very process of putting words to paper, stringing them along to form sentences, convey images, and communicate feelings and ideas. It is truly a wondrous process. And it can also be fun. Remembering this can save your “writerly” bacon.
2. Put it into perspective
If you find yourself stuck it may be because you are taking yourself or your writing too seriously. Remember, that what we are doing is not rocket science; nor does the universe rise or fall on whether we write another word. Also, if we make a mistake as writers, we get to hit the delete key. Neurosurgeons aren’t so lucky—that’s why they get paid the big bucks.
3. Listen to music
As Plato once wrote, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Do not underestimate what music can do for you. Try listening to music that somehow relates to what you are writing. For example, if you’re writing a religious mystery/thriller, Gregorian chants might be helpful. Choose music that reflects your writing.
Another strategy suggested to me is to read the few paragraphs or pages that precede the sticking point. Often the next word, sentence, and paragraph start to flow logically from what came previously. Before you know it, you are unstuck, and the story is back in motion.
5. Practice write
As described by Natalie Goldberg in her bestseller Writing Down the Bones, this involves letting your mind relax and writing about whatever you want for some specified period of time—ten minutes, twenty minutes, a half hour. The thing is to keep your hand moving all through the practice writing. Be sure and time yourself and don’t stop to edit. This has a way of freeing you up, and is a little like stretching before you exercise.
6. Fall in love with writing again
We write because we love to write. Get back in touch with the love that originally motivated your writing. Just like any relationship, love of the written word takes work, and you have to put something in to get something back. One way to do this is to read books on writing. Here are some great ones: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg; Wild Mind, also by Natalie Goldberg; Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.
7. Take a break
Sometimes it’s just the weekend, sometimes its weeks. Recharging the writing batteries is half the struggle of writing well. This is the time to give the unconscious a chance to work. It’s amazing how many problems work themselves out when you’re not thinking about them.
8. Set a minimum word count
If you are going through a stuck period, try setting a minimum word count. This serves as a finish line toward which you can sprint in an effort to keep the story moving forward. Because sometimes the best way to get unstuck is to keep pushing until you reach the other side.
9. Fan the flames of your passion
Chances are you are pretty passionate about some element of your writing project. Maybe you touch on a social, religious, or political issue close to your heart. Rekindling this fire can help get you unstuck. Reading an article and watching a documentary on your topic are good ways to fan the flames of your passion.
10. Get out of the way and let the story tell itself
Jerry Garcia used to say it’s not the band that plays the music, but the music that plays the band. Similarly, it’s not the writer who tells the story, but the story that uses the writer to tell itself. If you find yourself stuck, try getting out of your own way and letting the story tell itself. You may not be as important to the story as you think. Let the characters have their say and let them do what they do. You may find yourself simply taking dictation rather than manhandling words onto the page.
What do you do when you get stuck?
The holiday season can be difficult for people who are struggling to stay sober/clean. For me euphoric recall is particularly strong during this time. I think it goes back to when I was a child. I remember how I thought that Christmas could magically solve all the problems of the past year. It was as if I half-expected to find underneath the tree, wrapped in glorious paper, a steady job for my dad, or a solution to my mom’s alcoholism and major depression.
Now that I look back on it, the dashed hopes of Christmas always hit me like a hangover. This cycle of raised expectations and dashed hopes is a decent metaphor to describe the process of craving and drinking. Before the drink, my expectations were always high, I felt as if the drink was going to solve all my problems. Afterward, when it didn’t, I felt the familiar letdown, the guilt and remorse of having given in to another craving, and the demoralization that accompanies taking a drink.
I find myself needing to keep this in mind as the holidays approach. Many people will be drinking around this time, even those who normally don’t. The thing I have to remember is that, in terms of sobriety, the holidays are just like ordinary days and I have to practice the same principles I use to get by every day, but with hyper vigilance.
I may experience cravings during this time, but I try to remember one thing: the craving will pass. It will not always be as intense as it is right before, during, and/or after the family get together. Although it may not feel like it at the time, the craving will pass. I need to keep reminding myself of that when the urge to drink is at its peak.
Knowing I will not always feel the way I do in the present moment is an enormously powerful realization—I’d almost call it a revelation. Have you ever been in love and something went wrong, and you felt like you were going to die? Chances are the pain from that experience has receded over time. And this is not the place to go into it here, but falling in love sets off certain chemicals in your brain that are very similar to those activated by drinking/using other drugs. This is why I think people can become addicted to love, just as easily as they can become addicted to drugs.
A valuable tool developed by cognitive behavioral therapists is called urge surfing. This means you let yourself feel the urge, you recognize it, identify it, but then ride the wave of the urge all the way to the other side. For eventually, it will pass, and you will feel less tempted to use.
Finally, it’s important to realize that just because I’ve stopped drinking, doesn’t mean that everyone else has. I used to feel resentful around people who drank. “How could he/she drink when he/she knows how damn hard it is for me to go without?” This was a common refrain. But as I go along I’m learning that contrary to my wishes, life is not always about me. In fact, it does me the most good to get outside of myself and stop feeling sorry for myself. Real peace of mind comes when I recognize that the world doesn’t owe me a thing.
I wish you the most peaceful holiday season.