Pros write every day
Experienced writers – certainly those who depend on book royalties to pay the bills – know that writing is work, and that like any kind of meaningful employment, it is done every single day. Of course, a commute may not be necessary – they may simply wake, open up their laptop and start writing in bed, just like Helen Marshall does, or they might go to their writing shed, like Dan Micklethwaite, or write in a café, or library, or their car whilst their children are at an after school club. The point is, experienced writers – pros, if you will – sit down to write virtually every day. With submission deadlines looming, or an editor or publisher waiting for the first draft, or the second draft, there’s no time to get blocked or to suddenly feel rather wibbly about the whole project. They press on and put in the hard graft. They know that the ideas flow when the writing flows.
But what of writers who are starting out? Ideas for stories or poems or novels seem to hover about them, tantalising close, but somehow just out of reach. And what’s the point of sitting down to try to capture those ideas in words when whatever has been written seems to so inadequately mirror the sparkling visions that first flittered about their heads?
Really, it all comes down to practise. The more you write, the better you become at writing. And the more you write, the more the ideas come at you, demanding to be communicated in just the right words, which you’ll have, because you’re a better writer. And the better you become at writing, the better you can capture those sparkling visions, and the happier you’ll be with every single piece you write. It’s a positive feedback loop. (Rather like the physiological mechanism behind breastfeeding or exercise.)
But when a writer is relatively new to writing and the ideas stay stubbornly out of reach, what to do then?
A quick diversion into the subconscious
As part of the Nottingham Poetry Festival this year I led a workshop at Nottingham Writers’ Studio, entitled ‘Doodle Poetry’, in which I got participants to use doodling as a way into writing poetry. First, I made sure there was plenty of paper and pencils and pens on the tables (this is important – a block delights in us having to overcome even a small hurdle like a missing pen!). Second, I began to offer some suggestions for patterns on the flipchart. But even before I’d finished my prompts, some attendees were already doodling. Soon enough, everyone was head down and absolutely engrossed in their artwork.
To me, the fascinating thing about this activity was the silence that emanated from the doodlers. It was an intense, though relaxed, kind of silence. Through the act of mark-making, the attendees had very quickly entered into a state of ‘creative flow’ (this is the kind of state in which your mind fairly crackles with exciting, new ideas). Almost an hour passed in this wonderfully industrious near-silence, and I was loath to break the spell to mention that we were halfway through the workshop and that if they wanted to, they could write some poetry!
Interestingly, the new silence – the silence of writing poetry prompted by their artwork – was as intense as before, but somehow more staccato in nature. Heads didn’t stay down, but were raised in contemplation. Words were crossed out. There were sighs. The scratching of foreheads. It took longer to get into ‘flow’. Yet everyone wrote something and all the attendees who provided me with feedback said they’d be leaving the workshop with dozens of new ideas for poems and stories. Result!
So what was going on at that workshop? Well, the participants had a thirst to create, and knew that by booking themselves onto the workshop they were buying themselves the precious time to do just that. They’d acknowledged their creative worth and invested in their creativity, which is, in essence, an investment in self-care. Doodling made them very quickly relax, allowing their subconscious to have fun in the playground of ideas. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that compared with a head massage or aromatherapy session, or whatever, this kind of self-care investment is relatively cheap!)
There is also some interesting psychology in the fact that starting one easy creative task (doodling) can nudge us into a mental state that lowers our resistance to another creative task that is more energetically demanding (creating a poem). It’s a neat way to step around the resistance we all feel when facing an emotionally significant challenge.
So, for any relatively new-to-writing writer who feels that they’re at an impasse with their writing and that the ideas aren’t flowing, I’d suggest the following:
1. Know that investing in your writing is a generous act, and one that you deserve. The end product doesn’t need to be saleable or brilliant or a work of art, or even very good. It’s about the process; about investing in yourself and your creative wellbeing.
2. Make that investment a daily habit by setting aside a portion of time each day for writing. Even if it’s only a very short time, and you only write a few sentences, that’s okay. It’ll make a difference to your mindset – I’m a writer and writers write – and prepare the way for the coming ideas.
3. If really nothing is coming, try doodling. Or freewriting. Or making a list of words you love. Try any kind of mark-making that might help you sneak past that nasty block and get those ideas flowing. (Some writers swear by exercise as a solution to an unwanted lull in their writing. A walk or a swim or a jog should keep your body busy enough to free up your subconscious to come up with ideas or solutions to plot holes. A good sleep certainly helps!)
4. Get inspired by writing prompts and images. There are lots of wonderful resources about. Here are some of my favourites:
- Palm-sized Press (they offer free monthly images + writing prompts on their website)
- 1001 Writing Prompts for Generating Ideas, by Sarah Hindmarsh
- Cathy’s Comps and Calls. So many of these free-to-enter competitions and calls for submissions are themed, and there’s nothing like a good (and often bizarre-sounding theme) to get the neurons fired up and sparking ideas.
- 365 creative writing prompts
- This gorgeous handmade journal (which is a work of art in itself). It makes for an excellent gift for writers too! (I have bought several already and hope someone will gift me one…)
5. If you can afford to, go on a writing course or workshop. Being amongst other writers (who may, possibly, be going through the same challenges as you) can be very heartening, and, of course, an inspiring tutor is worth their weight in gold. Here are some organizations that offer high-quality courses: Nottingham Writers’ Studio, Writing East Midlands, Jericho Writers, Poetry School, the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School etc.
6. Read more and read widely, in every kind of genre and form. Think deeply about the books and short stories and poems you’ve read, analyse them and discuss them with bookish friends. Let them swirl around your subconscious. They’ll bear fruit.
Lastly, know that the block is surmountable. Patience and writing (and yet more writing, no matter the quality) and, of course, reading, will help move you through it or around it. Oh, and a warm and open state of mind – so that the subconscious can best do its thing – will work wonders too.