Here are 5 exercises I've found helpful. The first two come from Victoria Nelson's wonderful book On Writer's Block and are helpful for sorting out the whys of your block and pointing you toward a way out. The second two come from Ann Lamott's equally wonderful book Bird By Bird and are a fun and gentle way to get yourself back into the writing habit when you feel you're ready. The last is from a friend of mine, and should be treated like the game it is.

1. Self-dialogue

The purpose of the self-dialogue is to better understand the part of you that creates so that you can better harmonize your writing goals with your creative process (i.e. - so you're not always kicking yourself and making yourself too miserable to write). You can label this creating part of yourself any way you want: creative unconscious, id, muse, inner child, right brain, Bob Watson from Arkansas -- whatever feels right to you. My personal pet name for it is the 'undermind' (kind of an unintentional, ironic pun, actually -- but that's another web page). Here's what you do:

Start a spontaneous and free-form dialogue between your conscious self ("I") and your unconscious creative self. Give your creative self a separate identity, even a name or let the name come out of the dialogue. You can do the dialogue any way that's free-flowing and comfortable -- writing, tape recording, on the computer -- but you want to express it some way and also have a record of it afterward. After you've finished your dialogue, sit down and describe the personalities of the two speakers and the tone of the conversation. Two friends chatting? Mortal enemies baring teeth? You get the idea.

Identifying the areas of conflict and harmony between the "I" person and the creative self could give you some insight into where your problem may lie.

[It may also lead to years of therapy, but hey, we're doing this for *art*. -- peanut gallery/web designer]

2. 3 lists
The purpose of this exercise is to try to get a handle on what is at the root of the block:

Think of a project you have been struggling to write, with no success. Make a list of thoughts about the project, beginning each item on the list in the following manner: I ought to write X because...

Now write a new list: I refuse to write X because...

"Your second list of reasons may be more powerful that your first. Can you learn to value your refusals consciously as much as you do unconsciously -- that is, take them seriously enough to act on them instead of trying to steamroller over them?"

Now write a third list: I would love to write Y...

"List everything your would feel eager and enthusiastic about starting, no matter how trivial or silly your ego judges them to be." Victoria Nelson goes on to recommend that you consider trying one of these items, just for the fun of it.

3. Shitty first draft
Anne Lamott's 'Bird by Bird' is not only the honest and sensible musings of a writer on craft, it's also hilariously funny. I'm just including a short paraphrase of the ideas in the chapter of the same name, but for the full amusement value, go and read the book.

The idea of the shitty first draft, is that one of the most common causes of writer's block is setting out to write something 'good'. This opens the door to all the demons of self-disparagement, self-judgment and perfectionism -- for of course, its not really enough that the work is 'good', it needs to be 'great', or really it should be 'the best, most insightful piece of prose that has ever been seen by human eyes...' which, the writer soon discovers, the piece she's working on obviously is not. Many blocked writers will recognize the self-defeating cycle of finally starting to write again, only to find themselves compulsively rewriting the opening paragraph over and over until whatever magic they found in the original idea is completely obliterated in the struggle to make it 'good'. The result? The piece is abandoned and the writer is further demoralized and blocked.

To break out of this Ann Lamott recommends simply writing a shitty first draft. Really shitty. Let it be as bad as it comes out -- clumsy word choice, incomprehensible run-on sentences, wooden dialogue and all. Even go with a poorly thought out idea and moronically improbable ending. The only rule about getting out a shitty first draft is that you finish it.

This is a hard thing for perfectionists, but remember, no one will ever see this draft. This is not the piece you will show to your writers' group or send to an editor -- the purpose of the shitty first draft is simple and twofold: It gets your idea down on paper where you can work on it and it allows you to finish something -- which goes a long way toward restoring your sense of competence as a writer.

There are variations on the shitty first draft idea. My own, after a block of about a year's duration was to write some hard-core pornography. Three reasons: 1. Good writing is not necessarily a desirable quality in whacking material so I felt no pressure to make it pretty, 2. I knew I wasn't going to publish it and it wasn't part of my career track so I had no pressure to make it 'impressive,' and, 3. It was fun and created its own motivation to finish.

4. 1" frame
Another Ann Lamott suggestion, to overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed by a project that seems unfathomable, is to start out by writing just what you can see through a 1" picture frame. She even keeps a 1" frame on her desk to remind her that she doesn't have to write everything about the character or story all at one time -- just what she can see through the frame.

The 1" frame idea is a way of calming your fears about not being up to the task and allowing you to focus yourself on a do-able starting place. For instance, at this moment, you may not be up to creating an entire new planet, complete with history, ecology and a complex alien society, but you might be able to write a paragraph describing one particular alien eating what looks like a lizard kebab on a street corner one particular rainy afternoon.

5. Improvisation
This last suggestion came from a friend of mine. She's a fan of improvisational comedy and decided to try applying it to writer's block.  Here's the game:

Have a friend give you three random words, then use those words in any way, shape, or form.  Write a vignette. A poem. A novel. Use the past participle of the word. Use the poetic concept that means nothing to anyone but yourself.  Go nuts.

The idea is to shake loose parts of your brain you weren't even considering using for fiction, without the pressure of coming up with a premise or concept, and it can produce some surprising results.


Finally, I'm always on the lookout for good, effective exercises so if you have one you'd like to share, send it on in. You can use the feedback form or e-mail.


m a i n  m e n u / m y  o w n  p a g e