I love giving advice.
So does my friend Alex.
We come from different generations and we’re at very different points in our lives and careers. But we share the same philosophy: every door can be unlocked.
Every once in a while, we partner up on a special installment of my advice column, Ask Ellen. It’s called… Ask Alex & Ellen.
Two hits of advice in one column.
We hope you enjoy it!
Dear Alex & Ellen,
How do you break through writer’s block?
—Kelly (it’s okay to use my real name)
If you feel “blocked” with your writing, it’s usually because:
1. You really want to write, but something—like lack of time, lack of energy, lack of discipline, too many distractions, fear of criticism, some / all of the above—is making it difficult for you to sit down and write.
2. You don’t actually want to write—it’s not fun, it doesn’t excite you—but for some reason you feel like you’re “supposed to” or you “should.”
If you’re experiencing Situation #1, then you probably don’t need advice from me or anyone else. Let’s be honest: you probably already know what you need to do.
If you’re struggling to write because you’re distracted by social media, then turn off social media.
If you’re struggling to write because you’re tired and hungover, then sleep more and drink less beer.
If you’re struggling to write because your kids keep interrupting you, then hire a babysitter, or send them to grandma’s house for the weekend, or send them to a strict military boarding school for the next ten years (just kidding!).
You get my drift.
With Situation #1, the solution to whatever is blocking you is usually pretty obvious. You probably already know what you need to do. You don’t need to “figure it out.” You just need to buckle down and do it.
Now, as for Situation #2… that’s another story. There’s a big difference between wanting to write (but struggling to do it) versus not actually wanting to write (but forcing yourself to do it for whatever reason, maybe because somebody told you that you “should.”)
Maybe once upon a time, you felt called to write a novel or start a blog. But not anymore. You’re over it. You’ve discovered that you don’t actually enjoy writing very much. It’s just not your thing.
Guess what? That is OK. You don’t have to write. You don’t have to blog. There are so many things you can do other than run a blog. Give yourself permission to STOP WRITING—for a week, a month, a year—and see what happens. You might feel incredibly relieved and energized. You might discover that OMG photography is seriously your thing. Or hairstyling. Or teaching Tai Chi. Or who knows what.
If you don’t find writing enjoyable, then you don’t have to do it. Simple as that. Take a break. Pursue something else instead and see how that feels. It might feel really, really great. Allowing yourself to “not write” could actually lead you to a “calling” that fits you so much better.
That’s my two cents. Ellen: over to you!
I feel your pain, Kelly. Writer’s block is a tough nut to crack. You wake up in the morning with the best of intentions and before you know it… the day has passed before your very eyes and you have nothing but a blank page to show for it.
First of all, know that you are not alone. Many respected, published writers experience writer’s block, just like you, along with so many other struggles: false starts, self-criticism, perfectionism, jealousy, and loss of confidence. Writing is hard work that requires discipline and a thick skin.
The author Anne Lamott wrote one of my favorite books on writing called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
Here are 10 of Anne’s suggestions for combating writer’s block:
• Write regularly—whether you feel like writing or not.
• Give yourself short, achievable assignments each day.
• Write shitty first drafts. (Just get the words—any words—on paper.)
• Get to know your characters.
• Let the plot grow out of the characters.
• Have a pen and paper ready at all times. (Anne always carries an index card for jotting down random thoughts and notes.)
• Call around. Ask for help.
• Start a writing group.
• Write in your own voice.
• Remember that devotion and commitment are their own reward.
Speaking of “commitment”…
If you want to write a work of fiction, consider participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which takes place every November.
When you register for NaNoWriMo, your challenge begins on November 1st. You’re urged to write 1,667 words every day for 30 consecutive days, resulting in a 50,000-word manuscript that’s “done” by 11:59pm on November 30th. (It doesn’t have to be “perfect” or “polished.” Just a rough draft!)
Over 430,000 people participated in this writing challenge last year—and the NaNoWriMo community is very active, welcoming, and supportive.
After finishing your NaNoWriMo manuscript, there’s no pressure to share it publicly or get it published if you don’t want to. However, many NaNoWriMo authors have gone on to receive publishing deals! To date, over 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been published, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.
Not interested in writing fiction?
You could volunteer to help young writers get their words on paper through an organization like 826 National or Write Girl. Often, mentoring someone else has a funny way of stirring creativity and unlocking your own writing, too.
If all else fails: stop writing (or not-writing) and get out of your house! Explore your city. Stretch your legs. Break a sweat. Take a road trip through unfamiliar terrain. Study people at bus stops. Eavesdrop on people’s conversations while waiting in line for coffee. Inspiration is everywhere!
Finally: count your blessings.
As Anne Lamott says: “You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander.”
Whether you choose to continue writing, or not, good luck to you Kelly!
Feel free to keep us updated on how it goes.
Alex & Ellen
Image: Willie Franklin.