I can write fast when I have to and the flow is there. I can write normal speed. I can also write so slowly and torturedly that it’s like the scene in Back to the Future where Michael J. Fox and his siblings are slowly disappearing from view: I am so stuck that the words aren’t just slow in coming, they’re turning around and deserting my page in disgust.
I’m not talking about being slightly stuck, like when you just need to browse around the thesaurus for a sparkly new word or two, or do the laundry or have lunch with a friend. I’m talking majorly stuck, as, in my case, when you have a new book sketched out, and you just can’t get close enough to the first five pages. You can’t figure out what the damn thing’s really about and the process of getting there is hellish.
That’s where I am. It’s not fiction hell, where your characters go blank
1. Love Yourself. The first thing I really know about getting unstuck will sound very new age-y, but it’s true. You have to love yourself. Really. Self-love is key here, because it’s the foundation of self-trust, and you’re going to have to love and trust yourself to figure out the road ahead.
2. Cultivate Patience/Take Time/Settle Your System. It may take time to get unstuck. This is creative work, after all. It doesn’t adhere to schedule. Knowing that may help you not get more flustered and upset and thus become even more stuck.
It may be that you need to step away from your desk and get your mind calm. You may need some time to reset, to get back to the state that you’re used to writing from, the physical-psychic state that your body recognizes as a green light, in a car with good tires and a filled tank.
It may mean going for a walk, doing errands, or pulling weeds from the backyard, which will make your neighbors think you are obsessional and insane. It works for me, even if only negligibly improves the weediness of my yard. Manual labor gives the conscious, working parts of our brain a break.
You need to settle your system. Chances are if you’re stuck, you’re either not breathing much, or deeply, or you’re breathing too fast, and your whole system is a bit messy. You can try breathing six times, as a bodywork teacher of mine swears that six breaths will bring you to the present moment, and ready for something.
Now is where the self-love and self-trust come in. Because you may be the only one who can get you out of whatever bind you’re writing is in. You’re going to have to settle in and figure out what’s really wrong. Whether to put time into figuring it out, or whether it’s the kind of stuck where if you can jumpstart, things will sort themselves out. You need to trust yourself to know what’s going on.
In the meantime, get back to body basics, like drinking enough water, and stretching, and moving, and eating relatively healthy food.
3. Browse the Thesaurus. I do this to get some new words in my brain. I try it with every word on a page that seems to call out for transformation, with some good, jumpstarting results.
4. Outline. Clarity can emerge when we can see what’s already there. When I’m in over my head, if my editing brain can take over, the skills I have at figuring out what’s wrong with someone else’s work, can be put to good use with my own writing.
5. Get Really Mad and Frustrated. Complain loudly, because it totally sucks to be this stuck.
6. Make Plans for an Alternate Career. When I get super stuck, I make a list of all the people I know in knowledge-industry types of jobs, the people who can introduce me to someone who can lift me out of my bohemian creative life, and set me up with a real job. The kind with a cubicle and a water fountain and one of those lunch trucks that pulls up outside.
7. Talk with my Friend Tamar. Or with your friend Tamar. Or with any friend who will listen. Sometimes we need to hear our voices explain a problem. We writers tend to write silently, but voice is a wonderful tool. The impact of hearing our words out loud, of giving thoughts a way to pop out more quickly than we can type can get a stuck writer going again, as can another person’s take on your conundrum and ideas.
8. Misery Loves Company. When you’re razzled, feel lost, and are sure that all your efforts are for naught, remind yourself that you are not the only person in the world ever to feel this way. You know that’s true because I’ve just admitted to being in the same exact place.
Being stuck feels like failure. It’s an aberration in a world that’s addicted to productivity. It’s hard to say “I wrote nothing today” to friends, spouse and children who ask. I’ve been through it enough times to know that it may just be your creative spirit working in a different way, working deeper than what happens when your fingers are in the keyboard and you can count your words at the end. Some kinds of stuck are misnomers, because you’re actually in a profoundly creative process, and you just need to trust that it will work out. But I won’t lie and say that that makes it any easier, because of course, one just never knows.
I did start to write again. I outlined. I deleted and erased. I made the thesaurus my best friend. I emailed my friend Meredith to tell her that writing and being an author is the stupidest job ever. My writing’s a little better, though still going more slowly than I’d want. I tell myself what I tell others, that each projects has its own pace, because what we do is art, and artistic inspiration is unpredictable.
It kind of helps. Kind of.
Small consolation, with all that weeding, though, my back lawn looks green and glorious.
She-writers, what is your wisdom on being stuck and getting back in your writing lane?