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What to Do When Your Creativity Hits The Wall

Trying to solve a problem in your manuscript and you just can’t figure it out? Just say you don’t care and move on to something else.

Yes, really. Stay with me on this one. Let’s say you’ve been working on a problem in your manuscript for hours, days, months, or a lifetime in dog years. You’re trying to write a new piece of it, or you’re trying to solve an old problem in a new way, or you’re working on any scene that requires some creativity on your part. But you’re tired. It’s draft 37 and you’re burned out. You don’t really care how the love interest dies anymore; you just know he needs to be dead in a way that gets to the next plot point and isn’t inconsistent with three other conditions already set up in the rest of the story. Frankly, if you could make him appear to you in the flesh for a moment, you’d hone one of your chewed-up pencils to a super-sharp point and just do the deed yourself. That would feel so good right now.

But that’s not how this works. Now, you’re seasoned enough to know that you can’t wait for your muse to show up before you start to write, so you sit down in your chair, lift your fingers to the keyboard, but…nothing. You can’t figure out the problem. You eat chocolate, and…nothing. You drink copious amounts of coffee. Nothing (except an urgent need to pee). You stare out the window, walk the dog, clean the house… All the usual prescriptions for jogging a writer’s brain add up to you being no closer to accessing the necessary creativity than you were at the beginning of this effort.

So give up. Turn your attention to writing something else.

I’ve discovered that sometimes, when I’m having trouble working through a problem or a scene, I can jog my writing brain into action by metaphorically walking away from my problematic manuscript and instead writing in the form with which I began my writing journey: essays or essay-type blog posts. I’ve written over a thousand of these—albeit of varying quality. When I sit in front of a blank screen with the intention of filling it with non-fiction discussion and detail, I know I’m beginning something I can finish because I’ve literally done it a thousand times before.

So I draft a short, non-fiction page or two. When I’m done, I read what’s in front of me, and I see a structure I recognize. I see problems that need fixing, language that works in some places but makes me cringe in others. I see exactly what I expect to see: a first draft. Because hey, I can do this. I can write. If I want to do something with the piece I’ve just written, I’ll begin revising. If not, no worries. It was just an exercise. Either way, I’ve accomplished my mission. I’ve given myself a shot of confidence, and I know that I can apply this confidence to working on my novel.

Another way to remind yourself of your storytelling ability is to play a game. (Access to a kid or another writer makes this more socially acceptable in public, but it’s not a requirement.) Pick a random moment and a detail and start spinning, orally, just for fun. I began doing this one morning when I was speaking to middle-school kids about writing to show them how you can make a story out of anything: a kid’s shirt, an earring, a mark on the floor. Sometimes I do it when watching the news with my family; I pull out the occasional “What if…?” and take it on a detailed journey. In every case, I invent elaborate details, relationships and twists that will never make it to a page but do amuse or disturb or intrigue. It’s fun. There’s no pressure. The kids laugh. And I’m reminded that what I’m doing is just writing in the air.

Sometimes the more you focus on something, the harder it is to find it. It’s like looking out at the night sky and seeing a particularly bright star in your peripheral vision that then becomes faint when you try to look at it directly. You need to turn away and figure out another way to approach it. If you really want to see the star, you’ll need a telescope. With a problem in your manuscript, your telescope can be an exercise that pulls your creativity in close while removing peripheral distractions like fear, competing elements of your story, critiques, etc. Exercising your creativity “muscles” will remind you that yes, you are capable, and your block is just stage fright.

So don’t keep beating up on yourself if you’re blocked. Declare indifference and write something else. Then you can get back to your manuscript and throw out creative solutions until you find one that works.

About Tracy Hahn-Burkett [1]

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her eighth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel. Her website is TracyHahnBurkett.com [2].