How to unlock writer’s block
By LaDonna Witmer, Creativity Workshop past participant
The blank page of paper, staring back at you. The blinking cursor on the screen, waiting, waiting, waiting. When you first sit down to write, all that empty space can be intimidating — it is for me, and I write for a living.
Although I’m not generally a procrastinator, I am guilty of doing a whole lot of nothing while waiting for a sizzling bolt of inspiration to strike. Instead of creating, I trawl the internet. Instead of writing, I dust the bookshelves. I execute an old-fashioned dawdle, and the page stays blank. The words stay blocked.
To jolt myself out of this passive habit of waiting for the muse, I recently attended a creativity workshop led by Shelley Berc (a writer) and Alejandro Fogel (a multimedia artist).
The 4-day workshop provided a treasure trove of techniques and ideas for igniting and developing my creative instinct, but one of the exercises that has stuck with me the most was their version of automatic writing. I’ve done free writing where you just fill a blank page with any old thing that comes into your head, but Berc and Fogel’s take on automatic writing was a whole new concept for me (although the practice has been around for quite awhile). Automatic writing can be a great method for skipping over writer’s block and diving into creative flow. I love the no-pressure technique of filling a blank space with words, then going back and searching for the seeds of potential and pulling them out of the paper
Here’s how it works:
You’ll need a notebook of blank, unlined paper. (You could do this digitally on your tablet or laptop, too, if you’d rather type.) You’ll also need a timer — and you can decide the limit: 1 minute, 3, 5, whatever works for you.
Now think of a word. One word. Any word. Beanpole. Budgerigar. Bellow. It doesn’t matter what the word is, (and it doesn’t have to start with B) just hold it in your mind for a minute. Now, close your eyes and begin by writing that word on your paper. Write it over and over. Why? Because now, that blank page isn’t so blank, is it?
After you’ve gotten your chosen word on the paper, start writing a lot of words without thinking before writing (if you can). Fragments, phrases, whatever comes out is perfect. Create a jungle of words. Just try to make your pen/pencil/fingers go faster than your brain.
When your timer goes off, stop. Put down your pen. Hands off the keyboard. Now pick up a pen of a different color, or use the highlighter option. Read back over what you just wrote, and circle/highlight the words or phrases that stand out to you.
Write them down on another piece of paper. Stare at them for a minute. Now choose one word or phrase that really intrigues you, flip to a fresh blank page and turn on your timer. Close your eyes and start over again, this time starting with your chosen word/phrase.
Keep going with this and you will begin to find patterns, stories, and interior logic within your word jungle.
Automatic writing works best when you do it daily, ideally for 20 minutes at a time. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can also practice automatic writing with a partner, like so:
Follow the same instructions as the solo exercise, but after finishing one round of automatic writing, read it aloud to your partner.
Listen to each other’s automatic writing and choose words or phrases you like from your partner’s automatic writing.
Incorporate your partner’s words and phrases into a new automatic writing of your own, so your words and the ones you appropriated live together.
Read each other what you wrote. Notice how changed your words are in the context of another’s imagination.
Repeat the exercise again.
So, the next time you’re stuck staring at a blinking cursor at work, waiting for just the right phrase to pop into your head, stop. Close your eyes and write like your fingers and brain are in a footrace at Hayward Field. When you open your eyes, you just might have a place to begin.