You’re stuck. You’re blocked. You’re empty. You’re stalled out. You need to write but you can’t. You’re unsure what to do next. The deadline is looming. You’ve done research. You’ve taken notes. You’ve read over the assignment instructions (again!) and you’re still stuck. The words won’t flow. The ideas won’t spill. This is agonizing. Even writing just a few meager sentences seems impossible.
What can you do?
In desperation, you turn to Google. You type writers block and find an endless stream of articles, blogs, websites, and videos promising to help. Here’s a small sampling of what the internet thinks you should do when you have writer’s block:
What most of these suggestions have in common are the ideas of movement and disruption. Writer’s block is a rut, a ditch, a trap, a swampy mire, and in order to lift yourself out, you need to DO something—anything!—to jog yourself into motion.
But what exactly should you do? There’s no single answer, of course. What works for one person doesn’t always work for another.
But after twenty years as a working writer and ten years as a writing teacher, I’ve noticed two strategies in particular that seem to have more success than others. If you’re blocked and you need to get unblocked, try this two-step approach that combines creative play with freewriting, and only takes about twenty minutes.
Okay, I know you’ve got a deadline. And you probably aren’t being asked to produce something “creative” for the assignment that’s looming. So why use your precious and limited time for something as frivolous as play?
Here’s why: ALL writing is inherently creative, no matter if you are working on a lab report or a memoir, a rhetorical analysis, a poem, or a sociology paper. In order to write, you need to create words, sentences, and paragraphs, willing them into existence, bringing them to life, using them to generate ideas, connections, and thoughts.
But creativity is elusive. It can’t be forced, prodded or pressured out of us. It needs to be coaxed. Activated. Sparked. If you can do that, you’ve got a good chance of beating back some of the second guessing, overthinking and anxiety that causes writer’s block.
Try this: choose a single creative play idea from the prompts below. Don’t agonize over your choice too much―just choose one that looks doable (i.e. you have what you need for it) and at least a little bit fun or interesting to you. Do this activity for at least ten minutes (more is fine). Try your best to let the activity absorb you. Don’t think about your assignment. Don’t think about your life. Think about what you are doing. But also, be kind to yourself. Don’t worry about what you produce here. It’s about the process, not the product.
Note: If possible, I recommend doing your creative play alone, so you can really focus. If you’re working with limited time, set a timer for 10 minutes, and do your best to stay focused on your activity the whole time.
VISUAL ART ― Painting, drawing, doodling, scribbling, and comics are all options. Use whatever you can find: pens, pencils, markers, crayons, watercolors, food coloring, ketchup etc.
DANCE ― Movement improvisation, interpretive dancing, or just dancing to your favorite music can work. Try dancing with your eyes closed. Try dancing with props.
CHILD’S PLAY ― Bust out the Legos, blocks, figures, dolls or any other toys. Play like a child. Talk to yourself. Do voices. Make explosions sounds.
ACTING ― Scene improvisation or play-acting can be liberating. You probably don’t have time to memorize lines, so focus on something improvisational.
MUSIC ― Give singing, drumming, or instrument playing a try. It doesn’t matter if you know how to play one. Focus on experimentation.
SCULPTURE ― Find playdough, clay, paper clips, balled up paper, cardboard or random objects and make something. Use scissors, glue, tape, staples, pins, etc.
OTHER ― Come up with your own creative play activity. Be resourceful. It’s less about what you do and more about how absorbed you can become.
Immediately after your creative play, jump straight into freewriting. Set a timer for ten minutes and commit to writing, non-stop until it goes off.
Here’s how Peter Elbow—a writer (and writing professor) who cared deeply about freewriting—describes it:
The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can’t think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write “I can’t think what to say, I can’t think what to say” as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop.
Freewriting is the bridge between your creative play and the writing assignment you need to complete. In order to write, you need to activate your creativity, energizing your ability to generate thoughts, ideas, observations, and connections. But it’s not enough to only activate those creative energies. You need to translate them into real writing, and for this there is nothing better than freewriting.
You can write by hand or type―whichever you prefer. Remember, just like the creative play, it’s about the process, not the product. When the timer goes off, you can crumple up the paper and throw it in the trash or delete the text on the screen if you want to.
Creative play and free writing won’t write your paper for you. And they won’t magically fill your brain with all the words, knowledge, and ideas that you’ll need to complete your writing project. But used in combination, creative play and freewriting can help you lift yourself out of the ditch of writer’s block and start fresh.
When you’re done, try easing back into your writing assignment with list-making. Make a list of ten or more things you want to cover in your writing assignment. Write out your ideas in complete sentences instead of just single words―this will help prepare you for the work of writing a paper with whole sentences and paragraphs.
At this point, you can return to your notes, your research, the assignment instructions, or your blank page/document and try to get started writing again. Or, if you want, you can repeat the creative play + freewriting cycle once again. Think about them as warm-up exercises before a game. Sometimes you need a little longer to get warmed up and that’s okay.
Creative play and freewriting are unblocking strategies. Once unblocked, you’re ready to move on to invention―the act of actually generating your content. Invention Strategies can help with this.