What Great Writers Know About Getting Unstuck

Whatever you write, whatever you create, the state you seek is flow. Flow is when the work is moving through you and time and self-consciousness fade away.  Flow 

“When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.”  Indeed, in his landmark book FLOW, many of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s analyses flow. And they describe the writer’s experience. 

When you are stuck or blocked, it’s easy to doubt yourself. How to get unstuck? There as many tricks for overcoming writer’s block as there are writers. Here are five tips inspired by great writers. Plus two more for good luck. 

1. Examine your motivation

Late American novelist John Gardner said, Writer’s block comes from the feeling that one is doing the wrong thing or doing the right thing badly. Fiction written for the wrong reason may fail to satisfy the motive behind it and thus may block the writer, as I’ve said; but there is no wrong motive for writing fiction.” You started writing because you had a particular vision. Go back and think about what that was. Ask yourself: What was the essential image or question or desire that motivated you? You may find answers that can serve as a creative compass to help you get there.

2. Take Visual Breaks

Michael Ondaatje, the Canadian novelist famous for writing The English Patient and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid told Alison Flood of The Guardian that “During those early stages of handwriting the novels, I sometimes need a few visual breaks along the way. I might stick in someone’s poem fragment, just a few lines, or perhaps a stray visual image of a party at Oxford where quite a few are drunk that I came across in a magazine. There might be perhaps some subliminal influence.” His notes and archives contain countless photographs, maps, calendars, drawings, and other multi-media. Next time you find yourself unable to put words on a page, try taking a visual break.

3. Make bad worse

In his book On Writing,  giant of genre-fiction, Stephen King, explains how one of his solutions to not knowing what comes next in a story is to add a problem. He could take the existing conflict and make it worse, let tragedy strike his character, or introduce a complicating factor. As a writer, you want to be able to see where things can go wrong in a story and make the most of those moments. This can help drive a story towards its conclusion.

4. Write “one true sentence”

Ernest Hemingway left behind several letters and articles that discussed his writing method. To overcome writer’s block, he would start by writing “one true sentence.” 

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

5. Stopping when you know what comes next

Another Hemingway method involves making sure you never drain yourself of creativity too early. He would always leave a thread open that he could pick up the next day, instead of stopping when he was out of ideas. “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.”

Here are a couple of more techniques that are not from “great writers” but helpful nonetheless.

6. The Pomodoro Technique

Developed by Italian software engineer Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s and adopted by millions of people worldwide, the Pomodoro Technique is named after the popular tomato-shaped kitchen timer and is based around 25-minute blocks of time interspersed with 5-minute rest periods. It’s a simple formula. Plan your tasks, focus for 25 minutes without checking your phone or email or working on another task, take a 5 minute break, completely stepping away from your work, then repeat for 3 more sessions.

7. Find a writing coach

A dedicated friend or colleague can act as your writing coach. Or you can hire someone.  A coach will help you break your project down into small parts and a schedule. You then commit to having these sections done by a certain time. This adds accountability. 

So next time you’re stuck and can’t tap into that state of flow, try one of these suggestions and let us know how it goes. Or tell us some others that work for you. 

In the meantime, take it one sentence at a time.