Conquering Writer’s Block

Posted by: on Feb 19, 2016 | No Comments

Last year, Helga was invited to work with the Executive DBA students at Aston Business School at the regular DBA Colloquium.  This highly acclaimed doctoral programme attracts students from around the world and Helga was invited to share some strategies that might help overcome a universal issue:  writer’s block.

In fact academics is common amongst academics – as this article from the Guardian shows.  And the strategies there – goal setting, creating dedicated blocks of time and social writing – are useful in terms of creating a writing habit.  Helga’s session focussed on the times that writing is hard because inspiration eludes you or you simply feel “dry” – lacking ideas and inspiration.

Here are some of the approaches discussed in the session:

Context:  Habits and rituals

Don’t overlook the need to establish healthy habits and rituals as part of managing your daily well-being.  You can’t be work at your best if you are tired, malnourished, unwell or dehydrated.  So don’t overlook energy strategies, meditation or other rituals such as morning pages as a daily way of ensuring you are in optimal shape, physically and mentally.  Consider these as ways to keep your mind fertile – ready for the work ahead and creativity required.  Working on a PhD thesis ON TOP of your normal workload is demanding and investment in your energy will make the process easier.

Three creative approaches to writer’s block

–        Automatic writing

A technique from “Writing Down the Bones” – Natalie Goldberg advocates a basic writing practice as a timed exercise.  The book is a wonderful text for anyone who wishes to enter or explore the world of writing but the timed exercise has the following rules: “1. Keep your hand moving.  2.  Don’t cross out.  3.  Don’t worry about spelling punctuation, grammar.  4.  Lose control.  5. Don’t think.  Don’t get logical.  6.  Go for the jugular.”

The reason for this, Goldberg, stated in an interview for The Sun magazine, is to allow the hand to move faster than the “inner critic” can:

The idea is to keep your hand moving for, say, ten minutes, and don’t cross anything out, because that makes space for your inner editor to come in. You are free to write the worst junk in America. After all, when we get on the tennis courts, we don’t expect to be a champion the first day. But somehow with writing, if we don’t write the opening paragraph of War and Peace the first time we sit down with our notebook, we feel we’ve failed.

You can use a computer, but I always say you should be able to write with a pen, because someday your computer might break, or you might not have access to electricity. It’s sort of like driving: you still have to know how to walk. 

I consider writing an athletic activity: the more you practice, the better you get at it. The reason you keep your hand moving is because there’s often a conflict between the editor and the creator. The editor is always on our shoulder saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t write that. It’s no good.” But when you have to keep the hand moving, it’s an opportunity for the creator to have a say. All the other rules of writing practice support that primary rule of keeping your hand moving. The goal is to allow the written word to connect with your original mind, to write down the first thought you flash on, before the second and third thoughts come in.”

–        Circle of advisors

This is an exercise Helga uses with coaching clients on a regular basis.  It’s another way of shifting your perspective and getting out of your own way. Think of a problem or question you want to consider. Take a pen and paper and on the paper draw the shape of a board room table, leaving 5-10cm space around it

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Then think of names of people who correspond to the following categories and “seat them” around the table:

1                 An artist/singer/ performer/ writer you really admire

2                 Someone in your family or circle of friends who always talks sense

3                 Someone who always makes things fun

4                 An expert on the issue you are considering or someone successful in the area you are considering

5                 A political figure you respect

6                 A historical or fictional character you admire

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Then write your issue down in the middle of the “table”.  Go round the table and ask “What would [this person] say in response to my question?  What would they do or advise?”

Write their advice somewhere on the paper near their name in a different colour.  You will end up with some new approaches ideas, some hunches you have confirmed or sometimes, you trick your brain into giving you something entirely “new”.  Of course it isn’t, the ideas have come from your imagination.  But “channelling” another intelligence can shake things up.

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–        Oblique Strategies

We’ve mentioned Oblique Strategies in the past and they provide another tool to shift perspective and innovate.  Used by the late David Bowie when working with Eno on the Berlin albums (Low/ Heroes/ Lodger), these sets of random instructions can help stimulate new approaches.  Subtitled “Over one Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas” – Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt created these cards to break creative blocks and encourage lateral thinking.  Buy a hard copy here or click here to get a random oblique strategy instruction online.   To quote Wikipedia:

Each card contains a phrase or cryptic remark which can be used to break a deadlock or dilemma situation. Some are specific to music composition; others are more general. Examples include:

  • Use an old idea.
  • State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
  • Only one element of each kind.
  • What would your closest friend do?
  • What to increase? What to reduce?
  • Are there sections? Consider transitions.
  • Try faking it!
  • Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
  • Ask your body.
  • Work at a different speed.

From the introduction to the 2001 edition:

These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognised in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, sometimes they were formulated.

They can be used as a pack, or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear…

What do you do when you are stuck and can’t generate new ideas?  Have you overcome writer’s block and how?  Let us know in the comments below.

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