I’ve talked before about the importance of having a routine to your writing: a set time of day when you write, writing in the same place, and writing in the same way, all of which serve to invoke muscle memory and get you into your writing session more quickly. Writing rituals are a way of reinforcing your writing routine, but they also act on your emotions and can help you to overcome writers’ block.
Writing rituals include anything you do when you’re writing that don’t relate to the writing itself. Rituals could be lighting a scented candle, the clothes you wear, music you play in the background, what you drink while you’re writing. For example, I like to put some scented oil in a burner, have the radio on low in the background, and make a cup of coffee in my special mug, and use the fountain pen my grandmother bought me, when I’m writing. I know of another writer who paints her nails bright colours. Others wear business clothes; some do their hair and makeup; some have a lovely china teapot that only gets used when they’re writing.
Having a writing ritual helps to remind your brain that it’s writing time now so better come up with something to write about. They also remind you that you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to write. Writers commonly suffer from anxiety about their writing: am I good enough, what if my writing’s rubbish, who am I to try to write? Writing rituals can send a powerful message that you’re worth it – worth the posh cup and saucer and the handmade biscuits; worth the makeup that makes you feel a million dollars – and worth the time and effort you’re putting into your writing.
It’s very easy for writers to put off writing: to get time and space for writing often means negotiating with others and insisting that your needs are just as valid as others’. It’s hard to do that if you have nothing to show people yet, especially if you’re feeling a little uncertain about your work. Small yet frequent acts of self care can help to combat that uncertainty and give you the confidence to stand up for your writing. Whatever makes you feel pampered or special will do it, whether it’s using the best cup or putting on a slick of red lipstick before you start writing.
These small habits are reminders to yourself that you deserve this time and space for writing, and help to transform writing time from a chore into a treat. It’s easy to see writing time as work – there’s a natural anxiety about whether the words will come at all, and if they do whether any of them will be useable. But if you set up the session with a series of rituals that nurture you, the session is less fraught from the start and becomes less about the words per se and more about you nurturing a need within yourself.
To me, the best rituals work on different senses: the lingering fragrance of a scented candle reminds you throughout the day how you’re moving forwards with your writing and staying committed to it. The flash of brightly coloured fingernails over the keyboard makes the words dance. Music can heighten the mood you’re creating within your writing.
Over the years I’ve known and worked with many writers. Here are some of their writing rituals. If any of them appeal to you, why not adopt them and see what effect it has on your writing?
• Playing music in the background
• Lighting a scented candle
• Painting their fingernails
• Putting on makeup
• Wearing their favourite clothes
• Flowers on their desk
• Using a special cup and saucer
• Making a ‘proper’ cup of coffee
• Making tea in a china teapot
• Drinking a delicious blend of herbal tea
• Sitting in the chair that has the view of the garden
• Eating a posh biscuit
• Doing yoga before writing
I’d love to know about your writing rituals. Tell me about them in the comments below.
Does this ever happen to you? You have a great idea for a story, and spend some time mulling it over, getting excited, maybe jotting down some notes or a structure. Just as you’re ready to start writing, a little voice in your head says, “Who do you think you are to write this?” And suddenly you’re all flat and worried, and can think of a hundred people who would do justice to the story better than you.
Hot on the heels of the little voice comes another. “What will people say if you write this? You’ll make a mess of it. You’ll look an idiot in front of the whole world.” The little voice is something of a catastrophist. Suddenly all your enthusiasm for your idea has gone. Even if you were only thinking about writing the story for your own amusement, now all you can think about is other people wondering who the heck you think you are to even contemplate writing this story. You’re an imposter.
Imposter syndrome is extremely common: that feeling that you’re not qualified enough, skilled enough, experienced enough to do something, and that horrible fear that you’re going to get found out. It’s that squirmy sensation you get when you apply for a job that’s a grade above where you are now: when you get the job, you’ll be well and truly out of your comfort zone. The same thing happens when you write, and the bad news is it never goes away. I recently interviewed a number of high profile, prize-winning, best-selling writers and all of them initially told me they weren’t experienced or good enough to contribute. No matter where you are in your writing career, imposter syndrome will be lurking.
The good news is you can do something about it.
1. Recognise that it happens when you’re about to leave your comfort zone. Yes, this is scary, but it’s necessary if you’re to develop your skills and grow as a writer. Concentrate on why you’re doing this, and know that the feeling of discomfort will be worth it when you achieve your goal.
2. Write a list of all your achievements, not just to do with writing, but everything you’ve achieved in your life. How many times have you felt uncertain, unprepared, not good enough? Remember the uncertainty of starting university, your first job, having your first child. You got through it then, and you’ll get through it now.
3. Remember that this is your story and your idea, not anyone else’s and therefore it’s yours to write. If you were to hand it to another writer, they wouldn’t produce your story only better, they’d produce their story roughly based on your idea.
4. Write out the worst than can happen and go totally overboard: people hate your story, you’re hounded out of your home and forced to live on Mars to escape from their fury, then you contract a terrible Martian illness that makes you turn purple. Make this so outlandish you start to laugh. This helps you to realise that if (note IF), someone doesn’t like what you’ve written, you’ll survive.
Your mind likes certainty. It likes to know that it can deal with situations, and stretching yourself means stepping into the unknown. The mind doesn’t know if you can deal with that new situation, so it tries to dissuade you from what it perceives as a potentially dangerous situation by triggering imposter syndrome. It’s trying to be helpful, but it also keeps you small. Recognise that the appearance of imposter syndrome means that you’re about to take your writing to another level, and welcome it. It’s showing you that you’re on the right track. Then take that step.
When we think of writer's block, we tend to think of the obvious manifestations of it: all out of ideas; not knowing what to write; feeling the muse has deserted us. It can also present itself as procrastination - anything is more interesting and compelling than writing the next scene, even doing the ironing or putting our socks into alphabetical order. And these other tasks can seem urgent - they must be done now and we can't concentrate on writing until they're complete.
Then there's perfectionism: wanting to write something perfectly first time round, and unable even to start writing as we're convinced that:
1. It won't be perfect first time round (correct - it never is, and actually shouldn't be perfect. The first draft is all about discovering the story you want to tell) and
2. Rewriting and making it perfect is a sign of failure (incorrect - writing is 90% rewriting).
And then there are the blocks that don't look like blocks. Writer's block in disguise. These can be tricky ones to spot, because they seem to have nothing to do with writing at all, but their function is the same - to stop you writing. And, like all writer's block, the reason they need to stop you writing us because deep down you're afraid. Of failure, of success, of writing something that's rubbish or shocking or that reveals who you truly are at heart.
Let's have a look at some of the ways writer's block comes in disguise, and what you can do to address it.
We all live busy lives, and tiredness seems to be a feature of modern life. When tiredness is writer's block in disguise, it shows up at times you've set aside for writing. Up till that point you're bright eyed and bushy tailed, then the moment you think about writing, you slump. This can be the case particularly if you're trying to establish a writing routine. You've decided you want to write for half an hour each day, and have marked out clear spaces in your day to accomplish this, but whenever it's time to write, you feel worn out.
The reason you suddenly feel tired at these times is because humans are naturally wary of change. Setting up a new writing routine, like establishing any new habit, is a change, and subconsciously you rebel. Sometimes the rebellion takes the form of tiredness. Your mind regards change as unwelcome, so sets about finding a way to prevent it.
To overcome this block in disguise, try this technique. Use tiredness to overcome perfectionism. Accept that you feel tired, and decide that you'll write anyway, but because you feel tired, any words at all class as a victory. This means that you're free to write absolute rubbish and that's OK - you're doing the best you can despite feeling tired. It's very likely that once you start writing, your energy levels will rise and the writing will get easier.
2. Being a little bit poorly
I'm not talking about having the flu or a stomach bug here, but that niggly not-very-well feeling when you think you might be about to get a headache, or might be about to come down with a cold, or are just not feeling 100%. Like tiredness, this is also resistance to change. Perfectionism can rear its unhelpful head, too, as being a little bit poorly makes it unlikely that you'll turn out a perfect first draft.
Overcome this by firstly checking that you're really only a 'little bit poorly'. Are you still able to go to work, look after the kids, go for a walk or read a book? If so, this might well be writer's block in disguise. Like tiredness, you might find that once you start writing you experience a miraculous recovery. Actually, writing can help you to feel better if you're ill. I write when I can feel a migraine brewing - it often helps.
But how to start writing when you're feeling poorly? The trick to use is 'just ten words'. Commit to writing just 10 words. They have to form a coherent sentence, you can't just write 'blah blah' ten times. If you haven't spontaneously combusted after 10 words, commit to writing 10 more. Keep going in this way for 5 minutes. If you've hated every single second of those 5 minutes, stop writing. If you're feeling a little more settled, write in the same way, 10 words at a time, for another 5 minutes.
3. Other people
This is a sneaky disguise because it appears that the block is completely outside your control. It manifests in this way: you've set aside some precious time to dedicate to your writing, but then a friend rings you up, having a minor crisis such as needing someone to pick up her kids while she waits in for the boiler repair man, or she's had a bad day at work and can you come over for a chat?
You've got a choice here: to yourself and your writing, or to your friend. Depending on the crisis, you might decide your friend needs you and ditch your writing to go and help her. Sometimes this is unavoidable. In these cases, reschedule your writing date immediately.
But sometimes the 'crisis' isn't urgent. It doesn't have to be dealt with right now, and if you were ill or on holiday your friend would cope. You have the option to say, 'Sorry, I'm not free right now' and get on with the writing session you had planned. The question is, are you a bit relieved by your friend's cry for help, because it gives you a valid excuse for missing your writing session? If so, this is a block in disguise. It's a block, because it's stopping you from writing.
Overcome this by learning to say no. It's a lot easier to say no if you've made an appointment with yourself in your diary and have committed to it. If you find it hard to say no, ask yourself if the appointment was a hot date, would you be so willing to forgo it?
When you've said no, approach your writing session by using the 'just 10 words' technique, as there's a good chance you'll be squirming with guilt for daring to put yourself and your needs first, and that can make concentration difficult.
Writer's block can be sneaky and manifest in ways that seem to bear no relation to your writing. How does your writer's block come in disguise? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Wishing you happy and block-free writing!
Writer’s block – that feeling of being so stuck and uninspired that doing anything else, even the ironing, seems more appealing than trying to write – can be caused by many things, and sometimes the cause is that you’re writing the wrong thing.
What do I mean by the ‘wrong thing’? It could be a project that’s simply unachievable considering your current lifestyle and circumstances; it could be writing something in the wrong form or genre; or it could be a project that’s quite simply lost its gloss. Clues that you might be writing the wrong thing include:
• A sinking feeling every time you think about it
• You’ve been working on it, off and on, for a period of years, and the end seems as far away as the moon
• If it suddenly vanished, you’d feel relieved
• Your characters aren’t talking to you
You might start out writing something that was the right thing at that time, but over time, it can become wrong for you. This can happen if this is your first large writing project, and you haven’t been able to commit to a regular writing schedule. Over the months and years, you pick it up, do a bit, and then put it aside again. And the longer this goes on, the more stale it becomes in your mind, and the more likely you are to have had a new, fresh idea that’s much more appealing.
When this happens (and it’s happened to most writers, believe me), it’s tempting to say, “I’ll finish this and then write the new idea.” But we’re not talking about having to eat your vegetables before you get your pudding, here. It’s your writing and you can write whatever makes your heart sing. It’s fine to leave the first project for a while, or even abandon it altogether, while you pour your energy and enthusiasm into your new project. The benefit of doing this is you are more likely to get into a regular writing practice if you’re writing something you love, and this can then be used to complete the original project, if you decide to go back to it later.
Sometimes, the idea you have doesn’t fit the way you choose to express it. You might have a great idea and instantly decide it should be a novel. Hold your horses! At the planning and exploration stage, it pays to spend some time thinking about how the idea would develop in different genres or in different forms. How would it work as a play? As a short story? As a narrative poem? Make sure the form and genre you choose are the right ones for the ideas you want to express.
If you’re stuck and a writing project is getting you down, put it aside and ask yourself these questions:
• If I lost it, how would I feel?
• If I wasn’t writing this, what would I be doing?
• What if this idea was written as a play/song/sketch/poem/short story?
Have courage, and make the changes your writing needs to get back on track – you won’t regret it when you’re happily scribbling away on a project that thrills you.
This month I’ve got an article out in Writers’ Forum magazine. It’s the first installment of a two-parter that looks at what resources are available to writers when they hit a block – whether that’s writer’s block or losing momentum in your writing.
To write the article, I contacted several published authors to ask if they’ve ever experienced a block in their writing, or a time when they felt their writing career had stalled, what they did about it, and what advice they could give to other writers who found themselves in a similar situation.
What astonished me was the number of writers who responded by saying they didn’t feel they could help because:
- They were struggling themselves
- They had no authority to offer advice
The second group was the one that flabbergasted me. Firstly because so many of the writers I contacted responded this way, and secondly because I’d contacted them because I considered they had absolute authority to comment: they were writers who have published lots of books, stories and poems; were bestselling authors; have won literary competitions; and teach writing.
It seems that as writers, however much we publish, however successful we appear to the outside world, we never quite feel as though we’ve ‘made it’. And I wondered if there's ever a point when we can look at what we’ve achieved and feel a sense of satisfaction, or will we always compare ourselves to other writers and wish we were better.
In one regard, this is depressing as it suggests we’re never contented with what we’ve achieved. On the other hand, if all writers experience this sense of ‘Don’t ask me, I’m not good enough’ then we’re suffering self-effacement along with all our literary heroes.
Reviewing the woes other writers confessed to me of crippling writer’s block, lack of time, lying to publishers and agents about how much work had been done on a new novel etc, I started to wonder if as writers this is ‘business as usual’? Is feeling stuck, unimaginative and sluggish the normal state of affairs for writers? And are those days when the words come flowing from the pen to be celebrated because they’re so rare?
Again, knowing that fellow writers are staring at the page with despair can be consoling, even if not encouraging. A sense of ‘we’re all in it together’ if you like. So if writing is so difficult and we never stop to acknowledge what we’ve achieved, why do we do it? Is it a form of addiction, or is it because of the rush we experience when a writing project suddenly falls into place?
And do we become writers, not because we have written, but because we have faced periods of not-writing and have persevered none the less?
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.