Monday, January 24, 2011

Smashing Writer's Block to Bits and Pieces

Okay, so today we're going to link THE DOG WHISPERER (best show ever, Friday night, National Geographic Channel) and writer's block.

Believe it. I'm like the dad on My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where he can bring anything back to the Greeks. I can link anything to a television show.

Okay, so Cesar Milan is an amazing person. He can take these ferocious, bad behaved dogs and within minutes, they're looking to him for what to do next. It's amazing. If you haven't seen the show, I highly recommend it.

Anyway, he talks a lot about energy. He says you can't teach or reason with a dog when they're in an excited state. You first have to get the animal to a calm, submissive state.

Well, human writers are like dogs. We can't write when we're freaking out about not being able to write. So we work ourselves into a frenzy, stewing about how we can't write, and we read/hear that we should...

...write more.

This freaks us out even more. Our excited state is now a panic. [begin sarcastic font] Sounds like a great time to pen words. [end sarcasm]

Believe me, I've been in this holy-mother-of-great-Danes-if-I-don't-write-something-soon-I'll-never-get-out-of-this-writer's-block.

The panic is now hysteria. Not a good place to be.

Cesar would calm the animal first. He wouldn't even proceed without making the dog submit to him.

And how does he do it?

He remains calm. He is in charge. He projects his energy to the animal. Let me say it again. HE REMAINS CALM.

So in order to smash your writer's block to bits and pieces, you need to calm yourself.

DON'T write more.
DON'T force yourself to write.
DON'T power through.

(This is where I got in trouble at the school visit. I told them what I'm about to tell you, which was the complete opposite of what their teacher had said. Oops.)

Instead of writing in this super-hysterical state, you need to find your calm, submissive self.

Here's what I do:
  • Clean my house.
  • Do the dishes.
  • Take a long shower.
  • Play a video game.
  • Watch TV.
Pretty much, I do something mindless. Something I can do without having to think at all. I call them my mindless pleasures, and it's when I'm in this calm, submissive state that my mind does it's best thinking.

I've always been able to then think of what I should write next. Sure, sometimes I have to maintain the mindlessness longer than other times. That's okay. And yes, you should always have a goal to come back to with your writing.

Because writer's write. But they also have to have time to think about what they're writing. Don't be afraid to take the time to think it through. Don't pressure yourself so much that you've got this huge stumbling block in your way.

Go play video games instead. Ha!

What do you think? How do you overcome writer's block? Aren't we just like badly behaved dogs when we work ourselves into a frenzy? I so think so.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I never really experience writer's block, but I find playing my guitar or listening to music puts me in the right frame of mind. (Which of course links back to my blogfest today, because I can link anything to music!)

Laura Pauling said...

If I'm stuck, I watch tv, clean, or read. Staring at the page is the last thing that creates ideas. I am def. not a dog whisperer. I think dogs sense that I am terrified and growl even more at me.

B.E. Sanderson said...

When I can't write (and I refuse to call it writer's block because for me, naming it only makes it worse), I step away. I crochet and think. I watch TV and don't think. Sometimes I just sit on the couch with my red pen and a notebook, haranguing myself toward brilliance. (Which is what I did this past weekend. I don't know whether I reached brilliance, but I got past the stumbling point.)

Love the bad dog analogy, btw. =o)

Corinne said...

I love this approach -- AND the Dog Whisperer analogy. Because holy crap, is that guy amazing.

Natalie Aguirre said...

We've watched this show too. My husband wants to get a dog someday and is trying to show my daughter and I how to train him/her with the show.

I often take a break from writing when I'm stuck and just think about it for awhile while I do other things. Yesterday I had to do that and I may be unstuck.

Unknown said...

When I get stuck writing, there are three things I rely on:

1) Listening to soundtracks to help me block out the present and get into my story

2) Doing laundry-- for some reason folding clothes helps me to work out those stubborn plot issues.

3) Driving. With the music down low, I can let my mind drift, and soon the story comes pouring out.

Unknown said...

"Calm, submissive state"...heh, yep. That's what I need to be in. With no distractions. I have to turn it all off (I've been addicted to the TV lately but I've decided that's avoidance)and then I can really go to my happy place (or the calm-submissive) and WRITE.

Great post--so true!

Theresa Milstein said...

I love The Dog Whisperer. He actually makes me think I could own a dog. After getting bitten as a kid, I've learned to create a calm energy instead of inwardly freaking out.

Great analogy for writing too. It's like having anxiety that you haven't fallen asleep yet. Do we badger ourselves into sleeping that way?

Mindless stuff does put us in the right frame of mind to write. It's a better way to get back to our work.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

I totally agree. To get out of my block I must do something other than writing. In the process, I free my mind and restart it.

I love Cesar, always have. Sometimes in our lives we need to take a deep breath and say Shh to our mind, souls and body.

Jonathon Arntson said...




Excellent post, E!

I definitely love the analogy, and the message totally speaks to me. I bet it speaks to all beginning writers.

When I first started writing, I had 24 years of ideas built up, so for five months, I wrote like there was no tomorrow. I had things I needed to get out! Then it became obvious that 50,000 words is waaaay longer than I had realized. I floundered and I forced myself to write in what is still my longest wip.

BUT that wip SUCKS and I know it's suppose to, but in the middle of the novel it goes from fun to read, to boring. You can feel the way I felt about it. In March, I set that novel down for good and moved on. Best decision ever. I wish I'd been playing video games all this time, but instead I just moved on to different projects.

Stina said...

I workout. Works everytime. Then I can't hold back the ideas.

I probably should try the cleaning house suggestion. But I'd much rather get the ideas while running than while cleaning the toilets. And ideas never seem to come to me then anyhow.

I've had ideas while blowdrying my hair, too. :)

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you, Elana. I have to step away and allow myself to relax. Pushing through writer's block usually result in really bad writing. I think the advice you gave that class is correct. I don't think you have to worry about it conflicting with what the teacher usually tells them to do. I'm willing to bet that teacher isn't a writer.

Lydia Sharp said...

"Do something mindless." Precisely.

I also have one day per week (Sunday) when I will not allow myself to write, even if I have the opportunity to work on a project. By forcing myself NOT to write or think about writing, guess which day I have the most ideas come to me... um, that would be Sunday, the day I'm not supposed to be working on anything writing-related at all.

Works like a charm. ;)

I would also add "reading" to the list of things to do when you have writer's block. Reading shifts your focus from your story (that is stressing you out) to someone else's story, giving your brain the needed rest.

Matthew MacNish said...

This is awesome. Great advice, great analogy. We call my daughter the puppy whisperer, because she can always calm Nesta down, and she can get pretty excited.

Shannon said...

Great post, Elana. Absolutely agree. (And yeah, Cesar Milan is amazing.) I love the analogy.

When the words don't come, I:
1. Listen to music
2. Exercise
3. Meditate
4. Do Tai Chi
5. Watch TV
6. Have a glass of wine

Have a great day.

Kelly Bryson said...

Not sure if I left a comment on your school visit blog or not, but I think it's good that you told the kids something different than what the teacher had said. Different writers need different approaches.

When I'm stuck, I listen to music and stay up super late. Something about being the only one awake clears my head. And I like deadlines. They help me to focus.

Katie Anderson said...

This is such great advice Elana! And I so needed to hear it :) Thanks, man. Have a great day!

Angela said...

I wonder if this is why I've been burning things lately.

I start cooking, then have to write a poem, then don't notice the food is steaming and the kitchen smells bad.

Good post.

Paul Greci said...

Love this post!! I used to emphasize "think time" to my reluctant writer students and to not get worked up if you hit a snag.

I love that the mindless activities you list are actually chosen is a quite mindful way.

And, I've got to check out The Dog Whisperer!!

Liza said...

A lot of times when I don't want to write (because thankfully "can't" doesn't happen that often) I read. When I first started writing seriously, I read another writer's blog regularly and her words inspired me. Truly, I could sit down at the computer after reading her, teeming with ideas. She doesn't blog I have to rely on myself...which works, most of the time.

Anonymous said...

I don't get writer's block too often, but I have hit lulls in the middle of a story. . . Like, "okay, this is boring, where can I take this" kind of thing.

That's when I jump back and go for a long run, or mega long bike ride---both including very loud and hopping music blaring in my ears!

There's just something about a long run or bike ride while listening to pump me up/inspiring music. It gets my juices flowing, gets me away from my computer, and let's my mind wander into oblivion.

I usually come home with a new twist or idea.

Great post today. Hope you have a great week!

VR Barkowski said...

Love Cesar!

I'm not prone to writer's block. Probably because I rarely get stressed. That's not necessarily a good thing since I work well under pressure and tend to procrastinate when I'm not. Quick! Someone hand me a deadline!

Anonymous said...

Agree! With all of it! When I'm stuck I do three things that can unstick me:
1. Play Bejeweled (although I call that "plotting." It keeps my husband from thinking I don't really do anything)
2. Shower (amazing what some steamy water can do to the muse--and I write romance, so you can just imagine...)
3. Listen to the story's theme song on repeat. Or a playlist if there are more songs that put me in that mindset, but usually just the one song, over and over. I don't even hear it after the first few runs, but it gets the writing flow going.

Gabriela Pereira said...

What a great analogy! (Love that show, BTW.) I'll definitely have to remember this when I hit the wall again.

Question: How do you tell the difference between needing to find your calm, submissive self and just rationalizing?

Here's my nightmare: I worry that if I take time out to do the dishes or play a video game or whatever, I'll just keep making excuses until I find myself in perpetual laziness. ("It's OK, Gabi, you can watch 16 hours of bad daytime television. You're just calming your inner writer-beast.") It's like a Pandora's box and I'm a little scared to open it. Because what if, umpteen hours later, my inner writer's still a raging beast and I'm still vegging on the couch in full freak-out mode? Then what?

Basically, my question is: how do you tell the difference between when you need a time out and when you should just suck it up and write?

Danyelle L. said...

Awesome! Very true about needing to be calm. My writer's block is something that happens when I've made a wrong turn in the story, so it's just a matter of back tracking and fixing it. :D
*is going to try to use the dog whispering on the toddlers to see if it works*
*projects an image of great calmness* Mwah!

Tom M Franklin said...

"Believe it. I'm like the dad on My Big Fat Greek Wedding"

Sorry, Elana. Not true.

I don't see a single mention of using Windex to cure writer's block.

-- Tom

Unknown said...

The dad from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: "Everything can be fixed with Windex. Including writer's block."

Heather Hellmann said...

If I'm stuck I: go for a walk, drive around town, take a shower, or listen to music. If the above doesn't work, I bang my head against the wall :)

Vicki Rocho said...

You hit the nail on the head. Getting the body busy on some mundane task frees the mind in a way nothing else can.

...of course wine and chocolate also help!

WritingNut said...

I try to take a walk or do something that will "clear" my mind.

A lot of the time I'm just over thinking things and it gets all cluttered up in my head with no room to get out!

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Wonderful advice. A blocked writer obsessed about getting back to writing is like an insomniac obsessed about just won't help.

Now...let me get back to my mindless tasks so I can put off worrying about my writer's block a little longer;)

Anonymous said...

Some great advice...and I do those things--clean, wander, whatever, when I feel like I CAN'T write. But, I do them with huge amounts of guilt, lol. Maybe it's time to dump the guilt and move what needs to be done, then back to writing!

Carolyn V. said...

Remaining calm through writer's block is most difficult! I always panic. I guess I should try the calm thing more often.

Meredith said...

I love brainstorming while I'm doing mindless busywork! It has never failed me.

Michelle Merrill said...

This is so true. I love that in all the mindlessness, the ideas really start to flow. I think a big part of writing IS the thinking we do when we are busy doing something else. It's totally key!

I like to read, shower, watch a movie, play a game, or clean to reach my calm state. Crazy enough, sometimes even writing something else will get me to that calm state so I can return to my current project.

LTM said...

omg, I'm scared to say this out loud... come close (whispering: I haven't experienced writer's block yet...) But! I have had days where I just didn't feel like writing, or it wasn't coming together for me.

Maybe that's another little key--not psyching yourself out. Which is the same as keep calm, actually...

OK, I have no brilliant insight.

Great post! :o) <3

Tracey Neithercott said...

My best ideas come when my mind is blank, too. Usually that's when I'm in the shower or exercising. (I came up with the idea for my book while exercising without the TV on.)

And when I'm stuck, my mind always works it out before I fall asleep. Some nights, when I'm *really* stuck and awake at 2 a.m., that can be kind of annoying.

Anonymous said...

I think this is excellent advice. I've noticed my writing suffers when I'm super stressed out--the "lack of confidence" bug becomes stronger and I psych myself out. That is no way to write, lemme tell ya.

Thanks for this post. It's reiterating what I've been trying to tell myself over these past few weeks as real life becomes a lot to manage. ;D

Christine Fonseca said...

And yet, you make ME write! ;) Just sayin'

Shari said...

I free write, but if that doesn't help, I do what you do. I find something else to spend my time with until I feel ready to tackle my story again. Excellent post! Loved it!

Ishta Mercurio said...

Elana! Did you seriously think you were going to trick me into calling myself a DOG? ;-)

Seriously, though, I totally agree.No good writing can come out of a frenzied, freaked-out state. And my muse TOTALLY lives in my shower. Which is probably a good thing - otherwise, how would we writers ever make time to wash? ;-)

Anonymous said...

I get where you're coming from, but I also think it's a slippery slope, especially for people just starting out who haven't developed discipline yet. The key is you have to be sure you're going to come back to your writing and you're not just giving yourself an excuse to ignore it.

I think one aspect of this is to understand your writing rhythms. Is there a bigger picture? Are you just having a tough time right now, or are you trying to force yourself to be productive at writing when your brain is telling you it's time to be productive at something else? For example, you might do your best writing in the morning, or late at night. If you have the freedom, you should set up your schedule so you're writing during those times and doing your social networking or whatever in the times when it's unproductive for you to write.

Whereas there are times when we just run into a tough part of the story, or a glitch in our own brains, often we get "blocked" when we're trying to force ourselves to go against our natural rhythm.

Heather said...

LOL! I love how you linked that back to Caesar! His show is great, and oddly relative. I can definitely see how this would work. I think I'll try it next time I get writer's block! Thanks!

Krispy said...

I agree with your technique (and showers are totally awesome places for inspiration to strike). :) I think breaks are important too, and sometimes the writer's block is there just because you're too close to the story and can't see around it. The break helps give you that distance.

Although, I do think SOMETIMES you just have to power through. Like I think you have to know if you're really stuck or if you're just procrastinating. :)

Lindsay said...

If I'm stuck I listen to music, watch TV, talk to my CPs and brainstorm. Usually that works. But I am guilty of trying to power through sometimes. LOL.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Yes! I couldn't agree more. It's when I'm lying in bed, snug as a bug and a limp noodle, that the best ideas come to me. :-)

Nicole Zoltack said...

I never get complete writer's block. I usually work on a novel and a short story at the same time. If I get stuck on one, I work on the other. By going back and forth, I'm always working and thinking about my stories and I never get stuck for long.

ali cross said...

The Dog Whisperer and writing. Only you could pull that one off E!

I think lots of movie-watching helps me. But honestly? I haven't put much thought into it, lol.

Kerri Cuev said...

I LOVE Ceasar! Next time I have writer's block I'm just going to watch the Dog Whisperer. Woof!:)

Karen Lange said...

Good advice for writer's block. In some ways too, good advice for the panicky state you get in when too many projects are pressing and they're ALL a priority. Since a stunt double is not an option, staying calm is. Thanks for the reminder. :o)

Kara said...

I like your ideas for writer's block. Sometimes I listen to music or read. That usually helps me to find my inspiration again:)

Rachael Harrie said...

Fantastic advice Elana. And, of course, doing all those mind-numbing chores (cleaning the house, ugh!) just makes you itch to get back to your writing :)


Lenny Lee said...

hi miss elana! for me i dont ever get blocked up on writing. i gotta stop and do stuff cause i got too much going on and could wanna be doing 3 stories at one time. then my most best thing is animals. i talk to them lots specially the wild ones. i got a raccoon that my friend and i call him cashew cause he loves cashew nuts. he lets me pet him but no one else could get close. i play computer games too and watch tv and i like doing my yoyo and messing with my brothers and my sister. i restle with my brother jason and thats pretty thinkless.
...hugs from lenny

Jemi Fraser said...

Because I've always written for myself and never for a deadline, I've never had the issue. If I ever get to the point where I have deadlines, I'll remember to relax! :)

Colene Murphy said...

That is actually much better advice than powering through. I listened to the "push through it and just do it" (woot rhyme)people and I ended up with a whole mess of crap I had to delete and start all over with! Now, I just do an Elana and wash something, read something, surf the web, do a puzzle or something. I would LOVE to challenge your relate anything back to a movie one day!

Melody said...

I guess I already knew this, but your analogy to Cesar Milan made sense to me! I'm feeling very relieved and relaxed and CALM.

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice. What I'd like to know is what you do when you just don't believe in yourself anymore.

Christa Desir said...

Exactly! Power through is clearly disastrous. Let's look at the plethora of TV shows that powered through and everything got ruined:

1. Happy Days--"crap, just power through this, Fonzie has to jump the shark"
2. Northern Exposure--"okay, power through, let's get rid of Fleischmen"
3. 90210 (the Doherty years)---"I'm stuck, let's send Brenda to Paris for a year"
4. My So-Called Life...wait, that show is perfect because a bunch of idiots cancelled it before anyone had to ruin things by powering through

It goes on and on...I find a nap helps writers block immensely. That and 3 small children who force me to cram writing into the cracks so there is no time for writers block.

Lisa_Gibson said...

Hmm, I guess do other things like dishes, watch some TV, nap, things like that. :)

Ghenet Myrthil said...

I love your analogy! I agree that taking a break is necessary if you're too stressed out to get anything productive done. I've been there. Doing something mindless is a great solution. I find clearning calming most of the time. :)

However, I agree with the above commenter that said it's a slippery slope. If you get really stressed every time you write, rather than taking another break, you should figure out WHY you're feeling this way and what you can change about the way you write to prevent it from happening. If you allow yourself to take too many breaks, you'll get nothing done.

Great post!

Laurel Garver said...

LOVED this post. This is one of the best analogies I've heard that makes breaks not seem like pure laziness. I like that idea of restoring calm. It feels proactive.

You are 100% right that my creativity dies when I power through and panic begets more panic.

Melanie Jacobson said...

Oh, this is a happy-making post for me because I'm teaching a class on breaking up writer's block at Storymakers. I'm soaking up the comment trail. I like your commenters ever so much more than I like Julia Cameron.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I LOVE this analogy. I also love Cesar. I read one of his books and it really helped me figure out my dog. The energy & excited state is something that'd slipped my mind, so thanks for the reminder.

I don't really get writer's block. Usually if the words aren't flowing it's because I'm scared of the scene I have to write -- and I recognize that's the problem. Or I'm tired and need a break. I learned early on that I need to get away from the computer when that time comes or I won't get anything done the rest of the day.

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