The past couple of months I’ve felt a little burnt-out creatively. Isn’t that weird? It’s been an amazing year creatively, I got a publisher for my novel Eladria, which should be released at the end of the year and I self-published my first short story (‘Artan’s Night’, now available as a free download) which has received some really good feedback. It’s also such a kick to be able to search for my name on Amazon and iBooks and actually find my work on there! That’s nothing short of a dream come true, and whatever else happens, I’m really proud of that.
So I’m not sure what happened when I started to my second short story. I had it all planned out and I knew exactly what I was writing, but somehow I was struggling to get the words out. The flow just wasn’t there. I was having to force words onto the screen, and even then was rather unsatisfied with them.
I realised I’d been struck by the dreaded writer’s block! I think virtually all writers experience this affliction at one time or another. It’s something I encounter now and again and I’ve thus far managed to uncover two main causes.
The first cause of writer’s block, for me, is that I’m trying to write something I’m simply not ready to write. Rushing into a project too soon can be a mistake. Before clothing them in words, sentences and paragraphs, I like to let the ideas percolate in my mind for a while. This is almost an unconscious process, for even when I’m not consciously working on the story or essay and playing around with ideas and structure, I often feel there’s something taking shape on an unconscious level, as though the piece is forming itself. All I need to do is wait until I feel it’s ready and then get into a clear-minded state and allow it to emerge and reveal itself. It’s a kind of passive approach to writing, but that’s how I’ve done my best writing. Once I ease myself into the creative flow, the words pretty much write themselves and it’s a marvellous process too, one that feels invigorating and exciting.
Attempting it the other way — trying to wrestle with ideas and words and force them onto the page — is often an uphill struggle and one that leaves me frustrated and drained. So in order to stay in the creative flow, I find I have to remain in the mode of ‘passive writing’, which is almost a kind of listening; listening to and observing the ideas, stories and characters as they take shape, allowing them to emerge fully formed, and then dictating what I see and hear in my mind.
The second possible cause of creative block is perfectionism. I’ve always been a terrible perfectionist, rarely satisfied and prone to editing a piece of work to within an inch of its life. No matter how many times I’ve chopped and changed a sentence I still think it could be improved. That perhaps makes me a good editor, but it’s not so great when I’m trying to create a new piece of work.
I learned a long time ago that in order to create a good first draft I have to switch off the internal editor and write first, edit later. If I can’t do that, I never tend to get anything written, as I’m still stuck on trying to fix and perfect that first sentence.
I believe perfectionism stems from a kind of performance anxiety. Obviously you want your work to be as good as it can possibly be so other people will like it. I think this is at the root of my recent bout of writer’s block. My short stories are being written and immediately published and there’s part of me that’s immensely freaked out by that because, quite simply, if they’re not up to scratch people won’t like them and won’t want to read more. The idea of publishing some free short stories prior to the release of my novel was as a means to get people interested and compelled to read more. In the back of my mind I was concerned that my stories might not be up to the standard of the novel and might in fact put people off buying the novel.
That hasn’t happened though, so I need to get over that. And what’s more, I need to get back to enjoying the process of writing. The best way to get over debilitating perfectionism is to let go of all concern about what others might think and remember why you write in the first place: namely because it’s your passion and you love doing it. When you lose the love and enjoyment and get crippled by fears and doubts, you sabotage yourself: the process of writing becomes an arduous struggle and the quality of the output suffers as well.
So, the solutions I’ve found to writer’s block are pretty simple. First of all, make sure you’re actually ready to start writing. At the risk of sounding ridiculously touchy-feely, the gestation period of any creative project requires a degree of sensitivity and intuition. You have to be alert to know whether the project is cooked and ready to serve up or whether you need to let it simmer a while longer. There’s nothing worse than trying to force out undercooked ideas. Indigestion is inevitable.
The second and most important key is to let go of the inner critic for a while. Send it on a paid vacation, get it to take all of its fears and anxieties with it, and simply ENJOY what you’re doing. Keep it fun and exciting. If you lose the enjoyment, you’ll eventually lose your passion and this will be reflected in the quality of the work. Write (or paint, sculpt, or compose) as if you’re just doing it for yourself and your own enjoyment. Do it freely, without inhibition and without concern for what other people might think. It’ll get edited and polished up at a later stage and the rest will take care of itself. Until then, don’t lose the enjoyment. And I suppose that’s a great rule, not just for creative work, but for life as a whole.