Category Archives: writer’s block

The Long Winter

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It’s been a long Winter. Not just outwardly, in terms of cold temperatures, grey skies, wind, rain and occasional snow, but also inwardly too. I’ve felt myself stuck in a kind of inner Winter; physically, emotionally, creatively and professionally. Aside for commissioned work, I’ve struggled to write a single sentence. My third novel, which I initially had hoped might be completed and published this year, has stalled in the initial chapters. My two blogs have been frozen, with no new content in months. I engaged in a pre-scheduled blog tour to promote The Key of Alanar in January, and that was both fun and difficult. Fun because I love that book with all my heart, and I enjoyed sharing the process behind it, but also difficult because I really just felt like retreating from the world and hiding away.

I actually reached a point where I didn’t think I would ever write another word again. I just didn’t know if I could. The Key of Alanar totally exhausted me. I’d put more into that book than anything in my life, ever. I actually didn’t know if there was anything more I had to say, or even, sadly, any great burning demand for more. I began to second guess myself creatively and even personally. There’s nothing more toxic to any writer or artist than the horrifying thought ‘what will they think?’ It paralyses and chokes the life out of genuine creative endeavour. It instils a certain level of fear and pressure that makes it very hard press forward. This fear is always there in artists; the fear of failure, or maybe even the fear of success; of criticism or even worse, being ignored altogether. It’s always there as a kind of low level background rumble. But the moment we give into it, it becomes a deafening wail. It disrupts and paralyses and, if we happen to give into it and lose our momentum, it can be very very hard to overcome. Creative block can last for not just days and weeks, but months and years. Some truly talented artists never recover from it. In some respects they lose a part of their soul. There are few creatures in life quite as miserable as a blocked artist!

Perhaps this Winter season is a necessary one, however. Everything in life flows in cycles. There is a time for flowers to bud and bloom, for the sun to shine and for life to flourish, and also a time for things to wind down as the life force retreats inward. There is most definitely a time for dormancy, and maybe creativity cannot flourish without that. It’s the space in which new visions begin to take shape and new ideas start to form.

The last few days I’ve felt the first stirrings of Spring; not only outwardly in terms of seeing flowers bloom and small buds on certain trees, but also inwardly in terms of my own creativity. I think I’m ready to start writing again. In fact, I’m determined that I’m ready to start writing again. Every day I will sit and type words. I have no idea how those words will turn out, but at least I’ll begin to create a momentum once more. I have something to share with the world again, and now is the time to do it. Here’s to the Spring!

The 3 Steps to Writing Anything

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Whether you’re writing an essay, an article, sales copy or the great American novel, there’s a basic three-step process that, if understood and applied, can make it a whole lot easier for you.

If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to get the words out, or unable to get beyond the first couple of sentences, it’s probably because you’re trying to do the wrong step in the wrong order. Once you’re clear on how to apply this universal three-step method, you’re certain to find the process of writing easier, more effortless and hopefully more enjoyable too.

The three steps of writing are:

1. Planning
2. Writing
3. Polishing

That may appear to be pretty much common sense! Yet you’d be surprised at how often we tend to get these steps muddled up, resulting in all kinds of problems. Each stage needs to be understood and done in sequence before moving onto the next.

Here’s a rundown of each step.

1. PLANNING

Sprouting-Seeds

Planting a seed

Any creative endeavour begins with the planting of a seed. You get, wait for or are given an initial idea about what to write. Perhaps you have an idea for a story, or have received a brief for an essay or article.

Allowing it to grow
Once you have a starting point, you need to give yourself time to brainstorm and play with ideas. If you started out with a fairly broad focus, then you have to gradually narrow and refine it. If you’re writing fiction, this is the time to explore your story, theme and characters, to run with your imagination and allow the story to unfold and take shape.

If you’re writing nonfiction, perhaps you need to do some research and gather information and then arrange and structure it. The initial seed you planted begins to germinate and grow. It’s best to keep this stage as organic as you can, allowing it to unfold naturally. Trying to force it can restrict your creativity and obscure insights, inspiration and fresh ways of looking at things.

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Creating a blueprint
Once you have a fairly clear idea what you want to write, it’s time to take things up a notch and create a blueprint. Whereas the first part of the planning stage should be quite free-flowing, it’s now time to arrange things into a cohesive structure. Some people skip the blueprint stage altogether, and that’s a matter of personal preference and also depends on what you’re writing and why. But I find rushing ahead to write before I have a clear idea what I’m writing about often leads to dead-ends and a lot of frustration and wasted time. I like to have a blueprint for what I’m writing — or at the very least a clear idea of the beginning, middle and end. Then I can simply relax into the next step and be confident that there’s an underlying structure in place to keep me right.

To create a blueprint, you simply arrange your ideas or information into the appropriate structure. If you’re writing a story or novel, try to put all the elements of your plot into place so you know roughly what happens when. What this does is enables you to get a sense for the structure, rhythm and balance of the story. It’s helpful to have this in place before you start writing, because it’s a whole lot easier to change elements at this stage than it is when you’ve written the whole thing and realised that the basic structure of the story doesn’t work (doh!).

This doesn’t mean the blueprint needs to be rigidly set in stone. It should be flexible enough to add, subtract or move around elements as you write. But it gives you a solid foundation and the confidence to start writing. If you’re writing an essay or article, your blueprint will set out your introduction, each key point in progression and end with clear summary or conclusion. Once you’re happy with your blueprint you can move onto the next step.

2. WRITING

Writing

The mistake a lot of people make when writing is to assume that writing consists solely of — well, writing! But jumping straight into the process of writing without having a clear idea what you’re actually writing about is generally a recipe for muddle and frustration. So I’d generally advise people not to bypass the first step.

Once you have your blueprint in place, it’s time to get into the flow of writing. Make sure your first draft is just that: a first draft. It might be helpful to even think of it as a zero draft. At this stage it’s not about making it perfect; it’s simply about getting words down on the page. Now’s the time to write for your life and not look back!

Forget about formatting and editing and try not to read back over what you’ve written if you can help it. You may have a tendency to edit as you go along, trying to ‘perfect’ each sentence before moving onto the next, but it’s best to avoid that temptation. The next step is the editing stage; this is simply the writing stage. So make it easier on yourself: don’t skip ahead. You can edit and refine it when it’s finished, and not before.

The key to good writing is to get into that state where the words just flow with ease and effortlessness. There are different ways to reach that creative flow, and you may need to experiment to find what works best for you. One of the keys to entering the state of flow is to simply focus on the step you’re on; in this case, the writing. You’ve already got your blueprint in place so you don’t need to worry about that, and you don’t need to worry about editing what you’re writing — that’s the next step. Try to bypass your inner critic. Don’t judge the work before you’re finished, or you may never finish: you’ll simply end up in the sticky web of perfectionist paralysis!

Just let go, relax and write. It can be helpful to do a writing warm-up exercise before you start. For example, you might take a random word and do some free-flow association. Just write whatever comes to mind; complete stream-of-consciousness writing. Try that for five minutes and see if it loosens you up and gets you into the creative flow.

3. POLISHING

proofread

The final step is the editing and polishing stage. Once you’ve finished your first draft, take a break if you can and then go back read over it. It’s now time for the inner critic take the reins for a while — although do make sure that any criticism is constructive!

You’ll likely get a sense for the flow and structure of the text. How does it read? What areas need improving? What needs to be added and, more importantly, what bits can you take out? I naturally tend to overwrite, so my editing stage largely consists of pruning things back. Try to remove redundancies and be alert to repetition. A good mantra for the editing process (and perhaps life in general) is: “if in doubt, cut it out!”

Perhaps your piece only needs some minor modifications or it may need several successive drafts. Keep going until you’re happy with it. An excellent tip is to actually read the text aloud. This helps you get a feel for the rhythm of the words and sentence structure and is also helpful for spotting errors that may have otherwise slipped through the radar.

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And those are the three steps to writing pretty much anything! Even though it seems so simple and self-evident, it took me a number of years to figure out this three-step process and to apply it to my work. The difference it made was immeasurable.

The most important thing is to know which step you’re on and to stay on that step until you’re ready to move to the next. No premature skipping ahead! This is especially important when you’re in the writing stage. If you’re always slipping into editorial mode and trying to make each sentence ‘perfect’ before moving onto the next, you’re almost certainly going to struggle. Besides, the sobering (or perhaps liberating) truth is that there’s no such thing as a perfect sentence. So just let go, relax–and write!

This article was originally posted on my other blog, Beyond The Dream, a couple of years ago and ezineArticles.com

The Creative Life: How to Overcome Self-doubt

I’m excited to be relaunching my Dreamlight Fugitive blog in addition to my main blog, Beyond the Dream! My first new post is about something that affects everyone in any creative field: the arch-enemy of creative expression…self doubt!

Illustration by Jack Spellman (jackspellmanart.com)

Yesterday, having finally finished my new novel after a year and a half of work (and the rest! But that’s another story!), I was clobbered over the head by an attack of self doubt. I’d just ordered proofing copies yet I found myself going back and picking away at random sentences, trying to find better ways of stringing the words together in order to reach that most elusive of writerly goals: the ‘perfect sentence’!

One thing led to another and I soon started to question the entire book. What if it wasn’t ready to be put out into the world? Feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction quickly turned to feelings of anxiety and dread. What if I was in fact one of the worst writers ever to pick up a pen or hammer away at a keyboard? I’m safe at the moment, but the moment the book is published it’s a target and as the one-stars reviews come flooding in, I’ll be revealed as the terrible hack I am! I even very briefly considered binning the entire book and starting again from scratch.

That’s how self-doubt works! It’s a vicious, pernicious and potentially crippling little monster. It hides away in the darkest recesses of the mind and is prone to jumping out at inopportune moments and letting rip with its penchant for woeful catastrophising. It’s something that every artist and writer must learn to live with and it does get easier with time.

Most of the time I have it under control. But coming to the end of a project, when you are actually taking the steps to releasing that work into the world, makes the self-doubt monster terribly antsy. Stirring from its slumber like a cat that was only really half-asleep the whole time, you know the meltdown is inevitable.

crazy

“You’re thinking of publishing THAT? Are you crazy?! It needs at least another year of work. The critics are gonna tear it to shreds!”

Now, a little self-doubt is healthy. It gives us a certain objectivity about our work, which is useful in the editing stage (and throughout, really). It becomes harmful however when it degenerates into an overwrought, mud-slinging, anxiety-ridden neurotic monster, determined to convince us that nothing we do is good enough and that we’d be better off setting it aside and slumping onto the sofa and firing up Netflix. So pervasive and persuasive is the self-doubt monster, it’s almost certainly destroyed countless artists’ careers before they’ve even had the chance to get in the game. Left unchecked, this inner censor will not only hinder your creativity, it will completely destroy it and leave you a blubbering and, above all, blocked wreck!

The self-doubt monster is actually pretty easy to deal with it however. And here’s how.

First of all, take the ‘self’ out of self-doubt. It has nothing to do with who you are. It’s simply a thought and that thought’s corresponding emotion. It’s actually completely impersonal. We all get it — everyone, in every walk of life! It’s certainly not unique to us. Self-doubt is basically fear. It’s a defence mechanism designed to somehow keep us safe, even if it is a little misinformed and ultimately wholly counterproductive. Depersonalising it immediately takes the sting out of it.

Secondly, once I’ve depersonalised it, I personify it. This might make me sound utterly crazy, but I find it helpful to give it a name and form. I call my self-doubt monster Fred. Fearful Fred. He looks like a big, fat and slightly ungainly grey caterpillar. Most the time he just wiggles about in the recesses of my mind, doing whatever it is caterpillars do. Occasionally however, something gets Fred riled and he gets all worked out and inflates in size, becoming a gargantuan blob full of his own hot air. This happened last night when I somehow convinced myself I was the worst writer in human history.

I isolated the emotion in my body (it seemed to be around my belly, or solar plexus) and I decided to have a chat with Fred (as the personification of my self-doubt). He was beside himself with fear, anxiety and dread. So I made him a cup of tea, sat him down and explained that I’m grateful he’s so diligent in looking out for me, but there was no need for such stress and worry. Yeah, it’s always a little scary releasing a new piece of work into the world, as it probably is for a baby bird being pushed out of its nest in the hopes it will fly for the first time. But I reminded myself the importance of keeping everything in perspective.

I wrote an article last year about the power of karma yoga. Karma yoga isn’t a sequence of physical postures as you might expect, but a mindset with which we approach life. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, we have the right to act, but the fruit of those actions is not up to us. So the karma yoga attitude — which is the greatest antidote to stress that I know — is simply to do our best and let go of the results. Once an arrow has been fired it’s no longer up to us whether it hits the intended target. Chances are we’ve done our best to ensure that it does, but it’s now under the control of a set of natural laws and dynamics that are completely outwith our sphere of influence. All we can do is relax, take it easy and endeavour to take whatever comes with good grace.

The self-doubt monster can be an implacable and relentless foe to any creative person. It’s probably cost me years of my life. I’m certain I’d have more than one novel published by now if I hadn’t spent years under the sway of Fred, bless his heart. Now I’ve learned to master my mind and emotions a little bit more. This doesn’t mean that self-doubt and other self-limiting thoughts vanish forever. But it does mean that when they come up I can put them in their place and simply get on with things. As the Tao Te Ching says:

Mastering others is strength; mastering ourselves is true power.

Self-doubt and anxiety are defence mechanisms generated by the unconscious mind to keep us safe. But we are safe! As artists we follow our calling, we write the stories and paint the pictures that our muse is kind enough to share with us. We learn and grow and improve our skills all the time. We make mistakes, but mistakes are an essential part of the learning curve. Never be afraid to make mistakes! And never allow yourself to be held prisoner to the tyranny of other people’s opinions. Some people will love what you do, and some people won’t. Some people are fair in their criticism and some people are jerks with clear psychological deficiencies (I now refrain from reading comments sections on youtube and other websites because of this!).

Learn to wrestle with your self-doubt monster. Or make it a cup of tea as I do. Usually once I’ve had a firm but loving chat with Fred, I imagine sending him off on an all-expenses paid vacation to Tenerife where he can just relax in the sun all day drinking Pina Colada while I get on with what I have to do.

Self-doubt is ignorance masquerading as truth. Don’t let it cripple you. Take charge of it and educate it. You’re doing fine, let it know that and these lagging parts of the mind will eventually catch up. When we no longer give fear or doubt power over us, when we educate them and put them into perspective, we give ourselves the greatest gift of all. Freedom! And freedom is the ultimate goal of all creative — and moreover, all human — endeavour! So dance with your doubts and allow yourself to be free.

This fantastic song and video by one of my favourite artists, Bat For Lashes, is about just that. This was the song that Natasha Khan wrote after a long spell of creative block, and it’s very much about learning to tame and dance with the monsters of self-doubt, despair and fear. Enjoy.