I’ve been stuck lately working on a chapter in the novel. I know, it happens to writers all the time. The writing rarely flows continuously without a hiccup here or there to slow things down. Like the washboard surfaces on the dirt roads that were so much fun to ride my bike over when I was kid, I may keep writing and writing, but sometimes the words come out with a struggle, all bumpy and hard. Other times, the words for a particular scene may not come at all, even if I know what happens next. I was mulling over the flow of writing and the idea of writer’s block the other day while making dinner. As I stirred the pasta sauce and it bubbled away, the image of a wall came to mind. Not any kind of wall, an old stone wall. The kind that used to separate farm land before modern fences and the kind that are used to build walls and terraces here on the Amalfi Coast. The kind that fall apart and need to be rebuilt. The first line from Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” ran through my head, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Writers, I thought. Writers don’t like walls.
When I’m stuck, it’s often not because I don’t know what I’m trying to write or what is happening next. That’s writer’s block, for me, when you find yourself unable to describe what you’re writing or what’s happening next. I often get stuck waiting for the right words to come. I can be a frustrating experience when at other times they come so easily. But I’m not one to sit around waiting for Inspiration to arrive, and my work as full time freelance writer has taught me that Inspiration ain’t ever going to show up at your door with a project fully written by a deadline if you don’t roll up your sleeves and work hard at it.
I see these periods of struggle more like a wall rather than a block. Sometimes they fall down naturally, just like the stone walls Frost describes putting back together each spring with this neighbor. Ideas expand and swell the tiny gaps and send the walls tumbling down just like ice in the winter. Other times you can peek through a hole and find it just large enough to squeeze through and get to the other side. If that fails, there’s always the good old bulldozer. Put on the work boots and helmet, pick up the pen, and plow right on through. (It’s an imaginative wall anyway, so what does it matter how big of a mess you make?) All that matters is that you end up on the other side with some words on a piece of paper or typed on the computer. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how good they are. That’s what editing is for, right?
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
What do you do to break through walls that block your creative process?
Ciao Laura, I wait for inspiration to come. If there is a wall that is blocking me, nothing comes, so I find I need to be patient.
Ciao Cathy! Yes, patience is a big part. I’m always happiest with what I write when it comes easily!
I eat a lot of food, then with purposeful steps head up to the studio, put on some music, and paint… anything. A bit of background here, a plan for something there… and soon the paint begins to flow off the brushes again. But right now those walls reflect the seriousness of my efforts, and the looming deadlines, so it’s cooked lunches at any time from 10.30am until 2pm, and nuts and chocolate and vitamins in between. I think it will need to be apples and soup for the next series!
PS I really enjoyed your post, 🙂
Ciao Kay! Thanks for sharing your techniques for breaking through creative walls with your painting. I’m thrilled with all these comments and suggestions – it’s just what I was hoping for. While writing about writing, I knew it would be the same for other creative endeavors. Good luck with your projects and deadlines! 🙂
LindyLouMac in Italy says
I admire anyone who writes creatively to produce a book, something I would never consider. I just love the old stone walls, there are still many in existence in parts of the UK, where they are still used to separate land.
Ciao Linda! Writing fiction is completely new to me. This is a first! But it’s been such a fascinating experience to watch develop. I love the old stone walls, too. Have you read the whole poem “The Mending Wall” by Frost? I bet you’d enjoy his descriptions of the walls, which I imagine are based in the New England area that he loved so much. Would love to spend more time in the UK countryside one day!
I just heard someone on the radio talking about this exact problem. He studies creativity for a living and finds that getting up and doing something completely different like taking a hike or gardening will free up his mind and suddenly he’ll clearly see the answer to whatever he was stuck on. I try to remember that sometimes I need a distraction in order to make progress, but then other times I just need to keep working. The challenge seems to be finding the balance.
Ciao Amber! You hit the challenge right on the nail – finding balance. I have the experience often that if I wander away from the desk or table when I’m stuck and do something inane that ideas often pop into my head. I love it when that happens! But sometimes it feels like it’s just an excuse to get outside when it’s lovely. Well, gardening and walking are always good for the soul, so not a bad way to put off writing if that’s what it ends up being! 🙂
I give myself and my thoughts over to the characters and the scene I am working on. Often times I find they DO know what happens next and it is so much more exciting then what I had imagined. Also walks in nature tend to loosen the stones in my ‘walls’ and get the energy and creative juices flowing again! Just Keep writing, Laura. I know it will be brilliant!
Great advice, Mom! I was thinking of you when that Frost poem flashed through my mind. There is something about nature that loosens those stones and lets the creativity pour through. I think sometimes it’s important to pull back, to pull ourselves as writers out of the story, and just let the characters tell the story. You’re brilliant at that!
Anita Chapman says
Hi Laura, what a beautifully written post! I love your style of writing and the way you compare breaking through the wall to getting back into writing. I agree with much of the above-going for a walk, gardening, any mundane task such as cooking/ironing/ driving-get loads of ideas when doing those things. There are times when I can’t get myself to sit at my desk and write-then I go to cafes with a notebook or make myself sit at my desk and write for ten minutes. Usually by the end of the ten minutes I want to carry on but I stop and return the next day wanting to write again. If I’m stuck on a specific scene I find it best to move on and come back to it. Then at least I’m progressing and the problem will usually resolve itself.
Thanks, Anita! So happy you enjoyed the post. Great advice and just progressing and coming back to resolve problems later. I think you’re right that often times they do work themselves out. Happy writing! 🙂
Barb in Minnesota says
If I’m stuck in my writing (fiction – short stories) I need to do something else creative – sketch (I’m horrible at it) sing (even worse) or dance (hysterically bad). Eventually something starts perking – it always does. The trick is not to give up, because, as you know, creativity takes a lot of work.
Best of luck and keep writing.
Ciao Barb! I love your comment and ideas to try something else creative when feeling stuck. I’m pretty sure no one, especially the cats, would appreciate my attempts at singing, but I’m intrigued by the sketching idea. I’ll give that a shot! Best of luck and happy writing to you!
I often think back to a quote I saw from Susan Orlean: Transitions, in writing and in life, are hard. (I’ve paraphrased.) For me, the hardest part of writing is moving between two ideas. Sometimes I find washing dishes helps. But usually I’m just sitting in front of the computer tearing my hair out. Bon courage!
Ciao Ann! Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. Transitions are tough and can lead to so much frustration. I think those are the moments when stepping away and getting some distance help the most. Congratulations on finishing the manuscript of your book on regional French cuisine. Very excited to read that when it comes out, and “Kitchen Chinese” is on my must read list – can’t wait!