“I am about to open my mouth; my words are on the tip of my tongue.” Job 33:2
Every time I’ve given a writing assignment, without fail, one or more students in class will writhe in agony and groan, “I don’t know what to write!”
Anyone who has ever attempted to transfer thoughts to paper has experienced an episode of writer’s block. Our thoughts hit a wall, our minds freeze up, and nothing will come. That is the point where many would-be writers shut down and walk away.
Oddly enough, the best way to overcome writer’s block is to write. Much like the old-fashioned water pump that had to be primed, our mental processes sometimes need a similar kick start. As we stir our thoughts, ideas will rise to the top and it will be easier to focus them in new directions. Here are some exercises to help break through blocks:
1. List the first few random words or phrases that come to mind. Look through the list and pick one that draws your eye for any reason. Write a sentence about that word. Zero in on another term from that sentence and write two lines about it. Choose another word or phrase and write three sentences about it. Repeat the process, increasing the number of sentences, until your mind starts focusing in a direction that interests you
2. Write detailed descriptions of people or places. Describe your surroundings or persons in the room. Notice specific sensory details – sights, smells, sounds, etc. An exercise like this not only helps get you writing, but also contributes to a file of character and setting descriptions to draw from later.
3. Write definitions of abstract concepts, such as colors, feelings or relationships. Here’s an example from one of my Kindle books, Mail-Order Mother. The protagonist is describing the color of her dress to a class of blind children: “Forest green is lying in thick, soft grass under leafy trees, with patches of warm sun and cool shade dancing together on your face. Forest green smells of pine and maple and oak, dogwood and magnolia and rhododendron all blended together with the musty damp of fallen leaves and rich black earth.”
Now look at this definition of happiness written by Allie, one of my 8th grade English students: “Happiness is yellow. It sounds like listening to a song for the first time in years. It smells like the sweet air on the first day of summer. It tastes like your family’s timeless secret cookie recipe. Happiness feels like hugging an old friend you’ve missed so much.”
Here is a definition of dyslexia by a girl whose name I’ll withhold: “Dyslexia is words moving for no reason. Dyslexia is missing school to be tested all day. Dyslexia is feeling dumb for being behind on the reading computer games. Dyslexia is hating when the teacher writes in teacher. Dyslexia is being told it’s ‘ok,’ and, ‘your brain just works different,’ and never believing it. Dyslexia is not being able to read well without context. Dyslexia is a curse from my dad’s family. Dyslexia is my most embarrassing secret.”
Defining abstracts, especially using terms and images that connect with the senses, helps jumpstart the creative part of your brain and gets your thoughts moving.
4. Try writing an “I Do Not Understand” poem. Describe 2 or 3 things you do not understand, one thing you do not understand most, and end with something you do understand. Here’s an example from 8th-grader Jordan:
I do not understand
Why you had to go
It was really hard for me
You were an amazing woman
And most of all I do not understand
Why you would look up and smile at me
From the hospital bed
When you know you’re about to leave me
What I understand most
Is your love for God.
Your talent for helping others
And how much you loved sweet tea
And your family
5. Read. If you can’t come up with any words of your own, give yourself a short break and soak up some good writing. This does not include social media posts. Yes, there are some memes floating around with pithy, profound statements, but scrolling through all the other inane blather will distract you and prevent your mind from focusing. Spend some time with a book or article by a respected author and remind yourself what good writing sounds like. Read critically. Observe how the writer draws readers into the story or persuades them toward his/her point of view. Note the effective use of literary devices such as imagery, metaphor, conflict, logical argument, etc.
6. Write a prayer. Pour out everything in your heart to God, but write it as you speak it. Then sit in silence for a time listening to hear the Spirit’s voice. Sometimes God surprises me with a message I had never anticipated when I sit down to deliberately, actively listen.
7. Don’t do what I’m doing right now – get distracted by mechanics. Without my daughter Joy sitting beside me to help navigate the intricacies of this web page, I find myself becoming frustrated by an inability to single space quotes, align margins, or start new paragraphs within a list without the program generating new item numbers. (Thank goodness my husband just walked in and gave me some pointers!) This post has taken me way longer to write than it should have, simply because I have allowed these technical annoyances to distract me. Even further, try to shield yourself from outside distractions like phone calls, text messages, pets needing to be let out, etc., if they continually cause you to lose your train of thought and disrupt the writing flow. If you’re not expecting an important call, turn your phone off or leave it in another room for a while. Let your family know that this is work time and enlist their help in deflecting interruptions. Above all, stick with it and don’t give up. Set a realistic word, line or paragraph count goal for each writing session and train yourself to meet it.
An effective writer doesn’t feel threatened by a mental block, but looks for ways to circumvent it. Everyone goes blank at some point. The trick is to recognize these barricades as temporary and keep moving. Defy the temptation of surrendering to creative paralysis.
Please share your own insights with us. I’m always excited to hear new ideas.