Last night was one of those times when I didn’t feel like writing on my side projects. What I suffered was not procrastination but full-blown paralysis.
Nothing seemed worth committing to paper. Everything seemed trodden.
Sadder still, I have many pieces I’m stoked to finish. Here is my list of the things I could have been writing or revising:
- short blog post
- long blog post on why I’m writing this blog
- long blog post on New Orleans
- long post on semicolons
- novel (I’m halfway/two-thirds through the “second” draft)
- “sculptor and model” flash fiction
- “Tolkien” short story (FYI: nerdery is not kookery)
- alien first contact short story
- alien genius short story
- my first rap song: “Uh, uh. Check, check.” (I’m hoping to lure Gandhi Rockefeller out of hiatus to perform and produce)
- Gratitude journal entry (which I’ve been keeping for about two years now).
You’d think after 25 years of earning a paycheck by keyboard I would have outgrown rookie issues like staring at a blank page until bursting into tears, checking my email every 21 seconds, or taking the Sorting Hat quiz yet again.
Some veteran actors still have gut-wrenching stage fright before each performance, so I guess I’m lucky I don’t need to vomit before I start being productive. It only feels like I’m gonna hurl.
“Ayck! Ayck! Ayck!” screamed Panic Chimp.
When I start to fear that I’ve lost what little imaginative spark I ever possessed, I know I’m on the verge of beginning to commence the initial process of writing fairly soon, in a couple of hours, maybe, or, at the very latest, first thing tomorrow morning. On side projects, the fear is hard to come by because I don’t get paid for them, mostly, and money makes everything real.
Working as a freelance copywriter at home has its perks, but one element of an advertising creative department I miss is the competitiveness I feel around other writers. I like to be the one getting after it, even if no one else is keeping score. My dogs, while sweet, aren’t much competition. Some days I don’t even think they’re trying. Their punctuation is appalling.
Workplace shame is another self-imposed motivational tool I once used frequently. I take pride, maybe too much so, in being good at what I do. Creativity on demand is extraordinarily difficult. Writing something that meets a marketing objective and sticks in a consumer’s head is tricky stuff. Whenever I feel I’m not living up to my craft, it feels as if everybody around me knows it. That’s usually when I get annoyingly serious.
Grizzled pro gives sound, but boring, advice.
I tell my students they should have a plan for when the creativity well runs dry. It’s going to happen, so why not prepare ahead of time? I also urge them to keep a solar blanket in their backpacks at all times.
It’s good to have ready a list of practical solutions to fight writer’s block: creative journal writing; compose it as a letter; emulate a technique, form, or style; change POV; use pen and paper. On copywriting assignments, looking through advertising award annuals almost always gets me unstuck eventually, just as my first creative director promised me.
I encourage my students to indulge in writerly superstitions, too.
At the beginning of my career, putting on a baseball cap helped me overcome writer’s block and extreme levels of junior copywriter putridity. When that didn’t work anymore, I found having a cup of Maxwell House International Café French Vanilla instant coffee efficacious and delicious (coffeeshops weren’t like a thing, yet, man). During my brief Buddhist phase I used meditative walking but stopped after my office reputation evolved from “arrogant” to “arrogant and strange-in-a-homeless-kind-of-way.”
These days, I rely on music. Thanks to Spotify, I have numerous playlists, ones crafted specifically for the time of day, clients, or the writing project. Your results may vary.
Peter Elbow gives sound, but difficult, advice.
One of the best cures I’ve used lately is freewriting. Simply pick a subject, then write whatever crosses your mind for ten consecutive minutes. It doesn’t matter what you write, only that you don’t stop stringing new words together.
No editing. No spellchecking. No stopping to rub your chin thoughtfully.
I don’t know what to write, so I’m writing down that I don’t know what to write is perfectly acceptable. Repeat, if necessary. Just go, go, go.
At the end of a freewriting exercise I have a heap of raw material. If I find something that doesn’t completely mortify me, now I can edit the hell out of it. With adequate sweat, no one will know how filled with despair I was when I started the piece, nor cluck at its lack of fanciness.