The Only Important Step
Here are the main reasons I get stuck when I’m writing big or important projects. Let me know if any of these feel familiar.
- I’m not quite sure where I am going with this story or article.
- I have research to do, and I’m not sure where to begin.
- I know how to do this scene, but once I’m done that I’m not sure what to do next and I’m worried I will start to flounder.
- I don’t understand these characters well enough to write about them believably.
- I could start writing, but since I don’t have my themes figured out, I’m just going to have to do a bunch of rewriting.
- I am worried that what I am writing isn’t interesting, original, or well-developed enough.
All of these problems produce the same highly obnoxious result: I don’t write anything. I freeze up, with that nasty, anxious feeling in my chest. It all stems from a single central problem: Being so worried about how far away the finish line is that you are afraid to take the next step.
In life, as in writing, you only ever have one decision to make. No matter how complicated your task, no matter how huge the project, you only have one single question to answer:
What am I going to do right now? What am I going to do next?
Big picture thinking and long-term goal setting is only important if you can answer Yes! to the following question:
Am I moving forward?
If looking at the big picture is keeping you from taking that next step, you need to stop doing it right now and take a step. While it’s true that momentum is not the same thing as progress, doing anything is always better than doing nothing.
However, that doesn’t mean you should be careless about it. For a long time I read this kind of advice and assumed that the solution to the writer’s freeze-up is always to do more writing. To just write and try to blast through my paralysis. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. That leads us to our next important point:
Sometimes, the next step is to figure out the problem.
Sometimes the way to move forward is to stop and figure out why you are stuck. The feeling of intimidating often comes in the form of a vague and indefinable sense of dread and helplessness. The task ahead of you seems so big and scary that your response is to freeze up and not deal with it. That way lies paralysis.
- When you find yourself stuck, take a deep breath and go through the following steps:
- Ask yourself exactly what the problem is. Be specific, be honest, and be brutal.
- Spend 10 minutes writing down potential next steps. If you don’t know what the scene after this one is going to be, maybe you need to brainstorm ideas before you start writing. If you don’t know how to do the research because it seems too huge, spend some time narrowing down the micro-specific area you need to research.
- Pick a single step that you think might move you forward. A single step you can execute right now.
- Execute that step! Do that research, or free-write about the characters that are giving you trouble, or write a brief outline or treatment of your next few scenes.
- Check to see if it is working. If it is, great! You’ve solved your problem! Enjoy it while it lasts. If it isn’t working, then either you have mis-identified the problem or you don’t have the correct next step. Start over! Trust me. It’s worth it.
The worst thing you can do in your writing is stop working on it when it gets too intimidating. It’s a natural reaction, and the best way around it is to have a careful and specific strategy for dealing with it. This is the one that has worked for me. Give it a try, and see what it does for you.
Automatic Creativity In Action
We talked about how and why performing automatic activities such as writing and showering lead to creative thinking. Now we discuss specific ways to put this into practice. Many writers suggest that if you struggling to find ideas and not finding them you should go for a walk. That’s a great place to start. But once you understand the mechanisms that underlie why going for a walk launches you into a creative space, you can take some extra steps to make it work even better.
Here are a few good ones.
1. Prime the Pump Before Activity
The problem with letting your mind wander freely is that it wanders freely. Maybe you go for a walk hoping for a breakthrough on how your characters can overcome a specific obstacle, but instead you find yourself brainstorming about how to remodel your kitchen. So before you go, put yourself into the right head space. Read the last few pages of what you have written. Or spend 10 minutes brainstorming, no matter how unproductive it is. Then immediately go for that walk. Make sure to put your shoes on first.
2. Perform Automatic Writing Every Single Day
Automatic writing is another oft-prescribed trick for generating ideas. If you have tried it and it hasn’t worked for you it is probably for a very simple reason: it isn’t automatic enough. If you don’t write very often, or you are in a slump where you haven’t been writing lately (it happens to all of us!) you might be struggling just to force yourself to move forward. This makes the activity deliberate rather than automatic, and so it isn’t nearly so creative. Try doing 10 minutes of automatic writing every day. Because it is such a simple and natural activity (after all, you are a writer), it likely won’t take more than a few days to become automatic. Then you can just sit back and watch the creativity pour out of you.
3. Do Writing Drills
Writing prompts can be great, but they are the opposite of automatic. If you struggle with generating ideas writing prompts can often cause the worst kind of mental freeze-ups, because they start you from an absolutely blank canvas. A better way to use them is to flip the entire concept of writing prompts around. Instead of doing a new prompt when you need a creative boost, trying practicing the same prompt over and over again. It should be a fairly open-ended prompt with a lot of creative space, but not too much. It should also be fairly short. Here is an example:
4. Write one page of dialogue between two characters that hate each other.
At first it will be difficult. But once you do it 10 or 20 or 50 times, you’ll be amazed at how automatic the activity will become. Not only will you start to develop your own patterns and formulas for this specific task, it will lead to a place of automaticity where your mind can work on other, related things. You might find on your 50th repeat of this prompt that it leads to insight into an entirely different piece of dialogue you’ve been struggling with.
5. Try Structured Automatic Writing
This is a strange technique, so bear with me. Write a detailed outline of a very short story. Make sure that you know exactly how the story will play so that when you write it there will be no surprises or difficulty. Once you have done this, go ahead and write the story as quickly as possible, without taking your fingers off of the keyboard. Don’t worry if the story is any good!
When you do this a few times you will find that the act of writing the story becomes rather automatic. It is a lot like going for a walk, only you are writing. It will free up your creative mind in a similar way, and as soon as you are finished the automatic writing task you can jump straight into whatever piece of writing you were originally working on.
6. Combined Automaticity With Association
I find it even easier to be creative when the physical space or conditions are the same as they were last time I was creative. Walking is good, but walking the same path can be even better. You can enhance this effect by adding other sense. Start your creative activity by listening to a specific song, or eating an apple. Then, next time, when you listen to that song or taste that apple your brain will go to the same creative place it did before. When you want to go for a walk to think creatively about a different subject, listen to a different song or eat a different fruit. One theory about creativity is that it is associative memory that works quickly. Use your brains strong links between association and sensation to supercharge this effect.