The term writer’s block can mean any or all blockages that rear their ugly head at some point in your project.
Illustration: John Merigliano

Getting Unstuck: Confronting Writer’s Block Head On

The Monster in a Box

Stagnation is an annoying obstacle that keeps you from getting your work done. This is also known as writer’s block. Writer’s block can occur at any point in your project. Initially, you might begin with a clear idea of what you want to do. The problem is, you can’t bring yourself to actually do it. On the other hand, the ideas come rolling out, fast and furious. You turn the corner then stop dead in your tracks. In another scenario, you are so attached, you don’t want your project to end. It becomes, as Spalding Gray has said, a “monster in a box.” I’ll use the term writer’s block to mean any or all blockages that rear their ugly head at some point in your project.

Writer’s Block Is a Luxury Item

Without being insensitive, I’m going to give you a cold shower. Writer’s block is a luxury in that it keeps you from doing your work. It’s an ego issue. You might even think it’s cool to have writer’s block. Here’s the bottom line: if you’re not doing your work then you can do other things. Let’s put this into perspective. You earned a commission to choreograph a dance. Good people gave you some money with the confidence that you will produce something no less than spectacular (no pressure). You don’t have time to get stuck in the mud or sit around and contemplate one hundred possible directions. If you do, that’s great, use that time to your advantage. Realistically, you need to make decisions and they need to be made within a framework of deadlines. What will you do?

What Happened to Gentleness?

For starters, go easy on yourself. Cultivate a state of mind that is focused on the present moment. Try to do this with openness and gentleness so as to assuage those initial feelings of anxiety associated with writer’s block. Blockages can be very painful and cause you to doubt yourself. Try not to shut down or freak out. Don’t get angry with yourself or turn this in on yourself. Don’t make it about you.

Your mind creates these blockages. It is constantly working, inventing, and returning information to you. Much of that information is meant to keep you safe. You are a creator; you don’t want safety. Being safe did not get you the commission. Listen to what your mind has to say, consider it, and then move on. If there’s information you can use, take it. Otherwise, you can politely ignore it. Refocus on what’s important. That’s how you stay in the present moment. Doing that will open you up. Opening is the antidote to your blockage. Admittedly, there’s a lot of push and pull there. Get a good workout and be nice to yourself by knowing that this is part of the process.

Big Ego

As an artist, you enjoy what you do and want to create excellent work. You hope your work is important and that you will be remembered by it. Those are very positive and worthy intentions. Sadly, you don’t get to make those decisions. Other people make them: art historians, artists, writers, critics, and professionals in your field. Besides, that’s not why you do it. Sometimes you get stuck because you are too serious. You’ve placed too much value on your project’s worth before it’s even done. Get over yourself. The commission you got to create your dance is a great achievement. Many choreographers will get the same opportunity. Make the most of it by creating work that is imbued with presence. Keeping your ego out of it will clear the path for that to happen. Only then can you push past your own limitations (blocks) and address new ones.

Shake It Up

Understandably, you may not be working on commission. No one is waiting for your novel, album, or poems. You can work on these things for as long as you want. Weirdly, this situation is even scarier than if you were given a two-day deadline to write some incidental music for a film. It’s easier to get stuck when you don’t set a structure for your project. Getting started is easy, but when does it end? You can shake yourself out of your block by trying any of the following:

Set a Deadline

Create a schedule using your calendar. Decide when you want to finish. You can arrive at this date by breaking down the project into neat little chunks. They do not have to be precise; however, stick to it. It’s fine to move dates around and reassess the end date. I suggest not moving the dates too often because by doing so, you’re only cheating yourself. By setting a work schedule, you’ve made a commitment of sorts. Fake it and pretend you are working on a commission. You can also ask a friend to check in on you at set intervals. This helps to reinforce accountability. Keep your ego in check by asking for help.

I appreciate the idea of not using a schedule, of working on something “for that afternoon,” as it were. This can be an effective and liberating way to get things going. In this scenario, it’s important that you actually finish the work by your afternoon deadline.

Give Me a Break

If things are really bad and you are so inside your head that you can’t see anything else, drop it. Put your project away for a bit and do something else. When you go too far in one direction, one way out is to go in the other direction. In other words, if you work on a computer all day long, do something that does not involve any electronics. I like to take photographs with an old medium format camera that is fully mechanical (no battery). I process the film myself, put the negatives in a sleeve, and look at them for a bit. Doing something else will remove the chokehold that your project has on your mind. It’s like clearing the decks and starting over.

“Nothing lasts forever, not even 5 minutes, when you’re heading for the finish line.”—Lou Reed

It’s a Marathon, Sprint, or Anything in Between

Setting up a structure for your project will ward off most blockages. Even if you have a tight structure, you can still get stuck. This is completely normal. It’s always there to teach you to stay loose, be gentle, and open up a bit more. It’s the lesson that your big ego does not want you to hear. Tame that monster by throwing some deadlines at it. When you create, you are running a hundred yard dash or a marathon. No matter the scope, your work is a snapshot of that moment in time. Totally commit yourself to the moment. When you do that, you’ll develop an appreciation for what you are doing. Before you know it, you’ve crossed the finish line.