While glaring dry-eyed at my computer screen on a recent day, I kept typing, deleting, and typing again, over and over. I was mentally swimming through a swamp full of cattails and mud while trying to introduce action into what seemed like a stagnant subject: nutrient pollution from agriculture. As my low-grade headache and self-doubt doubled down, it was time to escape the screen. So I ventured out of my office and took a stroll along a nearby bike path nudged up against Boulder Creek on that crisp winter day.
Two forms of writer’s block plague me: episodic and chronic. To overcome the episodic, the short-term bouts – the ones that hit suddenly on deadline day – I commonly head to the creek. Watching Canada geese brazenly waddle alongside joggers on the path, or a a resident coyote trot out slyly from the creekside shrubs, can untie my mental knots in a heartbeat. So can singing.
After a few minutes I stopped to gaze down at the creek, whose slow and shallow current disappeared in places beneath thin ice sheets. My head cramp relaxed into a stream of consciousness.
Ice. Water. Current. Rocks. Cottonwoods. Shriveled leaves.
Suddenly – without “looking” for it – action, movement came to me. The kernel of an opening scene for the story. I jotted down a few words in a small spiral notepad I keep in my purse and soon returned to my office. I began typing continuous sentences along these lines:
Above ground the field of cover crops looks orderly and static. But what interests Murray is what lies hidden underground. Down there it’s a highly dynamic and far-from-predictable scene in which nitrate molecules flow insidiously to places where they shouldn’t…
At least it was a start. And I wasn’t stopping after every word as I had done earlier.
For short term writer’s block:
Leave your chair every 30 minutes to relieve your eyes, butt, brain, and obviously bladder. I keep a 30-minute hourglass filled with green sand on my desk. When it has emptied I take a five-minute walk outside or jog up and down the stairs of the four-story building where I work.
Do yoga poses. Do some downward dog, cat-cow, twisted triangle, and other poses that stretch out your back, legs and other stiffened body parts. Headstands help send more blood, and thus oxygen, flowing to the brain, where I need it most.
Stretch on a gymnastic ball. I sprawl on a large purple one face-up several times a day and roll back and forth. It’s a great stretch for the shoulders and back.
The mental cramps of more chronic, long-term, writer’s block can manifest in me as self-doubt, agitation, or lack of motivation. Sometimes it only takes a rejection of a pitch I was excited about to trigger a downward spiral.
Here are mind/body medicines that help me ward off that long-term malaise:
Work out. Working up a good sweat for an hour or so is the cheapest therapy. At the end of a working day, or midday, if there’s time, works best for me.
Meditate. Breathe. I feel more sane and compassionate when I take time each day, starting before work and sometimes briefly during the day, to stop and just pay attention to the breath. Let thoughts (my top tunes are “I’m a shit,” and “I give up”) pass through you like clouds in the sky. The practice helps remind me that I’m not just my thoughts, reactions, and feelings.
Call up or email a good friend, particularly a fellow journalist who understands your plight. This support is one of the greatest gifts of SciLance or other writers’ communities.
Just say no to work, email, the computer, at least one weekend day. Sometimes that’s impossible. But when I do escape work, even email, for a full day I feel recharged and more productive.
In case you need to hear it from scientists, Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything, in a recent column in the New York Times wrote: “A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal – including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations – boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”
I like that guy Schwartz, even if I’m not a daytime napper. Instead, I’ll head out now for another stairwell jog.
What are your favorite ways to beat writer’s block?
Image Credit: Susan Moran