Four Ways to Outwit Writer’s Block

The key to outwitting writer’s block is to attack when its back is turned. Ironically, when you lull yourself into a safe place in which you don’t expect to produce writing of value, you will make a breakthrough.

How do you accomplish this? It helps to know why you’re stuck. Here are four common types of writer’s block and ways to get around them:

1) You can’t write out of fear of failure.

There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page. Shouldn’t writers be able to produce verbiage 24/7? Don’t worry; this happens to everyone.

Write in a different genre, try a new poetic form, scribble something just for fun. Give yourself permission to take your writing less seriously.

As an undergraduate, my professor stressed the importance of long, narrative poems. I became so obsessed with literary quality that I couldn’t write! I didn’t publish any new poetry for nearly ten years.

Instead, I switched to working on creative nonfiction and magazine articles. I started a family-friendly science blog. While researching topics for my blog, I stumbled onto scifaiku – a curious and oddly specific poetic form. Before my conscious mind could take over – and remind me that I couldn’t write poetry any more – I began to crank out scifaiku. It was so wildly different from narrative free verse that it slipped past my mental filters. That was eight years ago, and I am now a published short-form poet, with awards for both haiku and scifaiku.

2) You can’t write because you don’t know where to begin. You have too many ideas!

The best way to escape this block is to write outside of your comfort zone. Tailor your work to a specific market. Search for “poetry contest” or “fiction contest” on Twitter and hit up calls for submissions in places like NewPages.

I made my first speculative flash fiction sale (apart from microfiction) to Mad Scientist Journal, a publication that seeks stories about – you guessed it – mad scientists. I wrote about a sweat sock researcher who got arrested for hiding in a communal dryer. Quirky? Sure. But it helped me to get past my writer’s block AND I made a sale.

3) You’re out of ideas.

Take a writing break. Don’t write anything – not even a shopping list – for a few days. Muses hate to be ignored. Similar to not chasing after a promising date, running will scare your muse away. Ignoring them has a way of making them return to woo you with flowery words.

4) Your writing career has suffered a setback that causes you to doubt yourself.

If this is your situation, you have my sympathies. Writing is a solitary business and nothing is harder than facing a word shortage when you have doubts about your ability to produce quality work.

If steps 1-3 fail, start another creative endeavor, one entirely outside the field of writing.

In 2015, I finally broke into a paying poetry market that I had been trying to crack for months. But by the time my work was set for publication, the editor was embroiled in controversy and some poets boycotted the journal. I found the whole situation so uncomfortable that I couldn’t write poetry. Again!

So, I turned to crafting. Instead of writing small poems, I made tiny wreaths, hanging adornments instead of adjectives. It took a few months – and over 100 ornaments – but finally, the shock wore off and the lure of writing called again. Only now, I also have to keep track of an Etsy shop too!

Do you have a technique for outwitting writer’s block? Let’s talk about it. Tell me in the comments or tag me on Twitter (@MamaJoules).

Failure (or Why Crafting is Like Writing Fiction)


See this wreath? I made it yesterday. And then I deconstructed it and threw most of it away. As much as I hate to admit it, I failed at making this wreath. 

Failure gets a bad rap. Sure, it sucks to admit defeat. But studying failure can be quite instructive.

Why does this wreath fail to please the eye? First and foremost, it doesn’t transcend the space. That’s always my favorite part of crafting – when the piece I’m making stops looking like pieces – a bow, some ribbon, a few dots of glue – and become a wreath. If my wreath was a short story, you’d simply say, “This just isn’t working for me.”

Okay. Let’s break that down. One of the biggest problems with this wreath is the color. It really would look better in green. More Christmas-y. More wreath-like. Again, if this was a short story, I’d have to change the setting. Maybe alter the background.

Moving on to content – I like the bow. I saved that element. But there’s nothing else to catch your eye. Wreaths work best with “the rule of three” – groups of three items are pleasing to the eye. In a short story, you might say I have too many characters. No one element really stands out. 

Size and scale are problems too. I like working with small things – miniwreaths, micropoetry. Sometimes scaling up – moving up to a big wreath or a short story – is tough for me. This wreath didn’t scale well. Again, if I was writing a short story, I’d need to give my characters bigger problems and/or describe them in greater detail, really flesh them out.

Unfortunately, crafting isn’t quite as forgiving as writing, and I had to throw most of this wreath out because the hot glue (for once) actually held on with a death grip. And maybe that’s a writing lesson too – if a story is holding on to you so tightly that you are paralyzed with writer’s block, it’s time to admit defeat – it’s time to fail! – and move on.

Writing in the Desert

I don’t know how it is for you on your writing journey, but I have blank periods of time where words elude me. I don’t mean that my writing is trite or banal; I mean, the words don’t come at all. It’s like they’ve migrated to a tropical climate and left me in the throes of a dull, gray winter.

I’ve tried a few techniques for getting away from writer’s block. What seems to work best for me is switching my focus from one type of writing to the next. When poetry evades me, I write creative nonfiction. If fiction is challenging, I try magazine articles. Generally, this has served me well. 

However, last summer I got burned out on creative writing in general. You can see that reflected in this blog – I quit writing much of anything. Largely, this had to do with my disillusionment with the poetry community. It seemed like every time I turned around, there were accusations – some well-founded – of sexism, racism, and cultural appropriation. As a community, these discussions are vital. They serve to further understanding among groups if we actually take the time to listen to each other. But as an individual poet, I found it disenheartening that there was such an undercurrent of exclusion and unhappiness in my happy place. I like to believe that poetry is this magical, mystical playground where we all explore words together and seek a greater awareness of life. Sadly, this is quite an idealistic view.

Disillusioned, I quit writing. And then the words packed up their baggage and left, leaving me feeling even emptier than before. I’ve spent the past six months crafting instead. It’s not the same. I still yearn to write.

Many years ago, I belonged to a small community of faith. We were a little group that met weekly to encourage one another on our journey with God. One of our members referred to these times of existential crisis as the desert portion of our journey. Believing in God is easy when we are happy and things are going well. But our faith is challenged during times of pain or struggle.

I see a similar parallel with writing. Every time I lose touch with my ability to write, I feel a desperate panic. And I am always greatly relieved and comforted when the words return.

How do you handle the desert days of your writing life? Do you write your way through them, trusting that if you prime the pump, the words will come? Or do you turn to other creative endeavors to get you through the bleak times?

Have you painted your rock today?

  When my daughter was about two, she was invited to a party with the big girls up the block. She was so excited! One of the craft projects led to the girls decorating a rock.
Now, there’s nothing exciting or special about this rock. It is plain, smooth-faced gray stone, the kind you might find all over your neighborhood, especially if you live near me. I happen to like rocks, and this one has done little to pique my geologic interest over the years.

But I was wrong about it. This stone is special to my daughter. Princess brought the whole force of her creative self upon this rock. She painted it, spread glitter on it, and glued gems to it. For five years now, I have kept this craft masterpiece in my kitchen, on the window ledge by the sink, so I can look at it when I am doing the dishes. It reminds me that things aren’t always what they seem – and that my perspective might be quite different than someone else’s.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think we all have a plain grey rock in our lives. Something that you – and maybe only you – are excited about. Maybe it’s your new fuzzy socks or a song you like. Perhaps it’s an art technique or an artificial intelligence algorithm. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes your heart sing. Something that makes you feel creative and alive and special and chosen.

Too often, I think, we let other people’s views of what we should or shouldn’t like or do color our actions. Others see our passions or interests as plain grey rocks instead of the fine igneous masterpieces that they truly are. And instead of fearlessly throwing ourselves into our passions like only a toddler can do, we walk away, a little sadder, the world less bright than before.

Now is the time to reclaim your passion. Have you painted your rock today? 

What it Takes to be a Real Writer

As part of my quest to branch out from poetry to short fiction, I subscribe to Daily Science Fiction. If you like to read short, speculative pieces, I highly recommend joining their mailing list.

However, despite close and careful study, I haven’t yet cracked DSF as a writer. So I usually read the authors’ notes after each piece, curious about those who have broken through. Recently, I saw a story by James S. Dorr, a name familiar to me because of his involvement with science fiction poetry.

My thought upon reading the man’s name was, “Oh, I’ve heard of him. He’s a real writer.”

And then I stopped. I sat there, dumbfounded. “Wow. Did I really just think that?”

Because the implication here is obvious: at a subconscious level, I don’t see myself as a writer. Not a real one, anyway.

How is this possible?

For eight years, I wrote government reports professionally. I penned a weekly green living newspaper column for a year. My poetry has been published internationally. My work can be found in anthologies. I’ve even won writing awards.

None of that matters to my subconscious, apparently. I still don’t qualify.

Is it because I write fan-fiction? Because I haven’t published a book (even though I’ve been included in a few)? Because I can’t pay the bills with my words? Because I’m desperately insecure and needy?

What is it going to take to convince myself that I am a real writer? That all of us who pick up a pen or tap on our iPads with the intent to communicate are real writers?

Real writers write. Period. That’s it. There are no other qualifications for entry.

Now, if I could just convince myself of that …

(Clearly, I need coffee. Real writers sit in coffee shops, right?)

P.S. BTW, my congrats and a hat tip to James S. Dorr. My subconscious says that you have arrived. 😉

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Acceptance

I received the most wonderful email a few days ago. It was an acceptance letter for an unusual flash fiction short story that I wrote. I wanted to share this here because, as a writer, I think it’s so important that we relish our successes. It’s vital that we have something to sustain us during the long, painful drought of rejections. I love acceptance letters even more than seeing my pieces in print. It made my day. I even got paid!

For this piece, I saw the call for submissions, thought the concept would be a fun challenge, and whipped up something. I have no idea where I would have tried to market the piece had it not sold there. I wish I could share it with you now, but it’s in the publisher’s queue for November 2014.

Publication is a process. I can look back now and see the long road that I have travelled from emerging to published poet. Sometimes, I get frustrated that I can’t just jump from established poet directly to established short story writer. I may be in the middle of my journey as a poet, but I’m just unfolding the road map for writing fiction.

But today I celebrate my fiction writing success. I have found the road! 🙂

jublke's Heart-Shaped Flower Wreath