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).

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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.

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? 

Coming to my Senses

I write a monthly naturalist column as part of my volunteer work at a local nature sanctuary. These mini essays are posted near the trailhead to help visitors enjoy their experiences at the nature center. January is kind of a tricky month, because, at first glance, there’s not much to see. The trees are lifeless, the ground is muddy, and the animals are all holed up because it’s cold.

So, I decided to write about using your four senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch – to really experience nature. (You can’t use taste – it’s a nature sanctuary and you aren’t supposed to eat anything!)

I also thought I’d include a haiku poem of mine to illustrate this point, so I scoured my files for a winter-themed poem that focused on sound.

What a rude awakening! Not only do I have very few haiku written about winter, I have just a handful of haiku written about sound, and most of those are spring-themed. I am partial to frogs and woodpeckers, so frog calls and rat-a-tat-tatting show up with some frequency in my poetry. But I am seriously lacking in sensory imagery apart from visual.

I think, for the next month, I am going to focus on sound in my haiku. Care to join me? What sense are you ignoring in your poetry? If you write haiku, does a certain season dominate your work?

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Keeping it Real

I have a confession to make. I’ve been following the reality train wreck that is True Tori. I’m not going to provide any links here – that televised fiasco doesn’t need any more promotion. Either Tori Spelling and her husband are going through an actual marital crisis and have decided to document their troubles in real time, or, more disturbing, they’ve invented a marital crisis to milk on reality TV. Either way, the idea that their children are living through this messy, murky, very public pseudo-reality is highly disturbing to me.

However, as a stay-at-home mom and writer, I have some sympathy for Tori. A couple of years ago, I wrote a weekly green living column for a local online newspaper. During the school year, with my youngest in preschool a few hours a week, the job didn’t conflict much with my mommy duties. But during the summer, with three kids under twelve to herd and a weekly column to write, I was swamped. I found myself looking for any way to combine my two jobs. Could I interview the invasive species sculpture artists that I bumped into while taking the kids to the local butterfly garden? (Yes. You can read that column here.)

My kids and I did a lot of fun activities together that summer, but they weren’t happy about it.

“It’s like you were home, but you weren’t really there,” my older boy observed.

Ouch.

I have the utmost respect for working moms. And having been a stay-at-home mom, I know what a difficult and isolating job it can be. Women who successfully combine the two are amazing.

I was not amazing. I couldn’t even handle a part-time job mixed with full-time parenting.

And so I wonder, as I watch Tori Spelling flail and founder, if she’s completely lost the line between work and home. Is she wreaking havoc in her life for the sole purpose of selling her story? Has selling reality become more important than what is actually real?

I can see how it can happen. And I was lucky – I wasn’t in very deep, just writing on nice, happy topics that weren’t personally damaging to my family. But that experience still left me wary of writing about myself.

My new rule of thumb is that I can write non-fiction, but only after it’s happened. I’m not going to warp reality in order to write about it unless I can do so in a way that doesn’t involve my kids.

How do you keep your writing life from negatively impacting yourself and your family? Do you have any writing rules to keep you grounded?

Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

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