It’s day 8 of NaNoWriMo 2011. I’m ahead of schedule by a little bit (hooray!), but I know from experience that it’s incredibly easy to hit a wall, fall behind, and throw in the towel all together. Happens to even the best writers.
Ruts, writer’s block, lack of inspiration, paranoia, fear– call it whatever you want; it’s real. Sometimes it comes at the beginning of the process, before you’ve put a single word down on paper. You’re gripped with anxiety over making a mistake or failing.
But sometimes it doesn’t rear its head until your project is well underway. By the time you’ve already expended so much energy on your work, you start to feel the drag and then the eventual halt.
Do you know how to handle the dreaded writing paralysis once it hits?
Let’s call it writer’s block (even though I don’t believe such a thing even exists). You have some options for getting through it: you could stop writing and abandon your work (yuck), you could plow through and put crap on the page and meander around until you find your footing again (not a bad option), or you can flex some mental muscles and employ the help of writing exercises (duh– this one is the best).
Recently I was reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants (super funny read, btw), when I was struck by a section called “The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.”
Amazing claims, right?
Even better, her basic improv tips are actually fantastic ways to bust out of a writing rut if modified slightly and applied to whatever project you’re working on, be it NaNoWriMO, a short story, an essay, a pitch, a novel written in more than 30 days, whatever.
Here’s how to put Tina Fey’s improv tips to use when you feel “writer’s block” settling in:
- Agree. “Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to ‘respect what your partner has created’ and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.“ Approach your writing with this mindset. Respect what you have already created, whether in your head or on the page. Agree with your creativity and your ideas instead of questioning them. This step alone might open up your writing greatly, whereas disagreeing (which is what writer’s block does to you) closes your creativity off.
- Yes, and. “Agree and then add something of your own… To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.” Right on, Tina! Think about this in terms of your solo writing project for a second. Are you afraid to contribute your ideas to your own freaking project? Maybe you are and that’s why you’re feeling blocked. Give yourself the chance to say YES, AND to your ideas. They’ll expand and grow if you take the time to see your contributions to your own work as worthy.
- Make statements. “This also applies to us women: speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, ‘I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?’ Make statements with your actions and with your voice.” Spin this idea around in your head for a second: make statements with your actions and with your voice. Now try doing this. Check yourself before you wreck yourself– are you making statements with your writing, or are you so full of self-doubt that your writing is weak and basically apologizing for existing? Try writing something with a voice of authority and sureness, not weakness. Banish all writing that implies “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” Maybe you don’t– but you should never let them see you sweat.
- There are no mistakes, only opportunities. “In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. Any many of the greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.” Amen! Think about all the beautiful happy accidents you miss out on when you worry about making mistakes with your writing. Of course, in a first draft of anything you’ll probably make some decisions that, on revision, you edit and change, but how would your writing change, expand, and improve if you stopped seeing mistakes and only saw opportunities? Every word you put down is the opportunity for a new character to emerge, a new plot line to take root, a new conflict to open up for you. I think you’re missing out on the best part of writing if, while you’re working on something, you don’t have moments where a “mistake” changes form and gives you new, better ideas.