When you’re finding it challenging to put pen to paper, to form ideas and have creative flow, or maybe you’re quite literally staring at a blank page - it’s likely you have writer's block.
All writers, in fact all creatives, have experienced a creative block in their work. Sometimes inspiration just doesn't strike. Creative blocks affect everyone differently but ultimately overcoming it, is grounded in conquering self doubt, fear, perfectionism and external pressures and just allowing yourself to start or pick things back up with no heavy expectation.
We spoke to writer and editor Elise Loehnen Fissmer for her tips on how to overcome writer's block. You may recognise her name and face from her previous role as chief content officer at Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop, including co-hosting The goop Lab on Netflix. Her writing skills & expertise however extend well beyond her time at goop, she’s co-written 11 books, including five New York Times Best Sellers, and she’s currently writing the first book under her own name. As a writer who is in the thick of creating and editing a book, who best to give us some insightful tips on overcoming writer's block.
Do the thing. Just write. And keep writing.
I highly recommend Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, and her very simple practice of “Morning Pages,” which is exactly what it suggests: As soon as you wake-up, maybe even before you’ve had your coffee, spend 10-15 minutes clearing your head long-hand as a way to decongest the mind. You can burn the pages immediately—they’re not intended to be published—or use them as a reference point for future work, but the idea is to get your creativity going. So don’t stifle it with self-consciousness or by editing as you go. P.S You can listen to Elise interview Julia for her podcast HERE.
Keep a notebook with you at all times.
I always have one with me so I can jot down random thoughts, updates I want to make, good quotes. Keep one by the side of the bed that you can reach for while you’re still half-asleep and want to record your dreams (try not to move your body). I also sometimes free-write when I’m waiting for my kids or stuck in a line, particularly if there’s something forming in my head that I don’t want to lose. (I never remember what I intend to remember.) Sometimes a sloppy paragraph of writing is enough to get me back into a chapter.
This sounds hypocritical because I just told you to start writing, but when you’re trying to write something more structured, i.e., a book, or a chapter, wait until you feel so full you have to go.
I liken it to giving birth. I will research, research, research, and then when it feels like a dam is breaking and I need to just get to my computer ASAP and frantically type. If I try to force it with unnatural structure—i.e., work on my book every day from 6-7am, it doesn’t work. But do your Morning Pages. (And some writers do much better with structured time, so ignore me if you want.)
Speaking of editing, when it comes to writing with the intent to publish, save the revising for future drafts and focus only on getting your SFD down on paper.
The “Shitty First Draft,” a brilliant term coined by Anne Lamott, is exactly that: It’s a first draft for your eyes only. I know the urge to share can feel strong—the hunger for validation is real—but SFDs are sacred and fragile things, particularly because you may feel the energy of your writing and the clarity of your thoughts, but that might not yet be evident on the page. And you don’t want outside eyes to crush your not-yet-fully realized vision with (probably valid) criticism. Put your SFD aside for as long as you can bear it before you pick it up again—the space and distance will allow you to see your writing with a lot of clarity, including where you haven’t been…clear.
Revising is really where any book is made.
Clarifying, distilling, streamlining, supporting…I am on draft #12 of the book I’m finishing. I have been revising for as long as I spent researching and writing. This feels backwards, but it’s not, because it’s far too easy to get tripped up trying to craft perfect sentences as the thoughts form in your head and exit out your hands. Don’t fall into that trap! Just get it on the page. And with every subsequent draft you will find more artful and efficient ways to say it. As you revise your work, be cognizant that you will get tired. Find ways to take a break from your pages but don’t throw in the towel and accept mediocrity. Keep your future self in mind—a future self that will be happy that you pushed through to make your writing as good as possible even though you just want to curl up in bed and nap. Or die.
Allow the resistance. Know that it’s coming. It’s part of the void of creating something, an inevitable friend and foe.
You have to get through this Wasteland. There’s a great, very short book called, Do the Work, which is a critical read for this point, when you don’t want to take the feedback and yet recognize the feedback is right. And when you feel so awfully tired. He wrote it specifically for screenwriters, but it applies to all writing. Speaking of screenwriters, my friend Taylor, who is one, gave me an invaluable insight when I was struggling with some edits. “What’s the note behind the note?” While I couldn’t understand what the editor was saying directly, I used this thought to get at what was beneath: The information was too fast and furious for her to follow my argument. She couldn’t keep up. Making that connection, even though she didn’t say exactly that, unlocked my resistance and I suddenly knew what I needed to do.
Print your manuscript out, cut it up, and move pieces around.
Also re-outline your work as you go—sometimes things you’ve left out as you’ve built your argument will be glaringly obvious, or you’ll spot where you’re being repetitive. I hate wasting paper, but reading and editing longhand is a different experience, too, and this way you can compare and contrast sections that you wouldn’t normally see on the same screen.
If the process itself isn’t joyful—granted, it won’t be joyful all the time—then reconsider your motives. Publishing is an anemic business and writing a bestseller is improbable. If you’re writing because you’re anticipating a huge audience, there are less laborious paths to that goal! If you’re writing because you can’t imagine not writing, keep going and trust that the people who need your book will find you. As Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird (another essential read for writers): “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
For more inspiring (& practical) content follow Elise on Instagram @eliseloehnen and listen to her podcast Pulling The Thread.
Shop Elise’s notebooks. She uses our Vegan Leather Notebook for therapy sessions & sessions with her spiritual advisor; the Paper Notebook for random thoughts and a Daily Planner for to-do lists.