Earlier this summer, I wrote to the daughter of a friend who was feeling stymied in her writing. She wrote to me to ask for advice. It seems that we might all benefit from a meditation of what to do when stymied. After all, we're deep into summer, a traditional time to be stymied (dog days, anyone).
Today, general advice, which is likely applicable across creative work. Later, advice specific to writers.
I think that most people who are feeling stymied are feeling stymied for only a few possible reasons and getting to the heart of those reasons is key.
Are you stymied because you’re creatively tired? I often feel stunted after I’ve been writing at a furious pace. Sometimes I need to take a break and refill my well. Ways that I do that refilling: I travel, I spend time with friends, I read deeply, I do other art forms I enjoy (paint, collage, fiber arts of all sorts, cooking).
I’m also often stymied because I’m physically tired. If that’s the case, sleep more or at the very least, relax.
Are you stymied because of some fear? Feel the fear and do it anyway—as many a self-help book would tell you. How to do that? Give yourself permission to do it badly. Turn that into a fun project: for example, write the most wretchedly horrible poem/story/essay that you can. Or tell yourself that you only have to work a certain amount of time each day or each week. Keep it tiny—20 minutes and then you can stop. You don’t have to stop. But you’ll have done what is required. Are you afraid because you’ve had some success in a certain genre and you feel the weight of expectation? Maybe you won an award for your poem? Write something different.
Are you stymied because you need inspiration or instruction or ideas? Read on!
--keep a journal. If you’re feeling like nothing ever happens, or you’re feeling like too much happens, note just one thing, just one sentence, just one striking thing you noticed each day.
--Observe the same place every day. Take a photograph of the view out your window. Or once a day, look out the window and write down the first thing you see. My friend does a variation of this exercise by walking to a park each day and sitting on the same park bench.
--Change your reading habits. Choose a genre you wouldn’t ordinarily: if you always read novels, choose a volume of poetry; if you always read fiction, wander over to the non-fiction side. Choose a topic that interests you and get a book-length treatment of it. See what inspires you.
--here’s a great site that gives a prompt every day, along with instructions for each kind of writing you might do (poetry, fiction, memoir, etc). Often a guest writer does the prompt, so you’ve got a wide variety. Make a vow that you’ll go to this site once a month or once a week or once a day and quickly write something. Set your timer and force yourself to start after 20 minutes. You can afford 20 minutes.
Later this week: more ideas specifically for writers.
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