Craft

The Pit of Despair

 

So. Somehow on a blog called Writer’s Block Party, we haven’t really talked all that much about Writer’s Block. Writer’s Block means something different to everyone, and I’m not going to sit here and debate with you whether it’s real or not. Everyone’s process is different, and everyone’s struggles are different, too.

My version of Writer’s Block is usually just about getting stuck. I mean really, really stuck. The kind of stuck where I’m not only clueless about how to go forward, but I also start to doubt everything behind me, too. The kind of stuck that feels like I’ve fallen into a deep pit of thorns, shadows, and despair.

 

Stage 1: Approaching the cliff

This isn’t true for everyone, but for me I can often see the sheer drop long before I finally get there. I know that there’s a question I haven’t yet answered, a plot point I haven’t figured out yet, and as I write toward I can see what’s going to happen when I get there. This stage can also be seen as a kind of denial, because even if I know the cliff is ahead, I always hope that once I get to the edge, a bridge will appear. Sometimes it does, and that’s great! But usually I get to the edge of the cliff and there’s nothing. And that’s when I look down and start to panic.

Stage 2: Panic and frenzy

At this point, I know I’m about to fall. I will start trying to brainstorm, trying to come up with answers to the questions i need answered or ways of solving the issue. I will usually rope someone else into this with me, clinging desperately to whatever help I can find before I fall down the pit. Sometimes I’ll hit upon something that seems to work, but when I try to write it it doesn’t work for whatever reasons. Sometimes I will do this several times, writing and deleting words in a frenzy and getting absolutely nowhere.

Stage 3: Pit of Despair

At this point, I’ve gone over the cliff. I am in the pit. I am Stuck. Words will not come. Even sitting down to write each day fills me with anguish. Despair creeps in. I begin to think that perhaps it’s not just that I’m Stuck, perhaps it’s that the entire novel is utter garbage and I should throw my laptop out the window and move to Greenland to herd reindeer. At this point it usually doesn’t matter how much my friends try to reassure me or how much Trader Joe’s Herbs & Spices popcorn I eat. I am in the depths of despair and there is no way out.

 

But once you find yourself in the pit of despair, how do you start to climb out? I’m not going to sit here and tell you there’s an easy way to do it. By the time I realize I’m completely stuck, I’m not exactly in a good headspace to get myself unstuck. So usually, after a lot of histrionic wallowing, I make myself take a break from the project all together.

This is can be really, really hard to do. Because while being stuck means there’s nothing I want more than to light my laptop on fire, it also means that I have a problem, and when I have a problem I instinctively want to solve it, even when doing so just winds up making the hole I’m in even deeper. It’s almost as if stepping away from the problem, from the project as a whole, is admitting defeat. But it isn’t. It just means I need to take a breath and regain my strength for the hard climb ahead. The break might be one day, or it might be a whole week, but during that time I try to do two things.

One is self-care. When I’m making myself miserable over a writing problem, I tend to try to make myself miserable in other ways, too, as if punishing myself for being unable to make progress. But having that impulse just means it’s even more important to be kind to myself. To cook dinner. Watch TV shows that make me smile and laugh. Talk to friends–about something other than my book.

The other thing I try to do is refill the creative well as much as I can during my break. Whether that means reading just one book or seeing one movie, or binging an entire TV series, I try to let myself enjoy and experience the storytelling of others. This gets my creative gears turning again, even if it’s not focused on my own work.

Sometimes, an enforced break will lead to a magic breakthrough and I’m able to come back to the problem fresh and ready to take it on. But sometimes, even after taking a break, no magic solution appears. This is, of course, frustrating, but it’s not altogether unexpected. An easy solution would be a great end to all that despair, but that’s not usually how it works.

Usually, I just have to write through it. If my break has ended and I still don’t have a magic answer, I just write. It might be painful, and it might be bad, but at a certain point I just have to grit my teeth and push through. Get something on the page. Once the words start coming again, even if they’re the wrong words, I’m more likely to be able to find the right ones. Or at least get a little closer.

I wish I could tell you there’s a magic solution I use when I get stuck, but usually it’s just this–riding out the painful feelings of failure and doubt, and trying to claw my way out of the pit as best I can. Whatever I come out of the pit with is never perfect. But getting unstuck is as much about battling the emotional demons as it is finding the right solution. Once you find your footing, you can start to climb.

 

So what do you guys do when you get stuck? Any brainstorming techniques or advice that really resonates with you? Let us know in the comments!

 

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