This article belongs to The Writing LifeóThe Good, the Bad, and the Ugly column.
Whether you are attempting to write the introductory paragraph to a non-fiction article or another chapter of your novel, there comes a time - no matter how prepared you are - that you are left staring at a blank screen. You can use this bout of writer's block as an excuse to procrastinate on that book or article, but you will be the one who suffers in the end. This is not to say that getting those creative juices flowing again is easy, but I don't believe it's as hard as television or movies make it out to be. It's not even as hard as we writers make it out to be. Below are some things you may have already heard, but this is what helps me put words on screen. And, if you don't like them (or even if you do), please add what has worked for you in the comments section. We can always use more advice on beating this writing demon.
Write Through It
If you are rolling your eyes, I don't blame you. The first time I heard this advice, I laughed. I mean, isn't not being able to write why we have writer's block in the first place? I was taking a novel writing class at the time, and chapters were due, and if I paid money for something I wasn't going to slack. So, having nothing to lose, I tried it. I wrote five pages. Five pages of crap, to be precise. However, as I wrote, my brain kept moving a step ahead of me, putting in new ideas that I could revisit later. In the end, I used maybe one page of what I had written, but my mind was already in writing mode and completing the required pages came easily. Plus, I don't know about you, but my hyperventilating decreases when I see there are words before me.
Visit Your Idea Factory
It may be a notebook, scraps of paper on your desk, or index cards in your bag, but we all have a place where we jot down article, story, or book ideas. I use all the places mentioned above, including the backs of envelopes, napkins, and anything else lying around - which would explain why my desk and purse are so messy . . . . If you do not have such a place, create one. Then, when you're stuck, all you have to do is remember (OK, that may not be easy) where you wrote down some of those brilliant (or so they appeared at the time) ideas and snatch one for your current project. You'll be surprised at how that fantastic first chapter line could lend itself as a starter for a non-fiction piece.
Take A Break
This may be the easiest way to go as long as that break lasts no more than a day. Otherwise, you run the risk of staying in rest mode, which although a comforting place to be, will not get your work done. What you do on that break is up to you. You know yourself best. I stay away from watching TV because that does not help me generate new ideas. My favorites are a walk, exercise, or reading that book that's been waiting for me. But, if watching a horror movie is what gets those gears moving, go for it.
Review Past Projects
Just because the assignments are completed doesn't mean they have nothing more to offer. I got my idea for a recent short story from an old novel I was working on. A pitch idea that was picked up last week? That came from a published article I did. Before you think you are copying yourself, let me assure you this is not the case. Looking over past stories or articles will allow you to take a familiar concept and present it in an entirely new way. That how-to article could be a first person essay. The minor character in your novel could be the main character in a short story. There was a reason you wrote about these people or facts before, perhaps there is a way to bring them back to life Ė reincarnate them, so to speak.
Remember when your elementary teacher told you to draw a web or outline before starting your writing assignment? She may have been on to something. Now, I had been the first to groan when my past and recent instructors required planning boards (fancy outline name) before starting a project, but I gave in (about the same time I surrendered to the "write through it" advice). And it worked. I may not have followed the outline exactly, but referring to it in tight spots helped me see what my next novel plot point should be. I also do an article sketch before every non-fiction assignment. Nothing grand, but just jotting down what my headers will be keeps me focused. And if you're truly stuck, taking out those crayons and markers to draw pretty idea bubbles is fun, if nothing else.
In the end, whatever you choose to do is a great idea. I have a friend who likes to doodle people's profiles when she's stumped. Another swears by cheddar and sour cream potato chips. If it helps you conquer the blank page, we won't judge.