If you suffer from writer’s block, you’re not alone. Most writers I know have faced that wall many times and surmounted it. Some people find themselves at that wall over and over again.
Sometimes this happens because you’re not sure how to move your story forward.
Sometimes this happens because you’re terrified of failing.
If it’s the latter, you may be a perfectionist. One understanding of perfectionism is that it’s a psychological mechanism by which you attempt to prevent failure by being “perfect.” And one of the symptoms of perfectionism is procrastination, a way to avoid engaging with perfectionism’s relentlessly harsh taskmaster by…not writing.
Writing and Life Coach Hillary Rettig discusses this tangled web of fear and diminished productivity in her fantastic book, 7 Secrets of the Prolific. She presents lots of ways to tackle perfectionism and become more productive, the chief among them being a mental attitude of “compassionate objectivity.” You might think of this as the voice of the loving (grand)parent, the wise mentor, the friend. It might be the voice of your writing partners or critique group (that’s certainly true for me), who say, “Don’t worry. Everyone goes through this.” It’s very different than the nasty voice of perfectionism, which hisses, “Why did you ever think you could do this? You’re a total failure. Quit now.” One of the ways Rettig proposes writers develop the compassionate objectivity and resilience they need to become prolific is through extremely short timed writing.
I taught creative and expository writing for many years, and I often asked my students to free-write for fifteen or twenty minutes. I was inspired to do this by Natalie Goldberg’s classic, Writing Down the Bones, in which she extols the virtues of free-writing and cautions: Don’t let the hand stop moving. Rettig’s important twist on this practice is that if you are suffering from writer’s block, you have to start small. Laughably small. If you’re blocked—either by perfectionism or because you don’t know where to go with your piece—start with five minutes of writing.
If you’re blocked, you’re probably thinking: How the @&?!*%#$! is five minutes going to help me? I have a 400-page novel to write! Tell yourself Rome was not built in a day. Tell yourself, as Anne Lamott says, to just do it “bird by bird.” And then give this practical technique a try.
Get a timer. Rettig suggests using an old-fashioned kitchen timer. I tried this and it made me feel like a bomb was about to go off under my desk, but if it works for you, go for it. I like the free app called Pomodoro (more about the Pomodoro technique & other apps here). You can set up the timer for up to five intervals, each one lasting from five to twenty-five minutes. You can also create a break between your sessions, however long you wish, which are perfect for rewards (see below).
The idea is to write for a very short time. Set an interval that makes you say: I can definitely write for X minutes. Then choose any part of your story and write for X minutes. The idea is to not worry about quality at this point. And if you get stuck trying to write the story, Rettig recommends you write about the story, or about the problem you’re having with it.
Five minutes. Then stop and celebrate. Reward yourself well—you must treat yourself way better than you think you deserve for writing for five minutes—and then, when you want to write again, do so. But only for five minutes.
Short, timed writing—what I think of as micro writing—defeats the perfectionist nay-sayer and stops procrastination. It’s only five minutes, after all. And, as Rettig points out, as you use this technique you will find that your sense of accomplishment returns. And when that happens, you can lengthen your timed sessions: fifteen minutes, forty minutes, four hours.
It’s very simple and very powerful. And if the panic sets in after you get going with this, and it probably will—“Yes, yes, I was writing nothing but I’m still only writing 2,000 words a day and it’s not nearly enough to finish my 400-page book!—gently go back to timed sessions. Trust the process to get you back on track so that you are once again writing without fear.
Pomodoro by pomodoro: which is how I wrote this post.
When GITA TRELEASE was little, she believed that if she squinted just right, she could see the glimmer of magic around certain things. She still does. As an English professor, she taught classes on Victorian criminals, monsters, and fairy tales. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and opinionated Maine Coon cat, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current YA project is a historical fantasy set during the French Revolution—with a glimmer of magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.