The more time you spend writing, the more you learn about yourself as a writer. You discover what subjects and sorts of people you’re drawn to, and you figure out the style in which you want to write about them. But that’s the stuff that anyone who reads your work can figure out for themself.
There’s another side of writing – the behind-the-scenes stuff, the process – and it’s just as important for a writer to learn about this aspect of their craft (the where and when and how, you could say) as it is the other (the what and the why).
For instance, over the years I’ve found out what sorts of writing I’m best at first thing in the morning and what sorts I’m more prepared to tackle at the end of the day. I’ve discovered what kinds of background noise will distract me and what kinds won’t. I’ve learned where and when I should stop writing at the end of the night so that I can more smoothly pick up where I left off the next day.
Of course, these variables aren’t always in your control. Ideal conditions are rare. But the better I know what works for me, the more efficient I can be in the time and space that I have.
Maybe the most valuable thing I’ve picked up over the years are those handful of techniques that I know can kick-start my creativity. Sometimes I’ll be having trouble carrying along a scene, finding the right word to describe a character, or figuring out where to direct the reader’s attention. That’s when I’ll try one of these kick-starting tactics, and almost always, one or another of them will help me out:
1. Switch mediums.
If I’m typing when I run into a problem, I’ll often grab a pad and a pen and finish the paragraph, scene, or chapter longhand (and vice versa, moving from pad to computer). If even that isn’t helping, I’ll hang on to the pad and pen, but stop hammering away at the troublesome paragraph, scene, or chapter. Instead I’ll write in a more general way about the characters, the setting, or what I’m hoping to accomplish by writing about what they’re doing where they are.
Clarifying your purpose, giving yourself a straightforward and succinct mission statement of sorts, is often all you need in order to find your way onto the next sentence or the end of that scene.
2. Leave it alone.
It seems counterintuitive, and is often the last thing you want to do in the moment – but now and again the best thing to do when you’ve encountered some creative block is get up, walk away, and leave the thing alone. Usually, the problem will solve itself while you’re off doing something else. You’ll be cleaning the cat’s litter box, grocery shopping, or catching up on e-mails, and suddenly realize that this character can’t tell that character about the thing until a couple chapters later.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the writer Martin Amis. When I wasn’t freaking out about the fact that I was sitting on a couch next to Martin Amis, I was able to have a conversation with him. While talking about the novel he was working on at the time, he mentioned that he, too, uses this hands-off technique to negotiate some of the tougher snags he runs into while writing. He said that he’s been at it so long that, when pushing away from his desk, he’s now able to size the problem up and accurately predict just how long he’ll need to stay away in order for the problem to work itself out – whether it’s a two-hour problem, a two-day problem, or a problem so knotty that it requires two weeks of diligent avoidance.
I’ve always loved to draw, but it’s only recently that I realized drawing could help my writing. Not because I’m particularly good at it, mind you. But maybe because, in a way, drawing a picture combines the two previous approaches to dealing with a writing problem – I’m both switching to a different medium and taking a step back.
Recently, feeling a bit uninspired while revising a manuscript, I decided to do some quick, cartoony drawings of some of the characters I was writing about. I’m honestly not sure what inspired it. Maybe the urge to draw just happened to strike at the right time. But drawing my characters’ faces, tweaking their lines and trying again and again until I felt I’d gotten them precisely right – somehow this brought me closer to them. It opened them up to me in a way that all the thinking and rereading in the world never could have done.
Below I’ve posted a link to a few of the drawings I did. But “drawings” actually doesn’t feel quite right – I guess they’re more like “doodles.” They were begun spontaneously, and each one took somewhere between five and fifty seconds to complete. The doodles are the equivalent of the shorthand notes I might jot down to remind myself what I’m trying to accomplish in a scene.
Good luck to you on all of your creative endeavors, and if you’ve got any tips or tricks that work particularly well for you when you come up against a problem, feel free to reply here and share.