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Monday, January 11, 2010

On Writing: Seven Cures for Creative Paralysis

In the spirit of starting fresh with writing goals in the new year, I am posting a few articles throughout the month of January. I hope you are inspired to make this your best writing year yet!


Think you have writer's block? Here are seven proven cures
from the Dr. Weils of the writing world.
Originally published in the SCBWI Bulletin.

My passion for writing began with a single idea—one destined to change the children’s book world. When I wasn’t in class or doing homework, I diligently wrote and rhymed until my picture book text reached a whopping 1,600 words. I smiled with satisfaction. Finally, it was ready for pictures!

I vividly recall the moment my first fear gripped me. I was in the shower, musing about my story and reciting the lines. I froze: what if this is my first, last, and best story? What if I never have another idea?

Thankfully, the fear was unfounded. But now, a number of years (and a few classes on writing for children) later, I tend to have the opposite problem. I have a zillion ideas. What I don’t have is time to develop them all. Combine that with unhealthy tendencies toward perfectionism, distraction, and procrastination, and the result is a strain of writer’s block I’m particularly susceptible to. I call it “creative paralysis.”

Maybe you have great beginnings for two Middle Grade novels, four picture books, and numerous nonfiction articles, poems, and short stories (as I do). Or maybe you have one great story, but are so overwhelmed with possible directions you can’t seem to write a single word for any of them. If you have ever been reeling with ideas but stop cold when faced with choosing a direction, you know what I’m talking about.

This ailment comes up over and over for me, so I decided to see what my personal panel of experts has to say on the subject.

Choose One Story—and Write It
“Writing isn’t a matter of sitting around and waiting for the spirit to move you,” says Nancy Lamb, author of The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children. When life is happening around us, that’s when we need Lamb’s three Ds the most: Desire, Discipline, and Determination.

First we must separate the desire to have written a book from the desire to write. Desire will propel us to the next and more difficult stage, discipline. I have the most trouble with this D—writing every day whether I’m in the mood or not, but Lamb personalizes the struggle into inspiration: “Discipline means we make up our minds not to let ourselves down.” Lastly, Determination won’t let obstacles bring you to a halt. Hidden within the three Ds is a fourth—Direction. So choose one story now and put the Ds to work.

Face Your Fears
Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way suggests blocks are barriers that must be dealt with in order to proceed with creative work. “Blocks are seldom mysterious,” she writes. “They are, instead, recognizable artistic defenses.”

To clear the flow, she offers several questions for close examination. What are the resentments and fears associated with this project? Any silly ones left over? What do you have to gain by not doing the project? Once you have brought these roadblocks to light, however petty they may seem, you clear the way for quantity—and ultimately quality.

In the Chaos, Act
When the kids are fighting, your spouse can’t find the car keys, the pets have ruined your notebook, and there’s no grocery money, Writing Down the Bones author Natalie Goldberg says to just write. “In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake.”

Dashing all my hopes (and many of my reasons for procrastinating) to pieces, Goldberg adds, “There is no perfection. If you want to write, you have to cut through and write. There is no perfect atmosphere, notebook, pen, or desk, so train yourself to be flexible.” Goldberg suggests writing in lots of different places and circumstances to find what works for you. Every word you write is a positive step.

Do Your Draft Aerobics
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts,” Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird. “You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.” Give yourself permission to write a crummy first draft, knowing that only you will see it.

According to Lamott, the first draft is the “down draft”—get it down. Worry about cheesiness and boring verbs later. The next draft is the “up draft,” where you fix it up. Too often I try to go straight for the draft she dubs the “dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.” I end up with a down draft regardless, but the order she suggests is far less painful!

“Be a Pirate! Be a Lion!”
Be careless and reckless, encourages Brenda Ueland in her classic 1938 work, If You Want to Write. Dwelling on mistakes simply veers you straight toward them, as a child on a bike veers toward a tree. Instead, she suggests, “See how bad a story you can write. See how dull you can be.” She guarantees you can’t. Instead, you will have conquered the perfectionism that binds you.

Recklessness and freedom have an even greater benefit: it will lead you to your true voice. This kind of touching, living honesty will “break through the shell of glibness to what is true underneath.”

Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection
In The Heart of the Artist, Rory Noland talks about the black-and-white thinking that often stymies creative types: “I’m either a good artist or I don’t even deserve to call myself one. There’s no in-between.” Noland says the key is not to pursue perfection but to pursue excellence—“doing the best you can with what you have.”

“Best” is fluid if “what you have” keeps expanding and improving. Part of striving toward artistic excellence is developing skill, and skill involves effort. We need training, ongoing development, and practice to hone our craft. A word of caution, however: beware of using classes as crutches. Training can’t replace doing the work. Practice makes excellence.

Trust Like a Child
In the act of creativity, the artist must let go of the illusion of complete control to which he clings. “There is much that the artist must trust,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water. “He must trust himself. He must trust his work. He must open himself to revelation, and that is an act of trust.”

When we let go, we are “open to riding the wind. Something almost always happens to startle us during the act of creating, but not unless we let go our adult intellectual control and become as open as little children.” Children do not fear revelation. They anticipate it. They spend time waiting, hoping, and being. As L’Engle writes, “Being time is never wasted.”

That Said …
I was relieved to discover no one had anything curative to say about having too many ideas, though I’m still in search of how to choose among so many possibilities. I have listed a few practical strategies I’ve found helpful in teaching myself to stay put, focus, and just write.

And that first story? Amidst the chaos of life and a hundred other ideas, I’ve managed to whittle it down to a slim, snappy 400 words. I think—perhaps—it’s finally ready for pictures.

Eight More Suggestions for Foiling Creative Paralysis:

  • Use your critique group as a motivator. Always bring something to show. Ask them to hold you accountable to your goals. Keep in mind they are your coworkers—and cheerleaders.
  • Set weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. Keep your goals posted where you can see them. Strive to meet them, and reward yourself tangibly when you do (though I humbly suggest avoiding food as a reward!)
  • If you don’t enjoy working solitaire, find a writing partner or group. Meet regularly, and commit to using the full block of time to create. Many libraries, universities, and community centers have meeting rooms.
  • If you have so many ideas you don’t know which one to work on, make a deal with yourself to concentrate on just one for a month. Focus. Give it your best shot! If you don’t like where it goes, work on something else the next month.
  • Set a timer. This works especially well for procrastinators, many of whom like the “last minute” adrenaline rush. Give yourself permission to work on only one project. The time is sacred: no phone calls, other projects, meetings, or laundry can encroach.
  • Get to know where your story is going. I’ve found if I don’t take time to plan my direction, I end up with tons of intriguing beginnings going nowhere.
  • Skip the section giving you trouble and write a different part of the story. The chronological writing police are a myth. You may even make discoveries critical to your problem spot.
  • Write an article about your weakness. You might just surprise yourself with great ideas, and you’ll have solutions right there in one handy reference!


  1. Great stuff, Holly! Thanks so much for the inspiration from these great mentors.

  2. Love this post! Just what I needed. Thanks!

  3. Oh boy, did I need this. I can't seem to push past this one page. Ever. In Forever.

    And how interesting about your crows. Mine are a major theme in this novel I just submitted for review....

  4. Wonderful~just what I needed to read today. Thank you, Holly! :-)

  5. Great article, Holly. One of my favorite lines: >>First we must separate the desire to have written a book from the desire to write.<<
    Thanks much!

  6. I am so going to bookmark this when I need a big fat kick in the pants. Thanks for posting this!

  7. Wow, thanks, everyone! I'm so glad it's hitting the creative spot!

  8. Just read this Holly, and just in time! So great! And it all applies to the visual artist as well. And doubly so when one is trying to be the word artist AND the visual artist! Thanks, and have a great trip to Beantown.

  9. Hi Holly,
    I wanted to report back that our critique group recently held our first "write-a-thon." We brought our laptops and notebooks to a coffee shop and wrote for about two hours. A fun experience, and one we plan to repeat. Thanks for the suggestion!

  10. Carmela, that's my motto: I'd rather have written than write, lol! I'm so excited to hear about your success! I used to do that with a couple of friends and miss it. Hmm, maybe it's time for another writing date...