There are two reasons we get writer’s block. The one we all know about is fear. The fear of succeeding. Of being imperfect. Of being unloved. Of finishing. Of being stupid. Of shining too bright. All these fears, and so many more, show up as writer’s block. And we deal with writer’s block fears the way we do all fear. By drinking. Kidding. With courage. And love. Fear is a crisis of spirit. An existential crisis. A big picture event. And in the the case writer’s block fears, treat them as a gift, unwrap them and grow.
But sometimes writer’s block is less dire. More like writer’s stuckness. It’s the feeling of there must be something more here but I don’t know where to look for it. The feeling that there’s a way to the material, but I’m not sure what direction to go in.
The trick out of this stuckness is asking questions. We need to move. Movement is the thing that unstucks us. Like when we take a ride. Or even a shower. Questions help us move our minds. Take us on the quest. The quest for stories. The quest for material.
I’ve been in so many sessions where I ask a stuck writer questions and their eyes light up. It’s a process you can learn for yourself. I mean there’s one main question, what would make this better funnier, more surprising, truer? But in order to get there sometimes you have to ask a lot of other questions.
I have a method for that. I think of it as rotating the crystal.
Here’s how it goes. You have an idea. Maybe it’s that despite the fact that you are a twenty something gay bar boy you love Jane Austen. To the point of obsession. To the point that you consider it one of your defining characteristics. But you say it on stage and nothing. Or you start to write it as an essay. And you get three lines in. And nothing. So you think you should abandon the premise. And then you feel blocked.
That’s because you haven’t even begun to do the work. Here’s what the work looks like.
Think of the idea itself as one of those beautiful cut crystals. The ones that you can look through and see the world cut up into beautiful shining little pieces. Faceted pieces of the same reality. As you turn the crystal you see the world differently. And in motion. Motion changes everything.
Think of asking the questions as turning the crystal. I have a cut crystal heart that someone gave me as a commemorative gift for the UnCabaret 25th anniversary show. I look through it all the time. Before that I had a crystal ball from a chandelier where I lived at a big juncture in my story. I keep that one in the kitchen now.
As I rotate the crystal around I think about whatever it is I’m writing. The turning of the crystal is a kind of conjuring. Looking into the crystal ball of the future of the piece. With the sample of the client and Jane Austen I asked him to turn the ball in this way: when did you start to love Jane Austen? What was the first book you read? Which character do you identify with. Where do you keep the books? Do you listen to them in audio? Do you love them differently now than you did when you started? Have you ever turned anyone on to Jane Austen? Can you love someone who doesn’t even like Jane Austen? Do you reread Jane Austen? If you had to choose one book which? Have you ever used one of her books as something else? Have you ever watched the movies eventfully? Do they help you fight anxiety or depression? Are they a link or a distance from your family.
Don’t look for answers. Look for questions. If you find the right questions, stories will come. Ideas will come. Truth will come.
Then, if you still find yourself at a dead end, it’s time to let go – for now! – and pick up another ball. Sometimes you aren’t ready for something. Think of the work you’ve done as planting seeds. You might be working on a whole other thing and then suddenly the one thing you thought to say about Jane Austen makes sense.
Learning to ask yourself questions is helpful. Of course you can have a writing partner do it. Or you can hire me. Or another writing coach. Or keep a crystal on your desk and let it ask you the questions. Let it remind you to look at your thing from another angle. Angles after all are angels. There to show you a shift in perspective.
It’s that shift in perspective that gets you out of writer’s block. Turn that crystal. Let the light stir your imagination.