This post has been modified from the version I wrote for the Nearpod blog.
It happens every time.
It might happen after my first draft. Or, it might happen after several revisions. Inevitably, I reach a point where I get stuck. Banging-my-head-against-a-wall, pulling-my-hair-out stuck.
My manuscripts are never great in their first drafts. Sometimes not their first 20 drafts. Sometimes I know what the issues are. Sometimes I have no idea. In either case, I don’t always know what to do about it. How do I increase the tension? What is the perfect word? How can I show the character’s emotions better? Why doesn’t the plot flow?
Beats me. Hence the head-to-wall banging and violent hair removal.
When I get stuck I feel a deep frustration, like I’ve swallowed an angry cloud and it is storming from the inside out. I stew. I whine. I spread grumpiness like a disease. I lay despondently on the couch. I am generally unpleasant to be around.
However, I’ve learned that getting stuck is inevitable, but it is not catastrophic.
Stuck is my creative oven.
I put a goopy pan of ingredients into the oven and they reconnect differently in the heat: they become something delicious. When I push through stuck, my ideas connect in new ways and inspiration follows. My best work usually happens after stuck.
These are four strategies that help me push from stuck to inspiration:
Find Someone Willing To Tell You, “This sucks.”
Find a friend, a critique partner, a mentor that will be honest with you about your work. It should be someone whose opinion you trust, who understands you, your writing and your vision. It must be someone who believes in you. It is this confidence that gives people license to tell you when your work sucks – they believe you are capable of making it, well…not suck. It is also this confidence that makes their feedback palatable; it is supportive and aspirational.
I am fortunate to be a part of a critique group that I trust and respect. We met in an introductory writing class for picture book writers and have been working together ever since. We are honest with each other. When something isn’t working, we point it out and offer suggestions. We know that this honest feedback is the only way we can improve our writing.
Often, hearing some form of “this sucks” or “this could be better” is the beginning of stuck. Cue angry storm clouds and kicking, screaming tantrums.
When this happens, embrace it and push through. Stuck is one way to get to inspiration.
Sometimes it is necessary to take your work and stick it in the darkest, dustiest closet you have. Put it somewhere there is absolutely no way you will stumble across it by accident. Somewhere too challenging to pull it out, especially when you feel tempted to peek. Your brain and your creative juices need a break.
I know I’ve reached this stage when my brain turns off. I stare at my computer screen and there is no sign of life inside my head. I write and rewrite the same sentence and end up with nothing. My head is stuffed with heavy cotton balls.
You may need to step away for a few hours, a weekend, a few weeks, or even a month. In the meantime, start something new. I often hop between stories – stepping away from one while re-engaging in another. This time away from your work rests your creative muscles, giving them strength to break through barriers that once seemed insurmountable.
Sometimes a little rest is all it takes to break through stuck.
Give Your Brain Some Space
In this age of cellphones and social media, distraction is constantly at our fingertips. We wait in line and pull out our cell phones, drive our cars and turn on podcasts, shower and play loud music.
But, waiting in line, driving in the car, and standing in the shower are all opportunities for inspiration if you make space. Let your brain be quiet and don’t mistake quiet for boredom.
When I resist the urge to pull out my cell phone, these small moments of quiet become idea hotbeds. When I don’t fill my brain with distraction, my brain gets creative.
I have learned to plant seeds related to upcoming or current work. I will re-read a manuscript draft just to get the ideas into my brain. Then, when I’m not consciously thinking about my story, plot or characters, the ideas germinate. Giving my brain space allows these ideas to grow.
So, turn off those cell phones. See what happens during random moments of stillness scattered throughout each day. You will be surprised how quickly you can get unstuck.
Grind It Out
Inspiration is 10 percent lightning bolts to the brain and 90 percent hard work. Sometimes, you just have to grind your way through stuck. Sometimes you have to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite your sentences until they work. There is no glory in this part of the process.
You will know you need to keep grinding when the ideas are still leaking out one drop at a time. You will know when it’s time to step away when the ideas completely stop. Learn the difference. If you step away when it’s time to grind it out, you are procrastinating.
This is the hardest part of getting unstuck: the sheer mind-bending willpower it takes to keep working until something budges and ideas flow again. Resist the urge to throw your work in the trash and start again – there was inspiration there when you started, and inspiration will come again.
Stuck means you are on the verge of a breakthrough.
*photo credit: Sharon Drummond