On The Importance of Breaks During The Creative Process

I grew up learning the value that if you weren’t working, you were doing something wrong. This value isn’t all bad, it’s given me an excellent work ethic and a tendency to treat procrastination as the source of all evils. However, what do you do when you’re stuck on a difficult problem with your project?

This problem could be a tough calculus assignment where you just can’t solve question six. Or you could not know how to go forward in your scientific research – what technique should you use next or why is the technique you are using not working the way you planned? Or you could hit a plateau with your musical instrument where no matter what newfangled warmup or exercises you try, you aren’t getting better at the rate that you desire.

Writing problems aren’t any different. Despite sitting down at your desk every day at the same time and following your routine to the letter, some days you won’t see any progress. Maybe you can’t figure out a particular plot problem. Maybe your craft is suffering and every sentence sounds like it was written by someone in grade two. Maybe you just hate everything you’ve written and feel like you’d accomplish more if you spent your writing time writing CRAP CRAPPED A CRAP-CRAP-CRAP over and over again.

It happens.

So what are your options?

1) Stick to the writing routine and hope it gets better.

2) Take a break.

Now, I see the first option championed everywhere across the internet all the time. If you stick to a writing routine you will see progress. You need to work through the bad days to gain bulk to your manuscript. Blah blah blah.

It’s very true. I didn’t see my book get bigger until I committed to working on it regularly. A writing routine does ensure that you will improve through consistent practice and build stamina towards completing your projects.

However, I’m not talking about those days where you’re like “Hmmm, I have some spare time should I write/play video games/watch TV and eat chips/read/clean the house/cook dinner/pick those socks up off the floor behind the table who put their socks there anyway/call my friend/watch youtube until my brain only outputs youtube videos instead of normal speech/tweet about writing instead of writing… huh I choose all the options that aren’t writing.”

Those days happen to me often enough, and yes, those are good times to fight and adhere to a writing routine. If you frequently give in to distraction, you won’t see progress.

I’m also not talking about when you are using the first draft technique where you just write ANYTHING no matter what and see where it takes you. That’s fine. Charge full ahead with the writing routine.

I’m talking about when you’ve been stuck on your manuscript for so long that it’s been weeks. I’m talking about when you think about your novel and you feel exhausted. I’m talking about when you’ve been editing and last month you wrote six chapters, but this month you can’t even finish chapter 13. I’m talking about when you really need to find a way to kill the villain but you don’t know where to begin and haven’t for months.

In this case, you’ve been applying the writing routine and it’s simply not working. Why not?

Because your brain is tired.

If you go to the gym and lift heavy weights one day, you can’t expect to lift a ton of heavy weights the next day. The rest and recovery is just as important to lifting heavy as the actual lifting itself. In fact, if you do, you’ll probably injure yourself. If you keep doing heavy lifting with your brain when you’re tired, you risk burn out.

Think about baking bread. You have to let that sucker ferment and rise for a couple of hours otherwise the final product is going to be flat and hard as a frisbee.

Writing is the same way.

If you adhere to your routine when you are stuck, and nothing has improved after several days, you are wasting your time. It’s equivalent to banging your head against the wall.

Take a break. Maybe a couple of days. Maybe a whole week.
Rest.
Let your ideas ferment.

Afterwards you will have the added benefit of approaching the manuscript with fresh eyes. Your brain will have the opportunity to approach the problem at full power. You might find that your productivity increases after a break. In fact, you might find that the break doesn’t destroy your writing routine, but restores it instead.

 

How to Deal with Writer’s Block When Writing a Novel

Some people claim there is no such thing as writer’s block. They use convincing arguments like there is no such thing as writer’s block because if your a car mechanic you don’t get car mechanic’s block. Or if you work in an office, you don’t show up to work and say “Yo, I don’t have the urge to work today.”

To an extent they’re right.

You shouldn’t wait for a romantic excuse to write. If you only believe you can write in an isolated shack on a beach and you will only write in the evening during a coastal storm while the waves crash across the rocks and winds howl through holes in the shack – well. The conditions will never be right for you to start or continue your project. And you won’t.

Or if you believe you will write the most perfectest words ever at all times, and if any day feels off, you won’t write – your project will lose momentum. Sometimes all you can write is crap and that’s okay.

Find some sustainable writing conditions, like in your room at your desk or at a library, and you’re set. Write when you can, as often as you can. Sure, it’s not super artistic sounding, but you bring the art to the table. Not your surroundings. And you can always fix the words that you write.

However, I believe that writer’s block does exist.
While claiming it doesn’t exist might boost morale, during any creative project, you will encounter times when you get stuck. Sometimes even brutally stuck.

Comparing a creative profession to a noncreative one does not work. For instance, in the case of the car mechanic not having car mechanic’s block, I have to say. The car mechanic doesn’t experience the same issues with motivation for a project.

That’s because the outcome of their project is clear: they want a working car. The steps to get from broken car to working car are probably well defined for them on how to reach that outcome. There is a manual and they might have to order a few spare parts, put stuff together etc.

When you are writing a book: it is not well-defined. You designed the manual. The manual might even be broken too. You have to set the outcome: what is the purpose of your book? And to some extent, you even design the process. There are very few guidelines. You have to invent everything.

Plus, the novel itself is an art. It is abstract. Sometimes how you get from point A to point B is not obvious and a struggle. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.

So when you have a block what can you do?

Is your block due to a lack of knowledge about the story or a lack of motivation?

Often times it’s both.

Here are some options you can try to work through a block:

1) Try to keep writing anyway. Write a new section of the book that occurs later (or earlier) than you are working. It just might help you figure out the middle section of the book and what it’s missing.

2) Go back to planning. If you are stuck it might be because you don’t know what happens next, what your character’s need, where you are going in the end.

3) Talk it out with someone. Discuss your story’s structure with a friend. They can help you work it through, or the conversation might reveal something you missed.

4) Revisit your ultimate vision for your book. Why are you writing this book in the first place? What do you want to achieve? At its heart, what is your book about? Does what you are writing meet these goals?

5) Ask someone who will champion your work to read it and give you feedback. They probably will tell you something they like which will increase your confidence.

6) Journal about it. Write about your block and how you feel. Is something in your personal life causing it? How can you work it through? Why are you blocked on a psychological level?

7) Put it down. Take a break and do something else for a week or a few weeks. Start a completely disparate project to clear your mind and come back to the project refreshed and excited. Or maybe you are pushing yourself too hard and need some chill time. This is a great time to read.

8) If you have suffered too many blocks in two short a period of time, perhaps consider pushing through your routine anyway.

9) Evaluate where you went wrong. Did you make a false turn? Is the story boring? Would it be so much better if something drastic changed even though it would screw up everything that you just wrote? If you have an idea pushing at the back of your brain for awhile and you are reluctant to implement it, ask yourself why. Is it because the idea doesn’t work? Or does it work and you are too lazy to rework things?

10) Work through the hard truths. Breathe.

In the end, the block will pass. It’s not worth abandoning all your hard work just because you feel like it’s too hard to continue. You will work through the plot issues. You will figure out how to stay true to the characters. And in the end, the book will be finished.

Because you can do it. You’re the only one who can finish your manuscript.