I used to think that writer’s block just meant not having any inspiration or ideas. If only it was just that! Now I know it’s many things - and for me, it’s mostly anxiety caused by both lack of planning, and over-planning. Here are some ways I’ve tried to deal with my writer’s block over the past few years - while everyone copes with it differently, maybe some of these methods will help you, too (or at least make you smile if you’ve tried them already)!
If you know how it’s going to end, go ahead and start there. I found this helpful for my novella because after writing my ending scenes, I knew exactly what I was writing towards, and what needed to happen to get there. This is also helpful if you’re struggling with a character arc - who are they at the beginning, versus the end? How is this change shown through the decisions they make? If you’re finding it easier to write who they become, don’t hold back - write it out, and then focus later on writing how they become.
If you already have full scenes outlined in your head, get them out while they’re fresh - again, you can worry about how to get there later. I knew right away that the climax of my novella was going to include a death, and what lines/images I wanted to include. I hadn’t even written the first scene of the story yet - but that’s okay! Similarly to writing the ending first, I found it helpful to write this pivotal moment, as it served as an anchor to guide me as I went to write other parts of the story. Starting at this inner point of the story, then working outwards was also helpful for writing character. How your character reacts to conflict says a lot about them - and how they react to what you’d like to be the highest point of tension says even more!
What about just simply writing in chronological order? Since I almost never do this, I learned the importance of it the hard way. After writing the ending and the climax of my story, I started writing other parts out of order. Eventually I had written maybe a third of the whole novella! But it had grown so jumbled that I was having trouble knowing what to do next. I realized I had written all of my “favourite” parts first, and was dreading the idea of filling in the gaps. I don't regret writing what I did, but I think it would have helped to organize my snippets a little more.
After realizing the above, I did something I hadn’t yet done - start over. I kept my original document of course, but I opened a completely blank one and simply tried again - and committed to writing chronologically as a test. It was scary for about a millisecond - then it was a peaceful thrill! It helped me stay focused on the structure this time, rather than just the content.
Attend a reading or workshop
I always feel so invigorated afterwards. They remind me of everything writing can do, even if I feel like I don’t know how to do it yet. I wish I could bottle up the feeling forever.
Write an outline
I admit I’ve never outlined until a few months ago. Then when I did it, I was like, “Oh! No wonder people do this!” I made mine simple - three columns for each act, listing the main beats and character decisions/realizations. Next, I’d like to try and break down each act into mini-scenes, and figure out the main beats for those. Then, I’ll break everything down even further into bite-sized pieces, and chew.
Don’t write an outline
I remember hearing that Alfred Hitchcock storyboarded his films so carefully that he found the actual shooting of his movies to be the most boring part (apparently he didn’t even have to look through the viewfinder during production)! I feel like sometimes all writers feel like this - that their idea is so carefully thought out in advance, that the actual act of writing is the most tedious part of the process. Obviously it can pay off, but I still think there's something to say about the fun I feel when I don't have an outline. I write more freely and take more risks. Less structure = less pressure = more room for experimentation.
Share a little
Even though the goal of most of my writing is to eventually share it in some form, I’m still very private while it’s in progress. A lot of this is from anxiety and shyness - but lately I’ve realized that this doesn’t go away even once it’s “done” - so why should I hold back from sharing parts I’m proud of or bouncing ideas off of people I trust? I’m going to try and share my progress a little more as a way of staying positive and accountable.
Something similar to what you’re writing, or something completely different. Prose, poetry, essays, comics, your childhood diary, your teenage blog, emails or texts from a difficult or joyous time, letters, postcards - whatever works.
I actually don’t read a lot while I’m working on a project - I’m very impressionable, and sometimes if I get too inspired while reading a book, I’ll get new ideas that I want to fold into my own writing - while sometimes this works, most of the time it veers me off-track!
Write something else in a whole other genre
This has really worked for me - in jumping from screenwriting to film criticism to poetry to prose to children's literature, I've realized that cheesy as it sounds, you can really try and do anything, and it will inform/improve everything.
I think the longest “hiatus” I’ve been on was a full year of not writing. And while it brought me lots of anxiety and guilt, ultimately I think it was needed. It's okay to not write for a bit, or even for a long time. You may feel strange, sad, and lost - but you’ll find your way back to it, sometimes without realizing it.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Sennah Yee is from Toronto, Ontario, where she writes poetry, short stories, and film criticism. Her first book, the creative nonfiction collection How Do I Look?, was published by Metatron Press in 2017. Her debut picture book, My Day with Gong Gong, was published by Annick Press in 2020.