ten ways to break through writer’s block (part two)



5. “Don’t prepare. Just show up.”

I know, I know, this kind of goes against #3, in which I encourage you to have an outline (and chunk it up). But if you’re like me, you can overthink the story in a way that creates anxiety (and anxiety, in turn, triggers the ‘freeze or flight’ response that is NOT conducive to writing….) . You get stuck in the wrong part of your brain.

I took #5 from a book I read recently called IMPROV WISDOM (Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up) by Patricia Ryan Madson. Madson is applying the rules of improv to life, and I find that you can just as easily apply them to writing.

She stresses that there’s always something in the box.

Imagine a gift-wrapped box. Visualize the size and heft of it, the pattern of the wrapping paper, the feel of the bow as you untangle it. Imagine yourself lifting the lid and reaching inside and lifting out…. Tell me quick – what’s the gift that you found inside the box? Because your imagination put something in there, right? (I did this exercise twice. The first time, I found a bronze horse. The second time, a punchbowl. I have no idea why my imagination chose these things for me, but there you go.)

We get so frozen in our ‘preparations’ that we forget that creativity is a process. Sometimes you just have to show up, take a deep breath, and put that process in motion. You have to lift the lid off the box and discover what your imagination placed inside it when you weren’t looking. And then go from there.

Action begets action. You’ll start to know what you’re writing only after you’ve already started writing it. That’s the magic. And the faith.

6. Be average

This is also from IMPROV WISDOM, and I’m going to quote Madson directly on this one, for the simple reason that these were some of the most helpful paragraphs I’ve read in a long time. Thanks to them, I finally finished my story.

Giving it all you’ve got commonly backfires. There is a paradox that when we are trying hard the result is often disappointing. A healthier climate is one in which we tell ourselves to just be average. Take the pressure off. Avoid the mind-set that says “This one better be good!” or “Be original.”

When you try hard to do your best, the effect on your performance is often to jinx it. In all cases there is something to lose. This can provoke tension and easily lead to anxiety. Instead, try the following advice:

“Dare to be dull.” (Keith Johnstone)
“Be nothing special.” (David K. Reynolds)
“Cultivate ordinary mind.” (a Zen saying)

This rule may seem simplistic, but don’t underestimate how well it works. Changing expectations can take the pressure off and may even cheer you up….The poet William Stafford used to rise every morning at 4 and write a poem. Somebody said to him, ‘But surely you can’t write a good poem every day, Bill. What happens then?” ‘Oh,” he said, “then I lower my standards.” Three great lessons here – practice your art every day, lower your standards, and claim a time or place or an attitude that will challenge your bourgeois idea of reality. Four A.M.!”

7. Write about the story.

I do this all the time. If I’m having trouble writing a scene, I’ll start writing about the scene, as if I’m composing an email to a writer friend or Ideal Reader or even myself. I will write about the characters, or what “has to happen” in the scene. I’ll flesh out some of the background. I’ll play around with dialogue. Because I’m not “really” writing – because I’m giving myself permission to “just play around” – the words flow easily, and often I’ll end up with a roughcut version of the scene that I revise into the actual scene itself.

I find this effective, I think, for several reasons. The act of writing about the story kicks off the general process of writing, of creating, and takes my mind past the anxiety of writing/not writing and into the storyworld. It also deepens my involvement with the scene, and writing in this kind of loose, informal, free-association way triggers new insights or ideas that get me excited. Often I’m ‘blocked’ because I’m just not invested enough in the story, I’m not excited enough by what I’m about to write, I haven’t brainstormed or explored enough to find my way into the scene.

Finally, writing about the scene gets a version of the scene itself down on paper. No matter how rough or loose or sketchy it is, it’s something to work with. My mind will automatically seize on those sentences and start reshaping them, and before I know it, I’ve gone from writing about the scene to writing the actual scene.

8. Daydream

There’s a lot to be said for staring into space (or walking or driving or puttering around). When you let your mind roam, you’re giving it the freedom to make unexpected connections or find creative ways to solve problems. Not to mention, daydreaming a lot tends to be a sign you’re really smart:

At its simplest, daydreaming (or mind wandering, if you prefer that term) is just another information-processing system but a highly creative one. Ideas and associations seem to come to us from nowhere, but they are not a bolt from the blue so much as a bolt from the stew–the stew of knowledge and experience you’ve been slow-cooking over the years but which you are now able to link together in novel ways courtesy of daydreaming.

According to this article in Psychology Today, daydreaming allows us to

1) Envision-model and simulate in our mind’s eye
2) Think uncensored thoughts-necessary for originality
3) Free associate-make random connections and come up with novel solutions
4) Tap into the most complex regions of the brain

all of which can help you find your way forward into your story.

9. Pay attention to what you already have

Make it a habit to reread what you have so far before you continue to write the story. Often just the act of rereading will prime your brain to get back into the rhythms of the story. If that doesn’t happen, look for clues in the story that will tell you what should happen next. A powerful yet simple question to ask is, What is the most logical thing for my character(s) to do next? If you don’t know the answer, chances are you don’t know your characters as well as you should – yet – and it’s time to go back into their histories and psychologies and flesh them out a little more.

10. Stay on course

It’s a cliché for a reason: persistence pays. Keep plugging away at it. Keep showing up at the laptop. Keep reminding yourself why you’re writing this story in the first place, instead of all the other stories you could be composing instead.

As Patricia Madson says in IMPROV WISDOM:

Some guiding force underlies each moment. We need to keep in mind what we are aiming for. Instead of asking, “What do I feel like doing?” substitute “What is my purpose now?”. We have become a culture in which “How do you feel?” is the most commonly asked question as if our emotions were the most important thing in life. This is odd, since feelings are fleeting and temporal and certainly not always the wisest basis for our actions.

In the documentary COMEDIAN (which is excellent, by the way!) there’s a scene where Jerry Seinfeld describes a major a-ha moment he had as a young aspiring comic. It was early morning, and he was watching some construction workers head down the street to work. That’s when he realized that those workers were going to work whether they felt like it or not . If he was to succeed as a comedian, he knew he needed to approach his creative work as exactly that: work. He needed to just do it – to put in the time and effort and struggle – whether he felt like it or not. His feelings weren’t important. What mattered was his purpose.

If you don’t feel like writing…so what? Write anyway. Often it’s the action that invokes the feeling, not the other way around – you won’t feel like writing until you’re actually writing . If you feel like your story is total crap and not worth finishing…so what? Finish it anyway. After all, it’s just a feeling. It’s not some universal truth. It doesn’t mean anything, except that your restless monkey mind is looking for an excuse to do something, anything, other than write.



Apr 4, 2010

14 comments · Add Yours

Awesome, this can be used for anything to get good at. Thanks for posting


Hooray for Patricia Ryan Madson! So glad you dug the book. And COMEDIAN, too—love that film, and yes, it’s sooo instructive (while managing to be wildly engaging and entertaining, simultaneously).

This is a terrific twofer, this series. That “write *about* the story” thing is genius.


Which of these ended your block?


This is a keeper – great blog post, great advice. Thanks so much!


As a writer you undoubtedly know that there are few pleasures greater than learning that a reader has “gotten your message”. I am grateful to you for taking the time to quote Improv Wisdom and share your enthusiasm for using the ideas to forward your purpose as writers. It is gratifying to know that the maxims can prove to be “mind-breakers”. I love the Seinfeld story. Yes, if it matters to us we need to learn to “show up” for our work, feel like it or not. Then, you can call yourself a WRITER with impunity. Yours is a wonderful blog. I am honored to be included.
Blessings on your work.


7. Write ABOUT the story.

I’ve actually been doing something kind of like this – more like unidentified actors talking about what the character goes through in this scene, and what experiences they have to bring the character to life. I haven’t WRITTEN these things, though – all just in my head for now.


I love the tip about shooting for average. I never would have expected to see that as a writing tip, but once I read it, it made complete sense. It instantly frees you.



Thank you for turning me on to IMPROV WISDOM — I discovered the book through your blog, hence my link to it — I just adored the book.

And now I want to see COMEDIAN yet again.

We need to go see a movie, woman.


They all played a part — it was a big block, and at one point I even attempted to pull out of the antho.

Probably the most helpful was the Be Average one, this idea that all I had to do was show up and put in the work, and trust that the quality of the piece would take care of itself, that it would be good enough. Once I took that pressure off myself, I was finally — finally — finally — able to get ‘lost’ in the story. It turned out a lot better than I expected — I was delighted to discover that not only I’d finally finished and submitted the fucking thing, but it’s a piece I can be proud of (and that my editor at least claims to really like). So moral of the story: beating yourself up to write something Great is, in the end, pretty useless, even counter-productive. Finishing is ambition enough. The muse — or whatever — will take care of the rest (which actually dovetails with a TED speech Elizabeth Gilbert gave about creativity) at least some of the time. But I’m learning that a huge part of writing is learning how to sidestep the anxiety of writing (or creating in general).

I’ve also really learned to Pay Attention to the story itself, how it wants to evolve — in this case, I was playing around with the Hades/Persephone myth, which became much more overt at the end than I originally intended it to be (as in: the teenage girl’s mysterious love interest turns out to be Hades himself) — but it really worked for the story, added a new movement/development (which is also when I started to find the story “interesting” as a writer).

And I’m a big believer in staring into space and daydreaming your head off. Also, I take 6-minute catnaps or dozes, to downshift into those creative brain waves and let ideas surface. I believe in writing near a couch.


God, thanks for saying. Comments like yours make me feel both justified and motivated to keep doing this.


I am so thrilled you dropped by, seriously. Can I say how much I loved your book? — I really loved your book & will be striving to live and write by its wonderful maxims. It gets a prominent place on my shelf, and I’ll be giving away copies. Thank you for putting it out there.


Be careful, though — as you know, your head can be a dangerous place…Get it on paper!!!

Always happy to see your name in the comments (any comments anywhere), thanks for coming by.


“It instantly frees you” — yes, my experience exactly. I just might tape “aim to be average” over my desk. Your job is not to Be Great. Your job is to show up and do the work (and give your muse the fighting chance to move through your soul and enter your work in order to make it Be Great).


I love that day dreaming point. So going to remember that when I’m caught staring into space going forward lol


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