I spent most of June experiencing horrible, terminal writers’ block.
That frustrating, cloying feeling where the ideas and there, simmering gently below the surface, but no amount of coaxing or cajoling will encourage them to fall into neatly ordered words on the page. My cursor blinks patiently at me while I deliberate over the minutiae of the opening paragraph, or get hung up on the lack of a decent title. Then decide that maybe what I need is five minutes on Instagram instead, to “get some inspiration”. Two hours later it’s time for dinner, and nothing has been written.
My problem is that I get hung up on telling a good story. Storytelling has been at the heart of everything I love about writing since I could first hold a chunky HB pencil and write down the fantastic adventures of my Sylvanian Families otters. These usually involved the canal boat going over a waterfall and by some miracle arriving safely at the bottom. When I think about all the times I’ve felt really blocked throughout my career as a science writer it will be because I just cannot find the story that I want to tell. At the risk of sounding like a total arse, I keep tripping over my own clumsy creative feet.
(Sadly in science writing there is less scope to include stories of canal boats riding the rapids like the African Queen with otter versions of Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn clinging to the washing line for safety).
“I don’t believe in writers’ block. If there’s one thing you can’t do as a professional writer or journalist, you can’t have writers’ block… You just have to come up with the goods.”
Dammit, she is absolutely right. In any other line of work getting “blocked” or losing creative momentum would be a laughable excuse not to get on with the job. You don’t hear about ‘doctors’ block’ or ‘engineer’s block’. In that context, writers’ block feels less like a serious problem and more like, dare I say it, just a bit of creative conceit? While my scientific editor used to sympathise with my feeling blocked on occasion, or struggling to find the right words, ultimately he cannot delay publishing a magazine or excuse late delivery of an article because I wasn’t feeling it that day.
Janet’s podcast got me thinking about the tricks I use in my professional writing life to help me find the story and avoid getting blocked. Thinking back on everything I’ve ever written, from the 50,000 word PhD thesis on insect reproduction (sexy), to scores of news articles and press releases, to my happy ramblings here on Song of the Stitch, I think I can isolate it down to one core principle that lies at the heart of every good story.
What happened? And why was it awesome?
Ok, so depending on what I am writing, ‘awesome’ might not be the right word. ‘Significant’ or ‘important’ might be better. But like it or not I tend to say ‘awesome’ A LOT (also ‘dude’ and ‘omg’. Don’t judge my vernacular. Dude).
If I’m writing a news article or a press release, this rule will always determine the structure of the opening paragraph. This is an example of something I could very easily have written on an average day at the newsdesk.
“Scientists have used gene editing to successfully restore colour vision in mice, opening up treatment possibilities for millions of people suffering with hereditary sight loss.”
The rest of the article, around 300 words or so, would fill in the rest of the details from how the science worked, how soon we could expect human clinical trials, and comments from other people in the sector about how sound they thought the study was.
The more I thought about it, the more I could see this principle in play throughout my work, and even more importantly throughout the work of many writers that I admire enormously. They don’t just share the thing that happened, they explore how it moved them or changed them or opened their eyes to new ideas and possibilities. A simple recipe for apple crumble becomes a beautiful memory of time spent with the treasured family member whose recipe it was; a write up of a dressmaking pattern turns into a discussion about the incredible body confidence that making your own clothes can bring; and a trip to the seaside becomes the emotional journey of a parent watching their child experience the beach for the very first time.
When I write longer articles, or I write for Song of the Stitch, the process is a little different. Take this article for example. This is actually the third incarnation of a piece that has been in my drafts for months. I keep hacking it around, moving bits here and there, changing the voice and the direction. But every time I feel stuck and don’t know where to take it next, I try to come back to my core principle.
What happened? After a month of struggling to find my words, I realised that writers’ block was not an excuse for zero productivity and I forced myself to look objectively at the ways in which I write and where my inspiration comes from.
Why was it awesome? I developed a principle that will help me in the future to overcome my blocks and produce better work. And maybe by sharing my story I can help out fellow creatives who are also wrestling with their own blockages.
From this simple outline, I can start to flesh out my story and create a plan for the entire post. The story begins to fall into place, and my words begin to line up on the page without any coaxing or cajoling needed. Turns out they were there all along, just waiting for me to be ready for them.
I am fascinated to see if this approach works for anyone else, so here is my challenge to you. What are you feeling blocked about in your writing at the moment? Why not try breaking your ideas down into this simple framework: what happened, and why was it important (notice I dropped the ‘awesome’, just for you). The more detail you can include, the more your story is starting to write itself.
Let me know how you get on, or if you find any other techniques that work better for you. I would love to hear them and try them out myself!
Happy storytelling my friends.