Writing slumps are a fact of life. How one chooses to respond to them, however, can make a huge difference in how and when a writer gets back to the written page. As writers, our work comes from deep within, so anything that tips us off balance can impact our work. These slumps can occur because of something we are working on that is difficult or not going the way we envisioned or for reasons completely unrelated to writing such as job stress (if like most writers, there is a real job, or part-time job helping to support the writing) or problems with one’s family or health. Following are some strategies that have assisted me through these evitable rough spots.
Sometimes the Body/Mind Needs to Heal
A friend of mine who recently had minor surgery told me, “I’m really fine. Back at Yoga class but haven’t written a thing.” It seemed to me that although the external factors related to my friend’s surgery had restored her to her old self, perhaps there were still some lingering internal issues. The body gets fatigued following a physical trauma–the flu or surgery or just plain stress. The mind rebels and says NO. When this happens, I give myself a week or two off. I watch television, read junk, take long walks, sleep, cook long detailed recipes. All the time my mind is working, perhaps not consciously, on my writing.
Sometimes You Need to Grieve
After my mother died, I couldn’t write. As soon as I sat in front of my computer, all I could think of were her final days. I would become overwhelmed and unable to do anything. I found, however, if I kept a small book, jotted down images and phrases and sort of put them away without thinking about them, it both helped with my grief and captured important moments, which, in time, would have faded. I have those jottings now, and although I’m not prepared to read them yet, I’m very glad they’ll be there when I’m ready.
Sometimes You Need A Change of Scenery
A friend of mine has a saying, “Change your setting, change yourself,” and it worked for her. After many years in the same job, she switched workplaces and a few months later met the man she would marry. She attributes this all to her changing her workplace. On a much smaller scale, I often find when I print out a story, take it with me and read it at a new coffee shop, new nook in the library, or on an airplane or hotel room, I see my work entirely differently. So, change the scenery around you. You might be able to see your story in a fresh way, perhaps an unexpected character will walk into your story/poem/memoir.
Sometimes You Need an Inspiration or Distraction
If I’m working on a long piece and I’m stuck, I just let it go for a while and try other things. I often go to poetry. For a prose writer, there is something so freeing about reading a poem and asking myself, If I were to write this in prose, what would it be? Some of my favorite poets for inspiration are Philip Levine, Bob Hicok, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Robert Wrigley and Marie Howe.
Sometimes You Need to Create A New Way of Telling
If I’m stuck with a piece and feel like it is not going where I want it to go, I may change the narration from, say, first person to third, or I may decide to give the story over to another character in the story. This way I have the best of both worlds—I feel like I’m writing something entirely brand new and away from the “problem piece,” but I can still keep the bones of the narrative.
Sometimes You Need to Work Up to It
If I’m working on a piece that has some very difficult material—a narrative that will require me to dig deep and feel some painful emotions—I can become overwhelmed and stalled. A kind of heaviness sets in, and an inertia. This is my signal to do something else. Anything else. It’s something I picked up from being a parent. When my young son wasn’t ready to do something, no amount of persuasion could change his mind. As soon as I told him, “When you are ready,” he’d relax and most often, eventually, find his way onto the slide, into the classroom, taste the new food. I use this same strategy with myself and give myself permission to not be ready to tackle something. Usually, I eventually get there. So, I wait it out, I think about the section, encourage it to swim up to the surface in the early morning or on long quiet walks. Eventually, the block dissipates. If not, I just trust myself that I’m not ready to do this and move on to something else.
Sometimes You Need Cheerleaders
I often lose perspective on my work, seeing only small incremental changes. I think my piece or section is terrible. When I bring a piece that I’m stuck on to my writing group of trusted readers, I’m able to see it through fresh eyes. Usually their enthusiasm and thoughtful critiques will help me see my way through.
Read Andrea's short story "A Situation in Beauty."
Andrea Marcusa's literary fiction and essays have appeared in The Baltimore Review, River Styx, Epiphany, New South, and others. She's received recognition for her writing in a range of competitions, including Glimmer Train, The Ontario Review, Ruminate Magazine (fiction) and New Letters (essay) and she's a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee. For more about her work visit andreamarcusa.com.