Writer's blocks and life blocks and a simple fix for stuckness
Writer's block, as you probably know, is a miserable thing. It turns out life blocks aren't that great, either. Thank goodness for prompts.
It’s the end of June. Moments ago, it was January, and I was tending to the end of a fully-felt fling and wondering what the year had in store for me.
Then a pandemic hit. Entire cities shut down. Entire countries. Tens of thousands of people died faster than we could count them. The US administration, under the cover of that chaos, came again for trans rights, adoption rights, and voting rights. And then, in the midst of all that fear and grief, another murder at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked an explosion of awareness around police violence and the danger facing Black Americans from our institutions, steeped as they are in centuries of White Supremacy.
It was a busy few months.
In this strange convergence of personal grief and community, even global, grief,
I got stuck. At a time that demanded action, when I needed and wanted to act, I didn't know where to start.
I got stuck, somewhere between the fear and grief and anger, in inaction.
One stuck day stacked on top of the next stuck day, and I realized I wasn’t just stuck…
I was blocked.
Luckily, or unluckily, as a writer, I know a lot about being blocked.
Writer’s block, as you probably know, is a miserable thing. It’s just like it sounds…
a painful dam wedged hard into the raging high-banked river of expression. Creative creatures explore and understand our world through making and doing, a soul-synthesis that helps us fit in the world and to comfortably exist with others.
Take that away, and we’re a mess.
That’s why writing prompts, as an antidote to writer’s blocks, are such a life-saving tool.
Good writing prompts can be as brief as a single word. “Moonlight,” or “hunger,” or “sequins.” They don’t have to be much to be effective, so long as they give us something to grip onto. A little traction to pull us out of the sludge, or to refresh us when all our ideas are old and tired.
“Start here,” they say, these tiny borrowed beacons of hope and direction, a place to start a new story. That nudge builds into real momentum and soon we’re back on our creative, writerly way. Unblocked.
It’s not a big stretch to see how this approach might work well in other areas of life, too… With what I lovingly call ‘life prompts.’
Life prompts, like writing prompts, can be nearly anything:
“Start a load of laundry.”
“Send a friend a letter.”
“Dance in public.”
"Call someone to ask how they are."
“Open to a random page in a favorite cookbook and make that recipe.”
“Ask a friend for a documentary recommendation and watch it.”
"Take the next bus and go five stops."
“Put on real pants.”
So there, in that strange convergence of personal grief and community grief, in all my stuckness and inaction, I gave myself a prompt.
“Take a ten minute walk.”
What was a ten minute walk going to do? Would it tend to my ego or heart? Restore the economy? Provide safety? Correct devastating racial disparities?
But sometimes we just have to start living from where we are, without knowing where the story’s gonna go. That's the magic of the prompt.
I went for a ten minute walk.
I passed kids on skateboards and a couple in masks holding hands. I dodged diving crows and studied a few bees hard at work on some lavender bushes. I walked over root-torn sidewalks and hop-scotch squares. I saw Black Lives Matter posters, hand-painted and hung in windows and the names of men and women written on street poles. I could feel the tension, the cautious glances, but there was community and action, too. There was that pulse of life that exists beyond our human experience, the trees and skies bursting with life despite us.
I felt that shift start. You know the one. That small spark of hope and direction, a place to start a new story.
I got a little unstuck.
I guess all of this is to say… if you, like me, find yourself spinning your wheels, eager to start but unable to gain traction, in writing or in life, try a prompt.
It doesn’t have to be much to get you back on your way.
I'll be sharing some writing prompts soon, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, here's a big list of fun ones from Writer's Digest.
How do you get unstuck?