Don’t long for a better life — live the one you have. “Wherever you are,” missionary Jim Elliott once said, “be all there.” Making the most of your current reality is the best practice for what’s to come.
Don’t get stuck in a single pursuit — create a body of work. Keep looking for other skills and interests you can develop that will complement your core. You never know where a new fascination might lead.
Let’s face it—writer’s block is a universal experience among writers. We all deal with it at one time or another. As discouraging as it is to face a project that defies you to start or make progress, you can prevail unto victory. Here are some strategies that work for me.
- Persevere. That means don’t give up. Think Winston Churchill. This is hard, but imperative. (By the way, perseverance has applications in all other aspects of life, especially work, sports, and the arts. And parenting.)
- Write every day. Even if you can’t seem to write a word on your project, write something. Write a shopping list or a to-do list. Write a stream of consciousness. Write a Facebook post. Write a breakdown of your project into easily accomplishable tasks. Write pages that you know will never show up in your final project. Just write something—shoot for at least 500 words. Practice daily writing as a discipline. Take Jeff Goins’ 500 Word Challenge. You will build impetus and fight inertia.
- Believe in your project. You have a message, or at least a story to tell. And even if it’s already been done, no one call tell it the same way you can. Remember why you are doing this. If your only motive is money, that’s probably not enough to sustain your work. While we all have bills to pay, that’s no reason for your manuscript to exist. You should want to touch people’s lives, encourage and uplift them, help them, educate them, entertain them. If your project doesn’t have a meaningful purpose, it doesn’t deserve your effort. Have a project worthy of hard work. Then work hard.
- Do something mindless. Physical movement helps, but I prefer something you don’t really have to think about, like ironing or walking. I used to walk every morning. I learned to take a notebook with me, because invariably something intriguing would pop into my head that I would forget if I didn’t write it down. It’s challenging to write while you’re walking, but you can do it. Or capture your ideas on your smart phone or a portable recorder.
- Make a story board, or write an outline. Try taking 12 index cards, one for each phase of The Hero’s Journey. (Click here.) Then write down your scenes on the appropriate cards. While you are not bound to this sort of a framework (and Stephen King produces book after book without bothering with one), it can show you how to fill the holes in your project.
- Write out of sequence. Maybe you know what the next-to-last chapter of your nonfiction book needs to cover, but you just can’t make progress on chapter five. You don’t necessarily need to write each page in order. If you’re stuck, try writing a particularly vivid scene that will occur further on in your novel. You will probably have to throw most of it away later, because details will be all out of whack. But what you write may give you clues about the progression of your story line. Getting words on paper is the important thing. You can always rewrite later.
- Think about improbable next steps for your work-in-progress. Maybe your 1800’s character witnesses an alien spaceship crash. Or maybe the next chapter in your economics book should be about the history of tic-tac-toe. Don’t knock it–I sometimes get usable ideas from this strategy. Or write a minor character’s back story. This is more useful than it sounds, because if you do the work of getting to know him, he will behave much more believably in your story.
- Don’t aim for perfection—at least until after your first draft is done. Perfectionism is the mother of procrastination. First drafts are supposed to suck. They’re the raw material for your rewrites. Every writer rewrites. Don’t edit as you go. Instead, get the whole thing down. In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends writing your first draft, then putting it in a drawer for six weeks while you work on your next project. Then go back and read the draft, see if it holds together, and make any major corrections and changes before starting at least two very serious rewrites.
- Give your subconscious the assignment of figuring out the next part. Before you go to sleep, or as you start a brainless task, remind yourself that you need to figure out how you’re going to get around your blockage. Some writers find it helpful to reread their last few pages before they go to bed. My friend Gloria Jean, a ballroom dancer who designed and sewed all her dance dresses, kept a sketch book next to her bed. She saw dance dresses in her dreams and drew them when she woke up (sometimes in the middle of the night!) while they were still fresh in her mind. You might keep a pad and pencil by your bed so you can record ideas (sometimes shockingly bizarre) that come to you in your dreams.
- Above all, never, never, never give up.
Do you have a blockage-busting strategy that works especially well for you? Please share in the comments below.
If you asked me a few years ago what my calling was, I would tell you I was born to teach. I loved being around elementary school children, seeing the world through their eyes. I taught music, and I loved seeing the kids build skills, learn concepts, and enjoy making music.
Then everything changed. Without going into detail, teaching became a burden rather than a joy. Recognizing that the educational paradigm was shifting, I tried to roll with the changes, telling myself I could hang on until things got better.
They only got worse. Demands increased as resources dwindled. Morale at my school plummeted. My stress level rose. After grieving for three years over my profession’s shift from rewarding labor to drudgery, I resigned in May of 2014. I had to. I couldn’t suffer it one more day.
I immediately underwent an identity crisis. What was I, if no longer a teacher? And what was I going to do with the rest of my life? I was too young to retire, too young for Medicare.
I returned to Tuesdays Children, the writers’ critique group I was part of a decade before, when as a stay-at-home mom I tried to write for a living. It was my logical fall-back, since I always said I’d return to writing when I wasn’t teaching any more. These wonderful ladies decided to launch a group blog, Doing Life Together, and I wrote a post about my transition from teaching to the unknown. (Click here.)
When Jeff Goins, a writer whose blog I follow (click here), recently published his book The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do, I knew I had to read it. And since I am participating in the Around the World Reading Challenge sponsored by the blog Booking It (click here), I am reviewing it here as my entry for North America. (Jeff Goins lives near Nashville, Tennessee.)
In this book, Goins explains that everything that happens in your life is preparation for what is to come. Sometimes when you seem stuck doing something you never wanted to do, you are actually busy acquiring skills you need to accomplish your (as yet undiscovered) mission in life. Most people work at multiple occupations during their lifetimes, and none of those are wasted in the big picture, though it may take the perspective of looking back through decades to be aware of how vital those experiences were to your growth into the person you were always meant to be. In fact, if you think your calling is only one thing, you’re wrong—it will be many things over time. The path isn’t straight, it’s loopy. And what seems like backtracking isn’t necessarily lack of progress.
My favorite chapter of all is 5. Pivot Points: Why Failure Is Your Friend. It made me realize that my time teaching needed to be over because my apprenticeship there was through. Teaching helped me hone two skills I need for my writing—crafting words to make concepts crystal clear, and using design software. (One of the many expectations teachers comply with is maintaining a webpage about what they are teaching in class; another is advising extra-curricular activities. I volunteered to produce the school’s yearbook for three years. Little did I know how much it would help me later in designing my blog.)
After a year of agonizing over what I should be pursuing, praying to the Lord for direction and not discerning any, applying for jobs and not finding a good fit, reading The Art of Work confirmed for me that I am already doing exactly when I was meant to do at this point in my life. A year ago, God immediately answered my prayers by placing me precisely where I needed to be.
In his 2003 book, There Are No Shortcuts, East Los Angeles master teacher Rafe Esquith speaks of his struggle to communicate to his students the level of commitment and self-discipline required to go beyond mediocrity and achieve excellence. “They seemed too easily pleased with their efforts; if they got most of their arithmetic correct, they figured that was better than they had done the year before and they were off the hook. . . how many children pursue their dreams anymore? How can you go after things when you’re sitting in front of a television set or computer screen?”
He accompanied forty-five students to a concert, and they were invited backstage afterward to meet world renowned cellist Lynn Harrell. When asked how he could make such beautiful music, Harrell responded, “Well, there are no shortcuts.”
That slogan became his inspiration to help his students make it to the next level—and the next, and the next.
Many of us have a desire to be good at something. We make excuses why we are not. “I’m not a born teacher like Rafe.” “I don’t have Lang Lang’s musical talent.” “I’m just not as artistic as da Vinci.”
The biggest difference between us average people and the great masters is: they put in the work. Even when they aren’t feeling particularly inspired. They pursue excellence for its own sake.
I had the pleasure of meeting Rafe Esquith and some of his students at a book signing. The students performed some music they’d added to a Shakespeare play they’d presented at school. Their guitar prowess was amazing. These fifth graders played much better than me—and I have a Masters degree in music education!
After the presentation, while I was waiting in line to get a book signed by the author, I asked one of the students, “How much do you practice your guitar every day?”
“Three to four hours. Usually four,” he answered. Hmmm. I practiced guitar half an hour a day.
In order to have that much time available for practice, that fifth grader has to forsake some of the other pursuits of typical ten-year-olds, like video games, computer time, television, or hanging out with friends. That’s a big sacrifice—but the payoff is a high level of skill on guitar.
In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 HourRule. He quotes the neurologist Daniel Levitin as saying, “The emerging picture from such studies [of people who are undeniably the best in their field] is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. . . But no one has yet found a case in which true world class expertise was accomplished in less time.”
Gladwell uses the Beatles as an example of this principle. To baby boomers, their explosion into the music scene seemed sudden and immediate. It was anything but. “The Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg [Germany] five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours a night. On their second trip, they played 92 times. On their third trip, they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg gigs, in November and December of 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers.”
The Beatles certainly put in their 10,000 hours before they became famous. And Rafe Esquith’s guitar students? 10,000 hours divided by 4 hours a day = 2500 days or 6.85 years. By contrast, 10,000 hours divided by 30 minutes a day = 20,000 days or 54.8 years. So who has a better chance of becoming a really good guitarist, me or those fifth graders?
The 10,000 Hour Rule applies to everything that requires skill, not just music, but art, sports, math, learning a foreign language, hammering nails, you name it. There are no shortcuts. You have to put in the time.
When I resigned from my teaching job a year ago (click here to read about my transition from teacher to non-teacher), I thought maybe I’d write again. However, I couldn’t get going. My brain was like a desert; I didn’t have even a drop of an idea. Sitting in front of a blank Word document was absolutely excruciating. But you can’t be a writer without writing.
The 500 Word Challenge from blogger Jeff Goins finally got me out of my dry spell. Last October I wrote almost every day. Some of the pieces eventually became posts on Doing Life Together. Sitting down to write every day helped me make writing a habit. It got me over the hump; it started the juices flowing. I think my skill has really grown in the last eight months, because I am spending hours every day articulating the thoughts coursing through my mind.
What is it that we say to dogs when we want them to stay put? “Sit. Stay.” That is my shorthand for showing up to do the work. Sit down at the computer. Stay there until I have met my daily goal. Or until it’s time for dinner, whichever comes first.
Is there something in your life that you committed to working toward? Have you noticed yourself improving over time? Share with the ARHtistic License community by commenting below.