I've said it before, and I'll say it again, writer's block is real. There are plenty of people out there who will tell you it's not, but I don't think it's right or fair to deny the challenge of trying to fill a blank page of paper with words every day.
When people say it's not real, what they often mean is that you shouldn't wait to write until inspiration strikes or expect the right idea to appear in your brain magically. This, I agree with. They also often say that you can avoid writer's block by sitting at your desk every day and committing to do the work. This, I say, is not so simple.
As someone who sits at her desk by 6:00 am every single day, I have certainly tried to see if the routine could prevent writer's block. For me, that hasn't been the case. What has been the case is that sitting down every day at the same time in the same place has helped me to forge a healthy writing habit, and I'm much better at putting words on paper now than I was before. I wouldn't give up my writer's routine for anything; I do believe it's the key to my success (and happiness).
That said, writer's block descends upon my brain on a regular basis. Sometimes it's because I'm going through an emotional trial, sometimes it's because I'm not quite sure what I want to say about a topic or how best to approach it, and sometimes it just seems like the wiring in my brain is short-circuiting. When this happens, I have one exercise to turn to that works for me every time: stream of consciousness writing.
Try This Stream of Consciousness Exercise
My favorite place to write is a bustling coffee shop — but not all coffee shops will do. The vibe has to be calm enough not to be distracting but busy enough to keep my brain from wandering off. I don't usually get to write in coffee shops since I start my writing for the day so early in the morning, but if I'm deep in a block, then I'll pick up and go.
Once I get there and after ordering an iced mocha, I try to find a spot where I can see a good amount of what's going on around me. Then, I pull out a pen and paper (leaving the laptop in my bag for after this exercise is completed) and my phone so I can have a timer.
Then, I choose a subject. Typically (and to keep my brain for spending forever trying to find the "right" subject), I'll glance at the next person who walks in the door. From there, I have two minutes to make up a story about who that person is and where they're going after they get their coffee.
The primary goal of this is to get the creative juices flowing. While you could write something in a stream of consciousness manner about, say, an apple, it's just not the same as writing about a person. People are dynamic and interesting and full of mystery. What could be a better subject to spark your creativity?
Making Sure This Task Is Useful
I admit that, as I write this out, the task seems a bit creepy. Let me emphasize that you shouldn’t stare down the subject of your quick story. A two second glance gives you all you need to work with: the type of clothing the person is wearing and anything he or she is carrying plus his or her apparent mood are all you need to spark your imagination.
Understand that you're not trying to write about this person, in particular. You’re simply trying to let someone random spark your curiosity. The words to follow should be pure fiction.
In fact, the speed and the utter lack of real-world function of this task is precisely why it works. It's meant for your eyes only, so go crazy. Write whatever comes to your mind first and, for the love of all things holy, don't edit while you write. Don't even look up. As soon as you start the timer on your phone, keep that pen or pencil moving until the time is up.
Sometimes it's nearly impossible to tell the analytical side of our brain to take a chill pill. That's why you almost have to trick it by sparking creativity first. Though these two sides of the brain can be helpful to each other, they cannot both be running at the same time. Creativity (writing) first. Analytics (editing) second. That's the only way to break through a creative block. For me, it’s the only way to write.
Creativity First, Always
If all else fails, remember that the point of this exercise is to write in a stream of consciousness manner. That means putting the words in your head on the page and not even thinking about editing until they’re all out. Better yet, consider editing a day or two later to be absolutely sure your creative side has had its say.
You certainly don’t have to do this exact exercise if it makes you uncomfortable. Find another way to spark your writing. The key ingredients are to use pen or pencil and paper and to time yourself. Doing so makes it a lot easier to avoid distraction. And don’t be too ambitious on timing yourself. Keep it to five minutes or less. Once you let the spark of creativity in for a small amount of time, you’ll be surprised to see how long its embers burn thereafter.