The Easy Way to Get Over Writer’s Block
Living out here in a more rural area of Florida, deep-set in the woods and far away from the hustling, bustling inner-city Los Angeles I spent most of my adult life in, I can tell you a thing or two about isolation and human connection. Coming from one of the busiest, most populated cities in this nation to now living in a rural, distant, isolated place, I can tell you what many are now learning in the quasi-forced social isolation of 2019, that we sometimes have to actively work at establishing a human connection.
Days can sometimes go by, even weeks where I don’t see another soul except those who live here. In reality, I’ve been in social isolation a full year before this pandemic hit. I’ve been extremely isolated with rare trips into civilization…and this has taught me a lot that I’d like to share with you, especially seeing as it can play a role in affecting your writing and creative process.
I don’t much mind the distance and isolation, but I must admit, there are some significant differences in my life without having those common, everyday exchanges with people like the bus driver or the convenience store clerk. I’ve also come to notice that it changes my writing. It’s easy to underestimate how much we take from even small exchanges with others and especially ones where we’re giving more than we’re taking.
Small exchanges like giving the homeless guy on the side of the road $5 so he can get something to eat for the day or giving lost tourists directions to their destination have an impact on our lives. The internet itself becomes much more magical the moment we begin to publish our thoughts and experiences with the world when we realize it as a place of giving rather than just taking.
The thing about these moments is they shape our perspective, they mold it, they force us to exit the routine and monotonous circuit within, and we then become an acting participant in the world around us. Make no mistake, there’s unbelievable power in this. Us humans crave one another, as a social species, so much of our brain’s reward and punishment wiring is based on human interaction and the fear of isolation.
Did you know that rejection and other forms of social pain are indistinguishable from physical pain in the human brain? Well, it’s true, the same areas of our brain light up in both physical pain and social pain and a sense of rejection can have catastrophic effects on the human psyche. Thanks to the modern field of neuroscience, we can now peer into the brain and see how its inner workings actually function and learn what to do, and, of course, what not to do.
The fact that our brains have a shared circuitry for both social and physical pain is a fact that we can use to our advantage as writers, by putting ourselves into a more social state before we begin to write.
A lot of aspiring writers and artists underestimate the value of a sense of community in their projects. This is easy to do in our world where we’re separated at a distance, behind screens and sometimes even across the globe, more often than not. We have a tendency to turn our pursuits into purely individual projects.
But what if I told you that doing something as simple as leaving a comment and reading or enjoying the work of someone else before you sat down to engage in work of your own could make all of the difference in the world? Well, it can, and it might just be the missing element to your equation that’s causing you writer's block. Allow me to explain…
When we open up a word processor and stare blankly at the blinking cursor, at a complete loss of what to say or do, what to write, I think it’s because we’re asking too much from our brains — at least at that moment.
We expect an entire work to come from nothing, ex nihilo, into existence, without giving our brain any artistic, or more importantly, social cues.
In the digital world, we miss out on the important non-verbal cues of conversation, we’re stuck having to infer tone from text and symbols, a difficult task in and of itself; but I think a lot of us have this weird, fantasy idea that there are writers out there who lock themselves up and just pour words onto a page effortlessly, not unlike the movie Misery, when I think the reality is much less glamorous. I think the more successful writers of all stripes go out into the world and sample their source material from real-life experiences.
Fortunately for us, especially during a pandemic that forces us into quarantine, we humans are far more capable than we realize at inferring social cues into all sorts of situations. We’re so good at it that it’s a major challenge to those who’d like to design robots to replicate the tasks of human beings, trying to get them to be able to emulate the human understanding of social cues, an understanding that we seem to intuit effortlessly.
Try this out for a week and see how it works — when you sit down to write and before you even open up that blank, white page to start plucking away at your keyboard, I want you to go and read someone else’s work. More importantly, I want you to do the equivalent of giving back, that communitarianism that makes this whole process all that more important in your social minds, and I want you to leave a comment.
Start with three articles and three comments per day before you begin work on your own. This puts us into a selfless mood and shifts our perspectives from thinking solely about ourselves and our own work to the work, thoughts, ideas, and feelings of others. In a very weird way, this sense of community makes us feel less alone, even if unconsciously. Isolation might be romanticized in the writer of the movies, but in real life, it can lead to sadness, depression, and piss-poor writing.
When we do this, we also will have already gotten used to writing about a different topic before we start. It’s like a practice round, a warm-up session where the stakes are low, and thus the importance of commenting on someone else’s work. Like a basketball player practicing free throws before the big game, or a guitar player warming up by playing a few scales to himself before the big show, we writers can dive into real-world situations where we can practice our craft with our own version of training wheels on.
I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who could tell you, honestly, that they didn’t have some of their best pieces stem from internet commentary that took place elsewhere. I think the best of us get a lot of our ideas through everyday conversation and, considering there’s a pandemic and all, the online conversation should suffice until we can remove the social distancing barriers that separate us. Twitter conversations, Facebook groups, there are tons of places to engage in interesting topics to help you come up with ideas, and in all of these places, you’ll get a dress rehearsal version of what you’re trying to eventually write. It’s basically like taking notes and getting human feedback in real-time. And let’s not forget the fact that Medium is just perfect for that and has a way of drawing out the more interesting conversations from the general public for us to dive into.
As I said, try this every day for a week. If you’re not seeing an improvement in your writing, feel free to quit and go back to what you were doing, but trust me, it’s likely to reframe your mind before you work and will produce some unbelievable results. Happy writing. Thank you for reading.