Wanna unstuck your writing?
Sometimes, the hardest part is getting started. We get overwhelmed by self doubt and too many (or too few) ideas as we sit, staring at the blank page.
What if I told you that you could write more quickly, with more fun and ease?
Writing is hard because we have a lofty idea of what writing is. We imagine people–fancy people–with degrees and credentials and quills and thick notebooks into which they spill their flawless thoughts from their flawless brains, sitting in flawless libraries filled top to bottom with other flawless books by other flawless authors.
Yeah, no. That’s not how it works.
The best writing begins with mess.
The messier and wilder you are, the better. The best thing we can do is throw ourselves in, as quickly as possible, and write a lot of mess, as fast as we can.
Okay, yeah, but how?
If you’re ready to make the leap, here’s a few ways to get started.
Five Ways to Unstuck Your Writing
1. Drop the needle, aka Your Bookshelf is Your Friend.
At Juilliard, we took listening exams where the professor would drop the needle on a random record and we’d have to guess what the piece was and who composed it. A nervewracking exercise but I’ve transformed it here, into a fun writing exercise for you.
- Go to your bookshelf and pick a book that you love.
- Open to a random page, close your eyes, and drop your finger (the needle) onto the page.
- Open your eyes and wherever it lands, that’s the prompt. Example (if you don’t like yours, you can use mine): In Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood, I dropped the needle on this phrase: “Funny thing about adulthood,…”
- Set a timer for 10 minutes and write.
When the timer rings, shampoo, rinse, and repeat this exercise. (My next one is: “a top hat and monocle.” You can steal this one, too 🙂
2. Timeline of your life
- Set a timer for 10 minutes.
- Draw a horizontal line across a page. This is the timeline of your life.
- Mark off the first year at the farthest left and the current moment on the farthest right. For ten minutes, mark off all the events you can think of on the line. Eg: My first loose tooth, my first kiss, my prom, my wedding day, the day my dog died, etc. etc. etc.
- No life event is too small or too large. The choice is yours.
- When the ten minutes is up, look at your timeline and circle the event that calls out to you. Don’t overthink it, just pick one.
- Set your timer for another 10 minutes.
- Write down everything you can think of about that life event. When the ten minutes is up, you can keep writing OR circle another event and write for another ten minutes. Repeat as many times as you like.
3. Listen to the radio.
- Turn on the radio (or your favorite podcast) and “drop the needle” somewhere in the middle.
- Listen for no more than a few seconds, for a line that grabs you.
- This is your prompt. Here’s mine: “You’re looking for a way out.” (Said Stephen Fry on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!”…again, you can always use this one, if you like it better than yours 🙂
- Set a timer for ten minutes. Ready, set, WRITE! When the ten minutes is up, turn on the radio again, and wait for your next earworm. Timer, 10 minutes, write! Repeat as many times as you like.
4. Start with this prompt: I’m the kind of person who___________but then ____________.
- Hopefully, this one is pretty self explanatory. Set a timer for–you guessed it–ten minutes. Just fill in the blanks. Keep writing.
- After ten minutes, try again. Imagine the “I” isn’t YOU — what if the “I” is someone else, real or imaginary?
- Repeat as many times as you like.
5. Writing as meditation.
Can you guess what I’m going to say?
- Set a timer for…drumroll, please…TEN MINUTES, lol.
- Practice noticing your surroundings. Use all of your senses.
- Start every sentence with “I’m noticing…” Here’s my start: I’m noticing the sound of a stalled car on the street. I’m noticing the feeling of my back pressed against this chair. I’m noticing the taste of grapefruit on my tongue. I’m noticing my worry that I’ve made every exercise last for ten minutes. I’m noticing the smell of scorched rice in the air. I’m noticing the amber light streaming in from the window.
- After ten minutes of noticing, look at your list. Pick one that is most compelling: this is your prompt.
- Erase the “I’m noticing,” and start writing. Mine: “The smell of scorched rice lingered in the air.” Go, go, go for ten minutes.
- When your timer is up, keep writing or pick another sentence and write for another ten minutes.
These exercises work because of two things: urgency and ordinariness.
Our (relentless) ten minute timer creates urgency to focus our attention, giving us a finite amount of time in which to complete the exercise.
The tension of not quite enough time puts a fire under our butts to write with intention while also giving us an out…since we only have to write for ten minutes.
And by drawing inspiration from ordinary things–using our senses, our favorite books, eavesdropping on conversation (or radio), everyday objects and phrases–we relieve ourselves of the burden of starting. We don’t have to make things up if we just follow the things we find around us.
For the next five days, try at least one of these exercises.
You’ll find that you can repeat them many times with vastly different results, giving your freewriting new dimension and focus.
Build on this exercises by…
- Seeing if you can come up with your own exercises, too, considering the principles of urgency and ordinariness.
- Making your time limit shorter or a little longer.
- Writing in a different space each day and notice what ordinary, but novel things are around you.
Sometimes, even when I know what I need to do or have to do, it can still be hard to get started or follow through. That’s when I’ve found a little accountability can go a long way. If you’d like support or one-on-one help with your writing, feel free to reach out to me for individual coaching.
On the other hand, sometimes what blocks me is lacking a sense of community. If you run into resistance when trying to do these prompts on your own, I’ve found that writing with other folks, in a supportive environment, can be liberating and provides the community we need to write faster and take more creative risks.
If you’re looking for a safe, supportive writing community, you might be interested in this course I’m teaching for Cleaver Magazine: “The Writing Lab: Playful Experiments to Unstuck Your Writing” (Registration ends soon – on Saturday, October 2nd!)