In my last post, I talked about the importance of stepping back and being kind to yourself if you’re finding it hard to write during these difficult times. Staring at the same four walls, not interacting with new people, and not embracing new experiences as you normally would will doubtless take a hit on your creativity, not to mention adversely affect your emotional wellbeing.
However, even if you’ve taken the advice of the last post, put your pen down and stopped fighting yourself, perhaps you’re still bothered by the worry that your ‘writing muscle’, like any muscle after a few weeks away from the gym, might be losing its strength. Will you forget how to do it? Will it feel as rusty as you do now when you pick up a pencil years after your Art GCSE? How can you possibly relax when you feel like you’re quickly feeling you have little more literary prowess than a local takeaway menu?
If you’re up to it, you can still practice the mental process of writing without the glaring pressure of the cold, blank page.
Unpeel your head from the coffee-splattered desk and listen up.
Practice Writing Mental ‘Snapshots’
One thing I love about poetry is that it takes a fleeting moment of something seemingly ordinary, distills it into its purest form, and transforms it into something sublime – something extraordinary. It makes us pause and think about the things we believe to be brief and unremarkable; in other words, the very things we miss as we charge past while we’re too busy with our important lives.
But you can do that in your head too. The trick is to think as small as you possibly can. I’m not asking you here to rival Homer’s epic The Iliad in your head, or take on Dante’s Inferno. The next time you’re making a cup of coffee, or sitting beside the scarlet frill of geraniums in the garden, or tying up your favourite battered boots, mentally involve yourself in that process. Every tiny bit. Watch the way your hands, the laces, or the flowers shift and fold. What do the colours remind you of? The smells? The textures? Focus on one of these things then work that tiny observation as hard as you can, paring it down to its very bones.
For example, feeling anxious and far from able to write last week, I took off on my bike and cycled 20 miles along the sea. As I stopped to take a drink halfway through, I fixated on the gulls lifting from the nearby clifftop. “A confetti-blast of gulls” was the phrase that instantly came to mind. After a few minutes of squinting and thinking, this turned to “all white feathers, a brief flush of splintered bone.”
The words have since stuck in my mind. Perhaps one day they will work their way into a piece of writing. Perhaps they won’t. The main thing is that I somehow made my mind work in exactly the same way as I would have done had I been sitting in front of a Word document; the difference was that I wasn’t writing on the laptop but in my brain.
Listen to an Album. Imagine the Full Story
When was the last time you listened to an album from beginning to end? I’m not talking about a dusty copy of Now 53 while scrubbing the back of your cupboards.
I’m talking about lying there, head against the pillow, record player or headphones on and just closing your eyes to listen and absorb every single word.
During a long phase of writer’s block, I found myself turning to music more. In particular, I developed an affinity with (admittedly depressing) concept albums. I listened to Sufjan Steven’s ‘Carrie and Lowell’ on repeat. Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral’ got played over and over. As for ‘Hospice’ by The Antlers, I played it so many times I could probably recite every lyric backwards and then still cry by the time it was over. And then I’d play it again.
For all of them, I imagined a storyline to each track. Concept albums already come with their own narrative, which makes things easier, but what this also does is that it creates characters and situations who eventually shift and grow to become your own; characters whom you eventually shape into something unique to you. What are their stories? What will they do next? What are their background stories? Can you fill in the gaps the albums don’t cover?
The relationships and descriptions in the album by The Antlers very loosely resonated with an idea about a hospital setting I’d had in the back of my mind for years, and which I’ve always wanted to one day develop into something bigger. So I kept entertaining it. I kept developing the narrative and describing the minutiae of the characters’ habits and features, and then when the urge to write returned, these arrived on the page quite naturally. The pen was simply a vehicle to take them from my mind to the paper.
Make a list of your five all-time favourite albums, the ones you used to listen to from start to finish, before streaming made listening to entire albums less common. Or simply five albums that intrigue you. See if concept albums work for you like they do for me (have a look at thread suggestions online, look them up on Spotify and then you’ll find that Spotify will keep recommending you more and more in a similar vein).
When you’re ready to face the blank page again, you’ll feel mentally more prepared.
Attend Virtual Literary Events
Often, when you’re feeling uninspired and unmotivated to write, this can also make you resentful of reading anything that sits within your preferred writing genre. When I feel like I can’t write and that my writing muscle is weak, I can’t face reading any kind of poetry. I end up consumed by resentment that I cannot, and will not, ever write as exquisitely as the writer whose book I am reading. And so the enjoyment is gone and another book thuds against the wall.
Instead of forcing yourself to read, only to grit your teeth and keep quiet about the fact that it’s really great but it’s making you feel terrible about yourself, sign up to a literary event. Now is the best time for online workshops, even if it’s not the best time for creativity.
The beauty of these is that you can turn the camera off and feel like you have more privacy during writing workshops than you normally would. Attend readings and watch others; open mics have a wide range of styles, voices, and abilities – from first-time readers to seasoned performance pros. Don’t put any pressure on yourself, but watch others sharing their work and advice.
It may spark something when you least expect it. Have a hunt on Facebook for poetry groups and nearby events that have been adapted for online, sign up and just relax. There are no expectations, but there is a chance you might get inspired.
The plan with this post was never to bounce around on the balls of my feet, fist-pumping and yelling “you can do it! Just believe in yourself!”
- I’m too grumpy for that sort of thing.
- It doesn’t always work like that. Just like you can’t just ‘snap out’ of feeling anxious.
This is just to offer some little starting points for anyone who’s still bothered by the thought of not writing, but not quite ready to launch into a new project. It’s a halfway point. Maybe you’re not here yet and that’s okay. Maybe you’re miles ahead and storming through your next creative project, in which case – great! Let me know what you’re working on, I love to know what fellow writers and creatives are up to.
This week, if you’re feeling ready, pick one of the suggestions in this article. Inspiration may come. It may not. Be playful with it. If inspiration doesn’t come this time, perhaps it will another time. Perhaps move on to the next suggestion and try that instead. Don’t go into this expecting miracles, but instead see it as a list of ways to relax. Any creativity that emerges from it is simply a bonus.
As a child, you knew how to just ‘be’. You knew how to draw for the joy of drawing, and not because you wanted to show the world you were the next Frida Kahlo. You played pretend games because they were fun, and not because you wanted the stories to become intricate plotlines for your next four bestselling blockbuster novels.
Just ‘be’. And eventually, despite what you might believe about that writing muscle wasting away, you’ll once again just ‘write’.