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Dealing with Creative Blocks

‘If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do’ – William Zinsser.¹
How wise was Zinsser, the journalist and writer who died earlier this year and whose On Writing Well is on the reading list of any creative writing course worth its name.
His declaration may seem, to the experienced writer, like a truism. But it is one of the aspects of the craft that can take new writers by surprise and make us feel as if we are somehow at fault. Surely, a true writer just sits at the desk and the words flow, prolific and perfect?
The less glamorous truth is that writing well is often something of a graft. Words do not always arrive to order, nor are they ever perfect first time. This, for me, is why creative writing can and even, dare I say, should (in most cases) be taught. Working at your technique and your language and being allowed to experiment in an environment of constructive criticism are all essential parts of the process.
Within the confines of a structured course, particularly one which leads to qualification that must meet agreed standards, writers will be asked to demonstrate a range of skills. Some will come naturally and others will prove more of a test. These difficult, less appealing tasks are the ones that can provoke a creative block. ‘I can’t write in that particular way’, we think. Or ‘That subject matter doesn’t inspire me at all.’
First, be assured that the creative rut is something that happens to all writers, on a spectrum ranging from ‘having an off day’ to ‘that’s it: I quit!’
Second, although it’s easy to blame the task for your block, know that the OCA doesn’t set out just to make things difficult. Assignments are carefully designed to demonstrate particular skills, proving that a student is not just a competent writer when they feel like it, but is worthy of a degree in the subject.

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So: what to do when you run into a serious creative block?

  1. Try to identify the problem, very specifically: why might you not want to tackle a particular subject or style? As yourself what it is about it that turns you off. Can it be got around, creatively? If you have five minutes, you may also like some of these tips on beating the block in a short vlog I did under my writing name of Bea Davenport, for publisher Legend Press.
  2. Talk to your tutor. S/he cannot help unless you do this – so don’t let pride or anxiety stop you from saying you need a little extra advice or support. You should be able, together, to find a workable solution. It may be that the exercise needs further explaining or else that together you can agree an approach you had not considered. At the very least, you can negotiate an extension!
  3. Chat on the forum – I guarantee you will find another student who’s experienced and perhaps found a solution to a similar issue.
  4. Sometimes the problem is not with the coursework, but external factors that are affecting your ability to create. If that’s the case then the OCA has people in the office who may be able to help. Learner Support is a good first point of contact if you are struggling with managing the course for reasons other than a ‘bad writing day’.

What should you never do? Sit back and wait for a creative block to go away. It may, of course, but it’s more likely to grow and feel scarier by the day. Share the problem and find a practical way past it. Those words will read all the better for being so hard won.
 
¹Zinsser, William (1976) On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper Collins.


Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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4 thoughts on “Dealing with Creative Blocks

  • Thanks for this Barbara and the blog is brilliant! I’m a photographer, not a writer but was able to translate most of your advice. One thing I’ve realised lately (and I should have remembered this from my working life – is that I work much better when I have more than one task to do at a time. Of course, this has meant that I have a couple or more projects on the go which I then feel I should complete, but, even so, having several keeps me feeling energetic and, as you say, I can turn to a different one if I’m getting stuck.

  • It might not work for writers but for photographers taking pictures, of anything, is a good start. Let the images lead you to your next body of work.

  • A very useful piece, Barbara. And taking pictures is not a bad piece of advice for writers either. Writing, whether poetry or prose, often depends on effective images. As a writer, I always carry a camera/phone with me because there is always something that might catch your eye (or ear) and that is often where piece of writing might begin.

  • The camera idea is a great one, both for poetry and for descriptive prose. For some reason, reading does it for me. But when I’m in a block, I often forget this, and forget to read my way out of it. When I do, it works a treat. Reading other people’s great writing always gets me going

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