Maybe the usual tips and advice aren’t working because you’re forgetting you’re human
Meditation. Journaling. Visualization. Creative prompts to awaken your brain’s imagination, to get you excited about writing again. Tried it. Tried them all. No luck.
Being the fighter that I am, still I sit in front of my computer, waging war on the blank screen. Today was one of those days. I waited and waited, hoping that the Muses would stop by for coffee. But alas, they had more important business to attend to.
Finally, out of frustration and fatigue, I waved the flag of surrender. I had been “ghosted” by the writing gods. Left rudely on read. So the computer and I decided some time away would be best for our relationship.
And it was.
During our temporary break-up, I found a strategy that worked, helped me loosen the knots that pushing, pushing, pushing had done to my writer’s muscles. And guess what? It all boils down to cooking.(Don’t worry. The simile’s coming).
Why traditional methods of solving writer’s block don’t work
Our bodies aren’t the only things that need rest. Our brains are just as desperate to get a night off. Think about the immense cognitive drain caused by writing. It’s the ultimate definition of what psychologists call “decision fatigue.” We must decide on a topic, decide how to organize that topic, determine which pieces of research to include and which to leave out. Then we have to decide which words “make the cut,” which ones survive for the moment, and which ones must be fed to the wolves.
Finally, we must wrestle with choices such as the right headline and the right image, the perfect words and pictures that will make our article catch the reader’s eye.
And our ability to process these choices effectively is almost impossible when our mental gas tanks are empty.
Adding to the exhaustion is the fact that the decisions we have to make as writers are only one part of our world. There’s another set of choices we have to make daily, one brought about by the fact that we are humans with lives outside our writing rooms. I know. I know. It’s hard to be a writer and a human at the same time, isn’t it?
Lack of self-care
Most of us have families to take care of, work responsibilities, children who need our love and attention, and partners whom we desperately need to connect to on an intimate level. And sadly, we often choose to bang our heads against our monitors instead of doing the real things that give us inspiration: interacting with family and friends, engaging in exercise, and participating in other acts of self-care (something that generally seems foreign to most creatives).
For example, think of every movie or television show that features writers. The visions that come to my mind involve wrinkled shirts, five o clock shadows, and hair that looks like it hasn’t seen a comb in weeks.
Even though we realize as writers that we are not machines with automatically rechargeable batteries, our minds refuse to stop swirling. We feel guilty if we move away from our computers and guilty when we lock ourselves away to write for hours when the people we love most are right outside the door. So the question is, how do we do it all?
The answer? We don’t. At least not at the same time.
The real solution? Turn off the burners on your brain’s stove
James Clear, author of the best-selling book Atomic Habits, discusses a possible solution to writer fatigue by citing the “Four Burner Theory,” a term first coined by writer David Sedaris in The New Yorker. The theory is that our major responsibilities in life are like four burners on a stove. Clear quotes Sedaris’s advice, which is “in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”
And what are those burners?
- Burner one: Family
- Burner two: Friends
- Burner three: Health
- Burner four: Work
Yet we zealous, stubborn writers don’t want to accept the possibility of this fact. After all, Gordon Ramsey manages just fine in Hell’s Kitchen, right?
How to use the “Four Burner Theory” to your advantage
As writers, we see the message underlying Sedaris’s theory, but the question is, “Which burner do we turn off and when?” Here are some possible answers to that question:
I’m betting that writing is not the only thing on most of our “grocery lists.” It all comes down to what we feel is most important at the moment, both physically and emotionally.
For example, at the moment my daughter has been struggling with depression due to the isolation of almost a year of virtual learning. Right now, family is the “burner” I have to tend to. And the truth is, if I don’t support her through this struggle, not only would I be refusing her the love and care that she needs, my writing would suffer as well. Not many of us can be particularly creative when our child is suffering.
Maybe your health is the burner you need to focus on. This virus has not been good for our mental health, and when our minds suffer, our body does as well. In addition, many of us have foregone our gym trips to stay safe, and with the cold of winter, outdoor exercise is often brutal.
As a result, we’re tired, we’re sluggish, and we often eat not to nourish our bodies, but to give us a temporary rush that will power us through the day. What does that mean for most of us? Sugar and carbs. Not the best way to stay running on the daily treadmill of existence. So if you’re body is screaming out to you to give it some tender loving care, do what it’s asking and step away from the keyboard.
If you find yourself stressed and anxious, unable to focus, or fighting off the depression that comes to most of us at this “gray” time of the year, then vow to focus on that “burner.” Take the steps needed to repair your mental health. Relax and read. Have a “spa day” at home. Get out into nature if the weather allows. Watch shallow television or uplifting movies that remind you of the good things in life.
The writing? It can wait. And once again, when you nurture your body and your spirit, the words and ideas will come much more easily when you sit again at the keyboard.
If possible, enlist the help of others (or help yourself)
It’s a busy world for all of us, and if you’re like me, the last thing you want to do is burden someone else by asking for help. But the truth is family helps family, and friends help friends.
If you need a couple of hours to turn the “work” burner on high, get a friend to run a needed errand or watch your children for a few hours while you sit with your muse.
If you are struggling to make family time, help yourself to a sick day if possible. Let your child stay home too. Or encourage your spouse to call in as well. Don’t feel guilty. Being unable to find balance is a sickness, and sometimes we need to take ourselves away from the daily grind to get “healthy” again.
Set a timer
Okay, so I’m convincing you to take time to find balance, but secretly, I’m also looking for a way to have my cake and eat it too. So what about a kitchen timer for our “burners”? Maybe our balance can be found by allotting certain times in the day to work on different parts of our stove.
For example, perhaps you could spend some quality time with your children after work and then try your hand at writing a few lines when they are fast asleep? What about getting up an hour earlier to prepare a healthy meal that will be waiting for you and the family after work? Maybe you fix a glass of wine and call a loved one, take a hot relaxing shower, and then let your creative faculties have playtime.
What is it they say? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And by making a conscious choice to plan ahead and schedule in time to tend to each “burner,” you could manage to cook a writer-worthy four-course meal.
The bottom line:
Legendary writer Toni Morrison says, “I tell my students there is such a thing as ‘writer’s block,’ and they should respect it. It’s blocked because it ought to be blocked, because you haven’t got it right now.”
And if you’ve been working all those burners at one time for far too long, maybe you should turn them all off for the moment. Because just as your keyboard and computer aren’t going anywhere, neither is your kitchen.
So turn off the lights and order take out instead.