This afternoon, associate editor Karolina Wilk gives us a pep talk and some practical tips about dealing with writer’s block. Enjoy!
We all start off with great intentions—they pave the road to hell, some say. In any case, life can creep up on us sometimes. In such instances, I am in favor of setting the bar low. Not because you can’t do better—because, hey, you’re human, and that’s just really hard sometimes. You deserve a break, really, and your psyche will thank you.
When I was younger, I played competitive tennis. I practiced at least eight hours a week and played matches on weekends. I made varsity my freshman year of high school, but before my sophomore year, I injured my knee and had to take it easy for a while. When I started up again, it was hard to come back since I was out of practice and low on confidence.
Luckily, I had a great coach who told me only to complete half of as much as I felt I could do. At the end of our practice, I would go back and do however many more of whatever I felt up to. This took the pressure off because the expectations weren’t as high, so without even noticing, I got better and ended up doing more on my own account. This strategy of “setting the bar low” was meant to do two things: build confidence, and build habit.
Though much of my graduate work is reading and writing, due to other personal obligations, jobs, etc.—I’ve still found myself feeling like I haven’t been writing or reading enough, mainly out of my own sense of guilt, and wanting to do more, better. The stress of not meeting my own standards can make me feel pretty bad sometimes—and that’s definitely not conducive to creativity!
Talking to a few writing friends, I noticed a pattern that so many others were worried about not doing as much as they wanted or not doing as well as their peers, or feeling frustrated when life got in the way—so much so that it set up a mentality of writing-performance-anxiety. It reminded me of my tennis coach’s strategy for eliminating competition and anxiety by setting reachable goals. I think the solution for writing can work the same way. Instead of worrying about not doing better, just temporarily reset your standards and set the bar low until you’re back in the groove. The blank page can be a daunting, but no one else other than yourself has any expectation of what you will put onto it.
For me, setting the bar low means writing at least 750 words a week about something other than what I’m working on for school, whether that’s a blog post or a response (however terrible) to a prompt of some sort. After setting my new minimum, I’ve been surprising myself with new ideas and rekindling old projects. Some weeks I can do more, and some I don’t—but overall, I’m back in the swing of things. Maybe your low bar is just writing ten minutes a day, or one poem a month, or if you’re very prolific, perhaps your low bar is actually much higher and writing a novella a month is a piece of cake. Perhaps shaking up your own expectations can put you back in the writing zone as well.
If you’re feeling stuck on what to write, try to get your pen or your fingers moving with some prompts and exercises. The important thing is just to keep going and stick to your minimum, even if it’s lower than what you really want. Some of my favorites online prompt suggestions are from Poets&Writers, Writer’s Digest, and the aptly named Tumblr page “Writing Prompts that Don’t Suck.” So go ahead, I won’t tell… Set the bar low. As they say, practice makes perfect—and before you know it, you’ll be hitting aces.