Cross-training: radical therapy for writer’s block

by Nancy Butts

In the 1991 comedy movie “What About Bob?”, the title character is a neurotic so needy that he drives his psychiatrist to a nervous breakdown. Desperate to rid himself of Bob, the shrink ties him up, straps him with twenty pounds of explosives, and leaves him the woods. Bob–who of course manages to escape and survive—proclaims himself cured by his doctor’s “death therapy,” and later goes on to write a bestseller about it. Naturally.

Sometimes I think that an equally radical approach is what writers need to blast us out of our blocks and dry spells. In two words, here it is.

Stop writing.

Death therapy for writers indeed!

Before you decide to call a psychiatrist and have him strap me to a tree, hear me out. I’m talking about a temporary break from writing, not a permanent halt. And it may be that this hiatus works better as a preventative than a cure. Practiced regularly, I believe that taking planned breaks from writing can in the long run help you be more creative and productive as a writer.

I’m not even going to attempt to analyze the root causes of writer’s block here. A host of people, from psychologists to neuroscientists to writers themselves, have done that far better than I could. But after all this study, there is still no clear consensus as to why a person stops being able to write. And there is no one “treatment” that appears to cure it.

Most of us simply grit our teeth and endure it. What is interesting to me, however, is that while we are blocked, most of us don’t stop trying to write. It may feel like we’re slamming up against a brick wall at sixty miles per hour, but over and over and over again, we bang our heads on our desks and we try to eke something—anything—out of our desiccated imaginations.

But seriously, people: is a bruised and battered brain the best instrument for producing literary brilliance?

So stop writing.

Not forever, but for a while at least, stop expecting to grow roses in a field of stones. Remember what Ecclesiastes said: “There is a time to reap, and a time to sow.”

Writers are frequently told to ignore that advice. We are exhorted to write every day, whether we feel like it or not. And though there are some compelling reasons to follow that advice, if you take it to extremes and write 365 days a year, year in and year out, ultimately I think it leads to creative blight. You can’t have anything to reap if you haven’t first given yourself time to sow.

Farmers know that. They know that if you grow the same crop in the same field every season, after a few years, the soil is depleted of the nutrients that the crops need, and they fail. So they let a field lie fallow. They stop farming it, for just one season, letting grass grow and then plowing it under, to replenish the soil.

I’m suggesting that writers do something similar. Don’t wait until all your ideas start to wither, or worse yet, until your imagination feels as arid and barren as Death Valley. Before that happens, take a break from writing.

A good time to do this is at the end of a writing project. If you’re like me, towards the end of a book, I become completely consumed by it. I’m driven to write to the point where I don’t want to stop even to sleep or eat.

Naturally, after a spell like that, you need replenishment before you can start anything new. To me, that’s the time to suspend writing for a while to do what I call cross training.

Athletes do this all the time. Football players don’t just show up on the field the day the season starts and start hiking the ball. They run, they lift weights, they stretch, they do what used to be called calisthenics. I even read about a football team back in the 70s that took ballet classes!

The theory behind this is easy to understand. Different athletic activities use different muscles, and so for better overall performance, it’s wise to work them all.

The same principle applies to creativity, I think. There are many different kinds of creativity, each of which seems to emphasize a different modality, or way of thinking. Writing is strongly linked to words, and to a somewhat analytic use of language. But music and art, to give just two examples, are non-verbal. They bypass words entirely, tapping into different kinds of creativity.

So you when your stores of writing ideas are ebbing dangerously low, switch from one form of creativity to another. That way you aren’t turning yourself off as a creative person; you’re merely shifting gears. You’re cross-training.

You don’t have to be skilled in these other areas to try them. I can’t make a recognizable stick figure, so I don’t draw or paint when I’m taking a sabbatical from writing. But I can quilt, which, like art, manipulates color and light and texture and shape. My formal training as a musician ended with piano lessons in elementary school, but I easily taught myself to play the mountain dulcimer. I’m never going to hit the road on a concert tour, but that’s not the point.

© Photo by Nancy Butts

© Photo by Nancy Butts
Finnish kantele and Macbook Air

The point is that when I’m quilting, or when I’m playing the dulcimer, I am taking a break from words without taking a break from creativity. Rather, I am waking up a different side of my creative mind and exploring that. I believe this gives my writing batteries a chance to recharge, while at the same time keeping me connected to my underlying sense of creativity.

If you aren’t sure what other creative activities to try during your writing break, try the list below. Creativity comes in a multiplicity of forms.

• It can be domestic: cooking, crafting, woodworking
• It can be musical: singing, playing an instrument, writing melodies, or even listening to music
• It can be artistic: painting, sculpting, acting, photography, or dance

I think there is tremendous value in doing so-called mindless activities as well as alternate creative ones, because mindless work also turns off the analytic, word-focused parts of your brain. When I’m stumped with a problem of plot or character—a temporary form of writer’s block— I’ve often found my answers when I’ve stopped looking for them. Hiking, washing dishes, pulling weeds in the garden—this frees up my mind so answers can float to the top.

How long should you cross-train? That will vary from one person to the next, and even from one project to the next. You’ll know when you’re ready to start writing again. Sometimes it happens gradually, with an urge to scribble down a paragraph on the back of a grocery list. Sometimes it bursts upon you all at once, with an overwhelming inner pressure to get to your computer and type out the genealogy of all the characters in your epic fantasy saga.

Whether it’s a nibble or a bite, give in to the urge to write when it comes back. Put away the sketchbook or the pottery wheel, the bongos or the camera. You’ll know where they are when you need them again.

[© 2013 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]

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