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When the Voices in Your Head Are All That You Hear: Breaking Writer's Block

We’ve all had those days. Whether you’re a carpenter, lawyer, doctor, artist, writer, or nursery school teacher, some days your work just stinks. As much as I like to think I’m unique in this regard, it happens to everyone.

Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post on the new Power Rangers movie and the value of upcycling work and it was just…a flop. “Not feeling it,” in the wise words of my boss. And he was right. It didn’t work. It was awkward when I meant it to be funny, confusing when I meant it to be smart. It was not a good blog post.

And then I faced the daunting task of replacing it. Because it’s pretty easy to write a bad article, show no one, and then write a good article, but if someone has SEEN the bad article and recognized it as such, the task is exponentially harder.

It’s those critics in your head that are the problem:

“You’re never going to write anything good ever again,” says one.

“Give up. Just give up. Get a job digging holes,” says another.

“Pretty sure there’s some ice cream in the refrigerator,” says yet another.

I’ve been working as a writer for about 12 years, so I’ve grown accustomed to these voices. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’d miss them if they were gone. Well, not miss them, but at least notice their absence and replace them with different negative voices.

So how does a writer, or anyone trying produce something beautiful, functional, and accessible, ignore the negative voices in their head and work through the material?

The thing about creative work is that we try hard to apply the hole digging paradigm to tasks that need something other than brute force. Yes, creative work is 99 percent sweat. Writing happens via time and coffee, but also a tiny bit of something I can't explain. And when it's missing, the work doesn't work. There's no forcing it, but maybe one of these tricks will help.

Give up. For a little while. Sometimes, writing is like staring at a really small thing that keeps slipping into your blind spot. Looking harder doesn't work. You have to look away, look at something else, and try to sneak peeks out of the corner of your eye. For me, driving is a great tool for this. I'm navigating through traffic, half listening to NPR, wondering what that weird smell in the car might be, and bam, ideas happen.

Digest good stuff from other people. My latest guilty pleasure is a Netflix series called Hotel Beau Sejour. It's amazing. It's spooky, smart, and I swear, watching one episode a night makes me a better writer. It's like a performance-enhancing drug without the wonky side effects. Maybe your thing is comics, maybe it’s music, maybe it’s dance—whatever you love to watch, do, or read, revel in it and let the work inspire you.

Challenge the voices to a duel. No, I'm just kidding, you'll never win. These voices do, however, fade a bit when you apply a little positivity. Go ahead and indulge yourself in a few reads of an email full of praise from someone you respect. Bring up photos of your last great success. Roll around in that sweet feeling of success, just for a few minutes. And then get to work.

That Power Rangers piece? I've already reworked it, and I'm pretty sure I can use it someplace else. The glorious thing about creative work is that even the bad stuff can get new life—there isn't any such thing as “too flawed.” It's all material, and it all ends up pulling its weight, just perhaps not in the way you suspected.

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