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Writing Exercises For When I'm Stuck

I have been practicing yoga regularly for more than ten years. With all that experience, the dozens of teachers and classes and studios I’ve known, you’d think nothing on my mat would surprise me. But yoga, like life, is an excellent maestro of disorder.

A few weeks ago, I signed up for an early morning class with an instructor I know and love. She offers a tough class, with long holds and tons of strengthening poses. It was a gamble at 5:45am – would it give me enthusiasm for the day or wear me out?

When I got in the room, I noticed some of the students’ mats were sideways, not facing the mirror as I’m used to, but with the mirror wall parallel to their mat. I glanced around distressed before a kind soul gently told me that Thursdays were different.

In the standing series, I felt imbalanced. I toppled in poses in which I’m normally steady. I had a rough time with single-legged transitions. I wobbled in mountain pose, with both feet on the ground!

I was disappointed in myself, figuring I had come into the practice with the wrong mindset or a bad attitude because things were “different” that day. But as I drove away, I realized I was destabilized by a change in perspective. What happened on my mat was no different than what happens when I am confronted with a new challenge. I’m initially caught off-guard, struggling to find information and workable solutions. I get frustrated with myself for feeling unprepared, under-resourced and uncertain.

I went back the following week, rolled my mat out sideways and gave myself permission to wobble. I also talked myself into really looking in the mirror at the shapes I made, at my own form and strength. This second time, I was more assured. It just takes practice, I repeated to myself. Just keep doing it.

Getting “stuck” in yoga turned out to be a refreshing reminder to occasionally break out of my typical patterns, to look at things differently, to consider a fresh perspective. Seeking out the unknown is uncomfortable and challenging. Yet, doing it helps me see what I’ve been missing.

This same concept applies to my writing when I feel “stuck.” Sometimes, I’m working on a piece that just isn’t working. Or I’ve finished a piece and I’m afraid to start editing it. Maybe it’s not as good as I thought it was…what if it’s a mess?

And so, I think of all the things to be doing instead. The trouble is that I AM a writer. It’s what I do. It’s what I love. And so, I must return to the page, the computer screen, the notebook. Over the years, I’ve found little tricks that motivate me to return. They’re just exercises to jump start my thinking. Sometimes, they generate new ideas. Other times, they are saved into the file of nothingness. It doesn’t matter either way…

For When I Just Need to Get Back to the Page:

· I go on a slow walk with no destination. I bring a little notebook and I just observe the world around me.

· I write in a different colored pen. I have a collection of them, so sometimes I write with purple or lime green ink. Or I use a brand-new notebook (nothing like a freshly cracked spine!) Or colored paper. Anything to help me “see” my words differently.

· I pull a random book off my shelf and open it to a random page. I select the first three nouns I see, and the last three verbs and I make a story out of it. It’s usually ridiculous.

· I turn to visual art, sometimes in a museum, sometimes online or in a magazine. Then I describe what I see from three different perspectives:

o As if I’m a serial killer,

o As if I’m a child,

o As if I’m an animal.

For When I’m “Stuck” on a Piece:

Here are a few tricks I’ve learned from other writers. Many of these exercises are recommended during the editing process, but I find them beneficial even before my manuscript it complete.

· If character development is troubling me, I’ll take all my characters in the piece and throw them in a room together. Usually, it’s a grand party and I see how they all show up and interact, but it could be some other environment: a class, a workplace conference room for a meeting, etc.

· If it’s the “sound” of the narrative troubling me, I’ll take a scene or a page and rewrite in in a different POV or tense.

· If it’s pacing or intrigue that’s falling flat, I’ll take a scene and layer in some bizarre, unexpected event, like an alien invasion or a superstorm. Just to see what happens…

· If I’m wrestling with a beginning, I’ll write a scene that comes before my anticipated start. If it’s the ending I can’t grab, I’ll write a scene that comes after my perceived ending. Sometimes, that’s a time and place far, far in the future for my character.

· If the dialogue doesn’t feel right, I’ll write a letter to my character(s). I’ll start with: “You won’t believe what happened today…”

Of course, a simple online search will lead you to writing prompts and story ideas, but these exercises are about working through a story or narrative that already exists.

Ann Lamott always gives sage writerly advice, so I went back to my dog-eared, flagged, highlighted copy of “Bird by Bird,” and read something she said about writer’s block (oh, that dreaded concept!):

“The problem is acceptance (of writer’s block) which is something we’re not taught to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given – that you are not in a productive creative period – you free yourself to begin filling up again.”

Getting stuck is just part of the process. It means I know my work deserves better. It means I just need a change in perspective to open up my creative mind.


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