By Jennie Jarvis
Have you ever had a period of time where the very idea of writing stresses you out? You remember what writing is, don’t you? That thing you used to do, long ago, that gave you so much joy? But now, when you think about doing it, all you feel is guilty and anxious? Maybe even like a fraud?
Well, you aren’t alone!
Many writers, myself include, go through long periods without being able to create. Lots of things can trigger these periods: an over-packed schedule, concern over the failing health of a loved one, a fundamental change in the balance of your life, relationships woes, stress caused by work, debt, home life, or just life in general.
Going through one of these periods doesn’t make you a “bad” writer – it just makes you human. Whether your drought lasts a couple of weeks or a few decades, it’s how you recover from these periods that determines whether or not you can “make it” as a writer.
There are many ways to tackle this block in creativity, but the most influential guide I’ve come across for recovering from writer’s block lies in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.
Her book, which was first published almost 25 years ago, lays out a twelve-week program for “artistic recovery.” This program is designed to help refill the well of creativity that exists inside all of us. While each week has great advice on a number of different topics, the two exercises you are encouraged to do each week are Morning Pages and Artist Dates.
The Morning Pages are basically journaling first thing in the morning. As soon as you wake up – before you get out of bed – you are supposed to write for ten minutes in a stream-of-consciousness manner. You don’t judge what you are writing or worry about your handwriting (yes, no typing). You just write. This is supposed to help get the extra toxicity that exists in our minds – stress over daily life, judgmental thoughts, negative feelings, etc. – out of our heads. Once our minds are clear of negativity, we are, according to Cameron, more open to creative impulses.
The creative impulses available to us as a result of the Morning Pages are then nurtured and developed with the Artist Dates.
Artist Dates are once a week solo adventures where you take your inner artist on a date. The idea is that you do this to give yourself permission to do something you haven’t allowed yourself to do in a long while. Basically, you play. What you do depends on what you find fun, whether it be doing something active like working out or playing paintball, or doing something more in-doorsy like making a scrapbook or watching a bad movie. The idea is that, by allowing yourself to play, you increase your creativity and become unblocked.
I know I sound a bit like an ad for The Artist’s Way, but here is where that ends. I’m not going to lie; I tried doing the activities in the book exactly the way Cameron suggests, and it didn’t quite work for me. Cameron has a very specific personality that is, frankly, a little too “hippie” for me. As a result, a lot of her more artsy leanings don’t speak to me – but the underlying concepts of clearing away the toxicity in our minds and then encouraging creative play is awesome, but her version of how to execute those ideas didn’t work for me. I’m a left-brainer, through and through, and so I needed to adjust her suggestions to work for me.
The flexibility of Artist Dates works really well for me being able to adapt them to whatever I want. Cameron can have her yoga and meditation, and I’ll take my school supply shopping and walks around a lake. Morning Pages, however, just don’t work for me. Since they are required to be done once a day, in a single ten minute increment, they were too rigid for me to be able to use them effectively.
On a basic level, when I wake up, I really need to pee, so the idea of doing anything before my morning bathroom trip is just silly.
More than that, however, most mornings I found myself writing, “I have no idea what to write” for the whole ten minutes. Sometimes it would transform into something else, but not always. This didn’t surprise me because I know I’m a “marathon” writer and not a sprinter. I can’t just sit down and writer for ten minutes at a time, the way some other people can. When I write, I need a good 2-3 hour chunk so I can mentally get back into my world and then stay there for a while. Even though Morning Pages are just supposed to be essentially brain dumps and not fully conscious writing segments, I couldn’t do it.
Fortunately, however, I’ve found a way to rectify the purpose of the Morning Pages with an execution method that works really well for my style. It’s called Bullet Journaling.
Bullet Journaling is essentially a to do list/planner and creative journal hybrid that allows me to feel like I’m dumping all the extra crap in my brain without feeling pressured to write more than a few words at a time.
This video does a great job of explaining how a Bullet Journal (or BuJo as the kids call it) works:
Looks interesting but kind of boring, right? Well, thanks to the creative collective that is the internet, I found a lot of people who found ways of using color and form to make this rather mundane concept really sing. Here are just a handful of examples:
Once I started down the rabbit hole of studying how other people use their Bullet Journals, my mind bubbled with the possibilities of what I could do with my own: calendar, to do list, menu planner, goal setter, WIP word tracker, weight t, character creation sheet, submission log, lesson planner, sketch pad, book reading list, and on and on and on.
As an Artist Date, I went out and bought multiple journals and colored pens. I even found a “journal tool belt” that allows me to attach all the pens directly to the journal so I can label items according to color.
Once I began using my Bullet Journal in my daily life, I found a lot of the negative junk flying around in my head – the stress about what I needed to do or whether or not I have enough time or money – it all started to fade away. I was essentially accomplishing what Morning Pages were designed to do in a way that worked better for me. I took a 25 year old concept and found a modern take on it that fit the way my brain operated.
Suddenly, my well didn’t feel dry anymore. I felt anxious to write, not anxious to live. And just like that, my creative well was full again.
I would never have discovered this new way to approach Morning Pages if it hadn’t been for my talking with a good friend about the process. It worked for her, and she shared that with me.
So, if you are feeling the creative drought, make sure you are looking at both what gurus like Julia Cameron have to say about overcoming your block, as well as reaching out and talking to your writing community. As creative artists, each of us are very different, and it’s only by exploring all the neat things out there that we can find what will work best for us!
What will your friends tell you is the best way to get your creative juices flowing?