How To Get Out Of Your Own Way
I’ve never met a writer at any stage of their career who hasn’t struggled mightily with fear, self-loathing, and writer’s block. Writers may be capable of writing bestselling novels and blockbuster motion pictures and really, really great car owner manuals, but even the most successful artists among us never seem to say, “Oh good, I hit the point where it’s suddenly all super easy!” At best, it’s joyful; at worst, it’s horrible; and this thing called the Muse seems to visit at the weirdest times and go off on vacation without leaving an out of office message. I’ve been a full-time writer (and comedian, actress, writing teacher and iced coffee enthusiast) for six years. And it seems to me the biggest problem my fellow writers and I have is the occasional inability to get out of our own way. It may only strike once a year, but when it does, it can feel like it might just last forever.
Getting out of your own damn way is as important for the inkstained wretch on deadline as it is for a first-time writer who just wants to get started on a novel. So often, veteran writers and new writers alike get nervous, stressed, and worried. Many of us are perfectionists who freak ourselves out as a method of avoiding doing. If we don’t do, we can’t fail, right? Procrastination becomes a form of self-protection. And yet it frustrates us, and we chafe against it even as we engage in it. So the question becomes, what the hell do we do when we feel blocked?
I wish I had the one answer to rule them all, but I don’t. Instead, I have a few answers that have helped me in the past. So here goes.
Do some kind of breathing thing
Call it meditation; call it relaxation; call it yoga; call it “a thing I do.” Or don’t call it anything at all. But breathe with conscious intent. Stop; move away from the writing place (for me it’s the kitchen table; for you it may be a standing desk or the bathroom or your tin-roofed, custom-built Shed of Inspiration); go breathe for awhile. Empty your mind, or don’t; stand on your head, or don’t. I look at the inspiring and beauteous Instagram account of yoga teachers like Ashley Cummings and go, “Oh my God she’s upside down. That is so cool. She’s so strong!” But when I get away from just focusing on the physical aspect of yoga, what I notice about Ashley’s work and about the work of other teachers and meditators and inspiring humans is that they focus on the breath more than anything else. Everything starts with the breath. The breath carries them into, through, and beyond difficult poses. And the breath relaxes them and refocuses them after physical exertion.
If you need to quell anxiety, you can always try a series of deep breaths, with even inhalation and even exhalation. But when I was a kid, I learned alternate nostril breathing to help me calm down during panic attacks. It looks a little funny but it’s incredibly helpful. Gently pinch Nostril A shut and breathe in through Nostril B for four counts; hold for five while covering the Nostril B and opening up Nostril A; and breathe out slowly and evenly through Nostril A for six counts (I keep the tip of my tongue perched on the fleshy ridge just above the back of my top front teeth, but do whatever you want). Then repeat by inhaling through Nostril A and do another cycle. Sometimes I feel good enough after that to resume breathing normally; other times I’ll do a few more cycles.
I don’t do alternate nostril breathing while I’m driving, because it can be so soothing that I fear it’ll mess with my reaction time. Plus, two hands on the wheel and all that. But in a seated position (or in a standing one) at home or the office while lowering anxiety related to writing? Awesome. Go for it.
You can play with how long you inhale, hold, and/or exhale. You’ll find what’s right for you. But it slows your heart and slows your breathing down and brings you back down to earth. It helps me get quieter when I’m freaked out or upset. And that helps me return to writing.
Get up and move
Go for a walk. Go for a run. Go to spinning class and ride your terrible bicycle to nowhere while a life coach screams at you over shitty music. Fold laundry. Whatever works. Move your physical body. If you’re stuck in the life of the mind, you’re only living a half-life. Remember that you have a body and that you can use it, within your abilities, in some small good way. Then go do that carefully, please. Safety first!
Enjoy something that has nothing to do with your writing
Let’s say you’re dead set on knocking out the most amazing short horror story in the world. And yet every time you get down to it, you freeze up. I suggest putting it away and watching a film or TV or play or listening to music or reading a book or a short story or poem. The only rule is this: the art you choose must have absolutely nothing to do with your short horror story. It must not have any connective tissue culturally, thematically, or otherwise. Inevitably, you may find some links as a matter of coincidence, and that’s fine. But don’t go read “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Watch “Barbershop.” Watch an E Street Band live performance from the 1980s on YouTube. Hell, watch a basketball game. See if it shakes something loose. Then you can head back into your short horror story just as soon as you’re ready.
I hate this answer. It’s the most annoying answer. And yet there it is: you just write. You just do. That’s it. That’s all. You know it might be shit, and you keep going. At some point, you write your way out of caring how you’re writing. Then you put it aside for a half-hour or a half-year, and you come back and look at it with fresh eyes.
I’m right there with you, succeeding and failing and picking myself back up and trying things out as I go along. I wish you the absolute best, and maybe we’ll collectively figure this out eventually. I don’t believe in the romanticized myth of the tortured artist. But I have a strong feeling that a little bit of struggle makes the end result worthwhile.
Screenwriter / Author
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and the author of “Real Artists Have Day Jobs” (William Morrow 2016) as well as the books “DC Trip” (Adaptive 2015); “Great” (HarperTeen 2014); and “Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom” (William Morrow 2012). She also wrote a very silly book called “Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad” (2016). She is currently adapting “DC Trip” as a film with producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Nebraska,” “Election”), Van Toffler, and Adaptive Studios; “Agorafabulous!” for TV with Diablo Cody; and “Great” for TV with Muse Entertainment. She was born and raised in New Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College and Columbia University Teachers College. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.