Fiction Workbench

Blog of the Fiction Fix-It Shop

Writer’s Brain Freeze

Posted by Meredith in Writing Advice (September 6, 2010 at 9:00 am)

Every writer at some point or another finds it hard to write. We call it writer’s block or brain freeze, and it can be incredibly frustrating and discouraging. When the story won’t come, we can easily doubt ourselves and our writing ability. Today, I’m answering a question about writer’s block on behalf of the Advanced Fiction Writing blog, for a reader named Ghada, who lives in Egypt. Ghada writes:

I have this amazing idea in my head but I just can’t put it down on paper! For a month I’ve been sitting on front of my screen writing only one scene, and I’m lost within it and I’m afraid I can’t move on with the story, it’s so frustrating!

I keep thinking that everyone would question my style and the way I write (I’m from Egypt and Arabic is a tricky language) and everyone will underestimate the motivations of my characters, and that makes me freeze and considering giving up. Help me please!

This is a question that we could write lots of blog posts, and even entire books about. So I can’t provide that much detail in a single blog post, but I think I can offer some reassurance and encouragement for you, Ghada.

When I was writing my most recent novel, I had similar struggles to yours. Those sort of fears and uncertainties are common to writers no matter what country we live in or what language we use. I have a writing coach (Judy Baer–you can read about her on my About page) who helped me work through some of my writing insecurities using the following exercise:

  • First, what are you exactly worried about? You mentioned that you feared people will question your writing style and your character motivations. List these and any and all other worries that are keeping you from feeling positive about your writing. Put them down on paper.
  • For each item in your list, I want you to do something that might seem weird, but try it anyway. Give each item a physical appearance. If the item “I’m worried people will question my writing style” were a person or a creature, what would that particular worry look like? Give it a physical description, clothing, accessories, a personality, a tone of voice, an attitude. Make it a living being. Do that for each item on your list.

Our worries and insecurities are like living creatures in our heads, right? They speak to us, shouting their negative opinions into our minds. It’s like they’re in our heads having a huge party—noisy, rude, chattering. No wonder we can’t get any work done when we’re listening to them! And the thing is, we invited them into our minds ourselves. We asked all those worries to come have a party in our head. That’s not a criticism against us—it’s just how humans tend to work. Fear and worry and insecurities sometimes are useful to warn us of danger or make us think twice about our decisions. Our minds are designed to keep us safe and to protect us.

But in this case, those worries are no longer helpful. We don’t need them! Writing a novel is not something our minds need to protect us from. In most cases, a writer is not actually in danger from writing (and those who are—that’s a whole different situation). So we have every right to take back our invitation to the Worry Beasts and tell them the party is over.

So what I want you to do now is this: Speak to each individual Worry that you personified. Explain politely but firmly “Thank you for your concern and opinion, but this party is now over. I don’t need you anymore. You have to leave now.” And then send that Worry somewhere—mentally speaking. Visualize where that Worry must go, and picture that Worry leaving your party and going to wherever you send it, never to return.

I locked mine in a desk drawer at an undisclosed storage facility. Hopefully she has starved by now. :-)

That’s the fun part of this exercise. The tricky part is that these Worry Beasts keep trying to sneak back into your head and start up a new party. You just have to be firm with them and keep returning them to where they belong. Eventually, they get the message and stay put better.

The next thing you do is then make a NEW list—this time, putting all the Truths about your writing on the paper. Things like “I am a dedicated writer” or “I have the ability to learn—I can become a GREAT writer” or “I have every right to write this novel” or “I am skilled at using my language.”

Now, go through the same process with this list as you did before–personifying each item on the list so that they are real creatures to you. Invite these Truth Creatures to a party in your mind and listen to what they are telling you. If the Worry Beasts creep back in and try to crowd out the Truth, just send them away again and ask the Truth to speak a little louder.

I think you’ll find—as I did—that as you get used to monitoring your “mental party” this way, you’ll be able to see your scene more clearly and figure out how to make it do what you want it to do. There might be some scene structure issues or character development problems that are making the scene not work the way you’d like. But until you quiet the negative voices and the worries in your head, you won’t be able to concentrate on the actual scene. So take care of those worries first, and then work on figuring out how to improve your scene.

I know you can do it, Ghada. Keep at it–we all want your story to be as amazing on paper as it is in your head.

If anyone would like more information on this type of creativity coaching, please see our Services page or contact Fiction Fix-It Shop to find out how it works. Those of you overseas, we can work out a way to coach you even if it’s through email or Skype, etc.

Have a question about writing? Ask it here.