I drive a junker of a Jeep Wrangler that I have affectionately named Diablo. Diablo is close to my heart: he was my first car, and he’s seen me through some tough times. I’ve treated him fairly well, but I haven’t always been able to fork over the extra dough that he needs to stay in tip-top shape.
Hence, at the present moment, Diablo has no radiator, no working heat, no cup holders, no console, no four-wheel drive, no brake lights (they turn on and off as they please), no backseat, no radio…you get the gist.
Recently—as if only to add insult to injury—my left blinker decided to stop working. This means that every time I need to turn left, I have to unzip (that’s right, unzip…a Jeep with a soft top is remarkably similar to a Barbie car) the driver’s side window and stick my arm out into oncoming traffic, finger pointing leftwards as straight as can be.
After a particularly close call that involved a monster truck that didn’t see my arm, nearly clipped me, and swerved off screaming words I haven’t heard since I saw a carpenter shoot a nail into his foot, I’ve just avoided turning left at all.
Whenever I have to drive somewhere now, I map out the directions in my head, complete with 100% right turns. Sometimes this method makes me go around the block or take a longer route somewhere, but so far I’ve enjoyed the challenge because it forces me to break out of my routine.
And beware: routine can be creativity’s worst enemy. As writers, the more we get sucked into our habits, our genre of choice, our style, etc. without taking a breather to exercise, hone, and push the limits of our writing, the easier it is for writer’s block to creep in.
Writer’s block can strike any writer at any time. You know you have writer’s block when you sit down at your computer to write and find yourself staring at the blinking cursor of death, surfing the internet aimlessly, or rewriting your to-do list—anything but starting on the task at hand. It’s agonizing, stressful, and it can make any writer feel like she’s lost her mojo.
Beating Writer’s Block with Constrained Writing Exercises
One of my time-tested methods for saying “adiós” to writer’s block is very similar to only being able to make right turns in a Jeep. It’s a form of constrained writing that breaks the “cycle” of writer’s block by squeezing your writing into a straightjacket—forcing you to abandon your routine, your genre, etc. and focus solely on the act of writing itself.
Constrained writing is formally known as a school of thought adopted by writers who choose to follow an extremely strict form, such as Ernest Vincent Wright, who wrote a 50,100-word novel without using the letter ‘e’ in 1939.
Constrained writing can take many forms, and some writers love it so much that it’s how they choose to write all the time (we salute you, Mr. Wright!). But for most writers, constrained writing exercises are just that: exercises that allow us to break out of the mold, tap into our creativity, and have some fun.
Here are some types of constrained writing exercises for you to try:
1. Alliterative: Write a sentence in which each word begins with the same letter (“f” or “i,” for example)
This is a difficult exercise, and it usually only takes a few sentences to get your writing creativity back into working order again. An example: “Frustrated fish frequently fight fussily for freedom.”
2. Lipogram: Write three paragraphs in which one letter (commonly “e” or “o”) is outlawed.
This is one of the most useful exercises for prose writers, and it seems easy until you try to include some sort of relevant plot line. Dialogue is also tricky. Example (no “i”s): “Even though the cat wrote a 100-page novel, she wasn’t pleased. She took a short cat nap and made a few phone calls, then she threw the pages across the room and started from scratch…”
3. Palindrome: Think of words that read the same forwards and backwards. (No cheating!)
This exercise is fun to do with a friend. Try to think of as many palindromes as you can in 15 minutes. Examples: “radar,” “racecar,” “madam,” and “eye.”
4. Chaterism: Write a sentence in which the length of words increase or decrease in a uniform, mathematical way (1 letter, 2 letters, 3 letters, etc.; 3 syllables, 2 syllables, 1 syllable, etc.).
This exercise always poses a fun challenge, and it can be made harder or easier depending on your mood. (Want to make it easier? Start each sequence with bigger words, like words that have 3 letters instead of one.) Example: “I am the best Greek writer” (1,2,3,4,5,6 letters in each word).
5. Mandated Vocabulary: Choose a random list of words that must be incorporated into a poem or a few paragraphs of prose.
This is one of my favorites, and it’s gotten me out of a writing rut many a time. Open your dictionary (or visit an online version with a “random word” button) and blindly point to a word. Repeat as many times as you wish, writing down each word as you go. Now write a paragraph that incorporates all of those words!
Constrained writing is a great way to break out of the routine that most writers settle into. Don’t let your creativity be stifled: writing is a skill that must be exercised, challenged, and pushed, but doing so can actually be fun. Furthermore, allowing yourself the time and flexibility to try something new will almost always spark an idea for the actual project you’re working on.
Give your brain a workout by trying one of the exercises above and posting your results in the comments! Or, share an experience you’ve had with writer’s block. How did you break out of it?