Stopping when stuck (Mistake #119)

I don’t agree with all of Jeanette Winterson’s advice in this Guardian article from the beginning of the decade, but I do like the following:

Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.

She meant it about novels and fiction – and I guess she should know, because she has written one of the most terrific novels out there, in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – but it could just as easily apply to non-fiction, and not only books, but shorter pieces too.

If you’re like me, you might occasionally get quite impatient when writing. It’s all there in your head – somewhere – and it just needs to be corralled and transferred to screen. Instinctively, we want that transferral to be linear – to go from A to B without any scenic detours – but if you find yourself stuck on something, rather than trying to struggle through it as you might normally do, consider taking yourself somewhere else and writing a part of the work which doesn’t make you feel blocked.

You might be stuck because you can’t think of quite the most appropriate word, or because the sentence isn’t quite right, or you can’t convey the precise shade of meaning you wish to convey. It doesn’t matter what the problem is. After a while, just turn away.

The further you go, the better. I don’t always follow my own advice on this, but when I’ve got stuck writing my books, I have often tried to simply move chapter and go to work on another bit, totally unrelated to the sticky bit. If you’re feeling particularly frustrated, take yourself off to an ‘easy’ bit – a table of resources, or  even just a transcription of an interview you did – and keep going.

Sometimes, the sticky problem will solve itself while you’re ‘away’, thinking about something else. The brain has a funny habit of messing with you like that. Try to force it, and it won’t play ball; switch your focus, and it’ll give you what you want when you’ve eased up on feeling stressed about it.

Try it. See whether it works for you. And, while you’re trying it, you might like to remember these fine words courtesy of Fleetwood Mac: “Don’t you look back“.

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