Unstop that writer’s block

Apr 13, 2023 | Blog

Focusing on an object and allowing your mind to free-wheel and make associations can be a useful and productive exercise

Ever sat in front of a blank page or screen and felt like your brain was just as empty? There are ways of breaking free of that state and allowing ideas to flood your mind


Everybody, at some time, will have to produce a piece of writing by a deadline (I actually first wrote “dreadline” by accident, corrected it, then realised what a revealing Freudian slip that was) and won’t have a clue what to write. This is so common that it has its own terminology, and the lead paragraph could have started like this:

Everybody, at some time, will have experienced writer’s block.

And maybe it should have – brevity, as they say, is the soul of wit. But I could probably put that line above into a search engine and get hundreds of articles that start with it. And you’d want to avoid parroting clichés, too.

When I was working for a daily newspaper, where deadlines are excruciatingly tight, relentless and non-negotiable, I sometimes (frequently) got stuck. If things were very bad, I’d leave my desk and take a walk around the block. This would take about 15 minutes, and when I returned, more often than not, the way forward was so blindingly obvious that I was mystified as to why I didn’t see it before. To brazenly seize another cliché: a case of not seeing the wood for the trees.

Nothing in your world is entirely neutral, and objects can project the power of myriad associations and stories of intricacy and depth

Creative writing isn’t much different. If you’re blocked, take a break, take a walk, play some music, doodle, emulate Proust and contemplate the madeleine (or biscuit) dipped in your cup of tea. If you’re still stuck after that, here’s a useful exercise not a million miles away from that Proustian hallucination.

Focus on some object. Any object. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s there in front of you. Stare at a pencil on your desk, or a pen, or your cup, or the crack in the wall. You can go further afield, leave your desk, pick up an orange in the kitchen, or a plate, or a half-eaten sandwich. A used tissue, a rubbish bin, a stray leaf, a hairbrush, a key fob. You’ll have got the idea – anything, it doesn’t matter what.

Stare at this thing and let your mind wander. Whether it’s yours or someone else’s, familiar or strange, dwell on the thing and let your mind go. Don’t try to push into some kind of relationship with it, but just absorb its presence and whatever qualities make it what it is. You will soon notice that your mind is going places with this object, drawing parallels, conjuring up memories, creating hypothetical situations with it. You might be responding to these emotionally. Write these impressions down as they come to you.

Just a pencil? It’s very pointed, could be a weapon (I did in fact get stabbed with a pencil once, how ironic). Or for many, a wand of creativity. Or the thing that your friend slid on, fell and broke her arm

Let’s take an example. To the left of me, here at my desk, I can see (amongst all kinds of other debris I should put away/throw away but just don’t because clutter clusters around me like I’m magnetic) a selfie stick. It’s black and kind of bulky because it also doubles as a smartphone tripod for taking pictures. It makes me feel a little embarrassed because I don’t want to be the kind of person who uses, let alone owns, a selfie stick. It contains a small remote shutter release that no longer works, which annoys me. I’m remembering the last picture I took with it, when I realised the remote shutter release didn’t work anymore: a family snap at Christmas – taken with the delayed release as the remote no longer worked. I remember the Christmas holiday and the Christmas atmosphere and the glow all around it. A bit more mindless – or rather mindful – daydreaming, and I’ve got an anecdote, or a story, or a memoir.

We can use another example, something totally unfamiliar. Standing at a corner, I see a baby’s lost sock. It’s tiny; I could just about get two fingers into it. It looks machine-knitted with blue and green stripes, and a green heel and toe cap. The baby that lost it, could be either a boy or a girl, might have been struggling with it, nudging its feet against each other, or maybe the sock was too big or too small and just came off. Maybe the child was playing with its feet, or sucking on the toe. Let’s give the child a name: Robin. Why not, we can do anything we like with this. Perhaps Robin’s parent – Pat? – was busy texting and didn’t notice that the sock had come off, or was having an animated chat with another parent and neither of them was really paying attention to the kids in their prams, or the Pat was having a hard day and occupied inside their mind with something else. Maybe Robin didn’t like wearing the socks and managed to pull the one off and was working on the other one before Pat noticed what was going on, but the discarded sock was too far away for Pat to find. Or Pat was in a hurry to get to an appointment and couldn’t go back looking for it. Or Robin had so many socks that it didn’t matter if one went missing. Perhaps the sock was a gift from hated Aunt Sophie, or brother-in-law, and was better having disappeared. Maybe Pat was frustrated at being a parent and it was the seventh sock that Robin had managed to dispose of in a week and they were thinking, fine, just freeze then. Or Pat was convulsed with guilt and felt like a bad parent because they never noticed that the socks went missing, and didn’t have the money to pay the heating bill, never mind keep baby Robin in new socks.

Something as unrelated as a cable can become a snake preparing to strike, or a tangle of pasta, or …

You get the idea. Once you’ve got your mind moving, it’s not hard to change gear, or change track, and concentrate on what you were working on before that block stopped you. Block? What block? Is it a baby block with letters on it? Or a line of traffic cones? Or somebody in front of you waving a flag, or fallen tree, or an abandoned car in the middle of the street?

Whatever it is, it’s behind you now.


Christine Madden is an Irish-German writer, editor and writing coach based in Berlin and southwest France. Her journalism has appeared in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, The Local Germany, the Guardian and the magazine ExBerliner, and she has been broadcast on BBC radio.

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