How to Conquer Your Pencil

Author: Samantha Thuesen

We all get trapped in the humdrum of life from time to time, which is why it’s crucial for us to indulge in our creativity, but what happens when we can’t get those juices flowing? Katherine Brooks from HuffPost wrote an article called “19 Daily Habits Of Artists That Can Help Unlock Your Creativity.” These habits come from a range of artists: painters, illustrators, designers, photographers. Majoring in creative writing, I feel that these routines can also apply those struggling with writer’s block. Therefore, I’d like to translate a few of these habits to apply to writers, as well as provide some of my own techniques.

(Although writers are also considered artists, I’ll keep the terms “writer” and “artist” separate for clarity purposes.)

Let go of your idea of “perfect.”

“I do have to step back, take a breather, and realize that it is just a project and not the end of the world if it’s not perfect.” –Brooklyn-based illustrator and lettering master Mary Kate McDevitt

This is the first habit listed in Katherine’s article, and I can relate heavily. I tend to be a perfectionist when it comes to my fictional writing; I know exactly what I want it to be, but of course that’s not going to come out on the first try, so I struggle to finish. Great writing does not come right away. It takes months, sometimes years, to go through enough drafts until you’re satisfied with the final product. Let’s say you’re writing something that’s not fiction or something that shouldn’t be a long-term project­—the same applies. It may take hours or days. In either scenario, all you have to do is start somewhere. My mom always tells me, “Write something, and then you can fix it later.” Mom is never wrong.

Allow yourself to have fun. 

“It is when I find myself playing more than trying that I find my way out of a block.” –New Hampshire-based artist and teacher Aris Moore

This is the second habit on Katherine’s list. One of my writing professors once told my class that your writing is better when written in your own voice. In other words, don’t try to be someone you’re not. In the long run, you’ll have more fun being yourself. It’s alright to be inspired by another author, but don’t mimic his or her style exactly. Multiple authors can be great in their own ways. I once read an anonymous quote that I think applies to this concept: “Flowers are pretty, but so are Christmas lights, and they look nothing alike.”

When in doubt, ask for help. 

“I could easily go around in endless circles with myself, questioning whether or not I’m on the right track with something. I just have to stop myself, and ask for help.” –Milwaukee-based artist Cassandra Smith

This is the tenth habit on Katherine’s list. One of my very close friends is an artist, and just the other day she asked me for help with the arrangement of flowers in one of her paintings. We spent hours discussing different arrangements, pairing each with some metaphorical meaning. Although she didn’t hesitate to ask my opinion, it made me think that sometimes it’s hard to ask for help because we feel that our work should remain our own. I’m afraid to show my unfinished work to others because I don’t want to be criticized, but that’s what needs to happen. This past year I wrote a short story for my school’s literary magazine, and I forced myself to show it to all my friends before submitting it. It was the best thing I could have done. I learned that asking for help does not mean someone else is writing the story for me, but rather I’m being given the opportunity to view my story from another perspective. Sometimes you know what you’re talking about, but your reader doesn’t, and the only way to stay clear of that is to ask for help.

Those were the three primary habits in Katherine’s article that stuck out to me. Now I’ll share my two habits that never fail to inspire my writing.

Write down every idea, no matter how ridiculous.

Three years ago, I started to write down everything in a journal: ideas, dreams, conversations. I read a story on David Sedaris and his writing process, where he talks about the notebook he carries around with him. An Open Culture article writes, “To the Missouri Review Sedaris described himself as less funny than observant, adding that ‘everybody’s got an eye for something. The only difference is that I carry around a notebook in my front pocket. I write everything down, and it helps me recall things,’ especially for later inclusion in his diary.” This inspired me to carry around my own notebook, and it’s helped my writing substantially. I’ve learned from Sedaris, as well as my writing professors, that it’s okay to take things from your life—conversations and people—because writers are never completely original. You are who you are because of where you grew up and who surrounds you. Therefore, it’s only natural that your writing derives from your life.

Make your characters come alive.

I recently read an Ernest Hemingway quote that really spoke to me: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” This goes back to taking ideas from your everyday life. I have a habit of basing characters off people I know because it makes them more believable. A professor once told my class that he likes to sit in the park and write down conversations he overhears. They’re raw. They’re real. When I’m walking around the store I like to observe what’s going on around me: an older couple complaining about the process of ordering shoes online, a man wearing a Mickey Mouse sweater buying at least ten pillows. It’s kind of creepy, I’ll agree, but observing people is the first step in accurately writing about them. I’ve never seen it, nor can I find it at the moment, but I’ve heard there’s a website you can visit to find out your character’s favorite toast. It’s silly, but it’s an important concept. In order to create people, and not characters, you have to give them likes and dislikes, no matter how miniscule. You never have to write about those likes and dislikes, but they will help you create a real person.

I am far from being a professional writer, so my advice and commentary is not perfect; I have a lot to learn and a lot of mistakes to make. I hope that by following my own advice, I can eventually perfect it. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, try some of these techniques, and read the rest of Katherine’s article to find more inspiration. All you have to do is start somewhere. Write something down, even if it’s a bunch of gibberish. Diamonds are even ugly before they’re cut and polished.

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