Marie Kondo Method for Writer’s Block (But Not Exactly)On January 28, 2022 by local dreamer
by Al Yen
From this series of articles, you will learn a few tricks to overcome writer’s block.
This guide is also ADHD- and disability-friendly!
And if you wonder what Marie Kondo has to do with all this, it will be revealed at stage 2. Inventory, or Make-over toolkit ; )
There probably are writers whose writing process resembles a steady never-ending flow. They have no trouble focusing, managing their time, keeping a work-life balance, and they know what they’re doing. I truly envy those, but they seem more like a unicorn to me, and it’s pointless to envy a mythological creature. Besides, they have nothing to do with me here and now, who’s bumping into yet another writer’s block even with this very post. So, along the way of helping you, I have an exciting opportunity to help myself out of this boat first and see how well the techniques I suggest work in practice!
To overcome writer’s or poet’s block is to win a battle (sometimes a few times a day) but never the war. However, I don’t like how discouraging battles and wars sound. I don’t want to fight my art or put myself into opposition to it in any other way. That’s why I do like to think that every particular occasion of writer’s block is just another game quest on my creative journey.
The quest is something to ask questions about, explore, learn from, experiment, and have fun with!
Whereas “writer’s block” feels like a dreadful tombstone on the grave of lost potential, a “writer’s quest” not only opens the way ahead but also:
- allows you to pinpoint particular, tangible steps to take;
- lessens pressure by making writer’s block a natural part of the writing process and not your personal failure;
- allows you to get creative and play with ways to carry out your mission, eventually finding those that work best for you;
- opens an opportunity to learn to nurture your talent and acknowledge your fortes instead of running yourself down;
- gives you a safe space to grow and develop your skills.
Are you ready to take a step into the unknown?
A professional hero(ine)
What you first need to decide on is who you want to feel like in your writing process and what your writing is to you. This is a starting point that will further help you determine how you want to do it.
As words are my art, they also are my craft,
so I am both an artist and a craftsman.
Occasionally, I’d find it hard to switch from one mode to another, as if forgetting that that’s actually an option, too. I don’t have to write a masterpiece in one sitting. I sometimes can, but I certainly shouldn’t believe this is the only legitimate way to deal with words. For instance, this autumn I gained the experience of writing one poem for three weeks. Such a prospect would usually scare the shit out of me but in reality, this period actually turned out to be full of joyful work! Those ten revisions taught me that:
- In order to not feel disheartened whenever my inspiration flow doesn’t come naturally, I can find indirect sources of my drive. This search is what stage 1. Work process, or Your turn-on buttons is dedicated to.
- I don’t have to depend on the whims of my muse and wait for epiphanies, and being a professional doesn’t make me any less of an artist. This is what we’ll talk about at stage 2. Inventory, or Make-over toolkit where you’ll be deciding what you do and don’t want to see in your writing.
- It’s always a good idea to get a clear understanding of what you’re aiming for. At stage 3. Map out, or Develop your hunger first, you will be outlining the desirable outcome of what you’re working on.
Having gone through these steps, you’ll develop working tools to easily find your way out whenever you get lost in the woods of writer’s block again. Let’s get to it!
1. Work process, or Your turn-on buttons
Put away your work for a bit. Have you enjoyed yourself today yet? I mean, really, how has your day been?
As for me, today I spent a whole lot of my energy to:
- teach a class I didn’t enjoy (I usually do enjoy teaching but we don’t “click” with this particular student)
- go get groceries (it was rainy, windy, and overall repellent outside, and we really didn’t want to go out)
- make food together with Jules (which is always fun but still takes some time and energy)
- play with our cat June (also fun but he’s impossible to tire out and acts out later in the night if not played with properly during the day)
Right after all that and dinner, I sat myself down to continue writing this post. Fast-forward two hours, I made a few minor adjustments but no real progress. Am I disappointed? Hell yeah. I was hoping to use my time productively and now I feel like I’ve failed. Am I frustrated? Sure! But am I gonna sit here and try harder? Hell no.
Now, unlike me, you might not have ADHD, depression, and chronic fatigue but you still are a human being, not a text writing robot. You may be tired or overwhelmed, you may have a hundred tasks lurking in the back of your head, distracting factors, an anxiety kick-in, or a nasty headache. My point is, take yourself into account.
If you’ve had a tiring time, you need to recharge before you try to squeeze a few more words out of yourself hoping this time you’ll find the right thought. If you’re bored and frustrated in the process of writing, chances are thin that you’ll be content with what would eventually come out.
Turn yourself on before getting to work
So, how can you grease your engines and put yourself on the right track? My suggestion is, do something for fun and pure self-indulgence.
Have you listened to music that you love for the sake of listening to music lately? danced to your favorite song or sang along the lyrics? read fiction? daydreamed? laughed? showered with no one to bother you? had a change of scenery? hastelessly drunk a cup of coffee looking outside the window and letting your thoughts wander aimlessly?
Whatever it is that you’re really pleased or excited to do, do it. The key ingredient at this stage is, again, to have fun with a clear understanding of what you’re doing and why.
You’re not resting. It’s not your “undeserved” leisure time (procrastinator’s nemesis) but a part of your work process whose purpose is to prep your brain for work in the following ways:
- Reset your headspace: it’s hard to think about a chapter or an article you’re aiming to write if you’ve got bills, your child’s poor grades, and a grocery shopping list swarming in your head.
- Mental hack: Choose a more suitable time for your worries and think of the next step to tackle each problem: gather receipts, ask your child how you can help them, look inside the fridge and note everything missing. A proactive approach like this signals your brain that everything’s under control, and you don’t have to do all those things right now.
- Pleasant activities help your body and nervous system finish the stress chain reaction: let them understand that “running for life” is over, and now it’s safe. This, in turn, will help you focus better and be more liberated in your imagination!
- Studies show that even activities that aren’t directly related to your goal, add up to achieving it. How so? While your brain is roaming about, it becomes more flexible and makes new neuron connections that can result in unexpected ideas — insights that seem to come out of nowhere. And for us, creative folk, what can be more rewarding than a smooth idea flow?
- If you have ADHD, this most probably means that your brain is low on dopamine, which is essential for feeling motivated to do things. As we start the day having less of it in our system than other people, it’s important to break the rust and make your gears run. Doing a pleasant activity will help you accumulate (i.e. potential) energy and gain momentum for even greater things to do!
So charge yourself up with positive emotions and bring back the spark to your eyes! Think of it this way: the more relaxed and delighted you are during your charging, the more productive the time you spend on it is because this is your input that will add up to your output. Speaking of which!
Now that we’re bold and excited enough to accept the call to adventure, let’s see what we need to equip ourselves with!
2. Inventory, or Make-over toolkit
Is this particular word hot?
Do you feel horny about that one passage?
Does your plot twist make you feel “a very specific rise”?
This step makes me think of the KonMari method — a method of sorting your belongings developed by Marie Kondo, a Japanese author and a home organizing consultant. She suggests, “Keep everything that sparks joy and discard all stuff that doesn’t.” Like Marie Kondo treats space in her home, we’re now gonna treat our writing.
You can only truly know something if you can put it into words. That’s why it’s so important to identify tangible aspects of your text that feel unsatisfying and unarousing. Unless you figure out what exactly is wrong, you can’t work on it.
In the same manner, don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the shoulder for everything that you think you did nail. What was so good about it? Find words to name it! Was it a particularly good metaphor? Or a feeling that the text flows as you read? What exactly made that possible?
Arm yourself with a few highlighting colors and prepare to take notes.
Get to know your writing case
Reread the piece you’re having writer’s block with. In case you’ve only got an empty sheet, take a past work of yours or even someone else’s piece that you particularly like. Whatever it is, analyze it as a professional so that you can learn from it. To do that, follow these three steps:
- Break the genre down to its prominent characteristics and requirements.
- Develop evaluation criteria and ask the right, i.e. informative questions.
- Set specific goals and identify what the landmarks on your road are (more on this at stage 3. Map to hotness).
Whenever I taste bitter discontent with my writing, my brain is quick to give me anxiety and negative self-talk, both of which only reinforce writer’s block. From this point, things may easily spiral down to questioning my self-esteem as a writer and taking things too personally. But I’m smarter than my brain, so, even though I’m tempted to, I’m not gonna ask myself questions like Does my writing even make sense? or How much frustration does someone’s exquisite piece cause me if I compare it to mine? These are useless as they concentrate on my feeling of disappointment and have no identifiable scale to be measured against.
If you’re at a loss, try the ideas below.
Criteria and questions to consider for non-fiction
(If you’re here for prose and poetry tips, you may wanna scroll down to Basic sample criteria for fiction right away!)
Yes, for non-fiction, it will mostly sound like academic assessment criteria. I myself used to be a tutor, and my take is:
A blog post / IELTS essay / non-fiction book chapter are all, in their essence, an informative entry on a certain topic, so the very definition of it develops universal requirements for the genre.
- Argument Building a.k.a. Coherence and Cohesion:
- Is my argument built seamlessly? Do I have any gaps in logic?
- Do I switch smoothly from one subtopic to another?
- Does my next sentence develop the thesis statement of the paragraph?
- Do I get off-topic? Should I eliminate this passage entirely, move it to another place or rework it?
- Am I putting the long and the short sentences in the right places?
- Am I using peacockishly complex terms?
- Do I overuse the Passive Voice?
- Am I concise and to the point? Or do I over-explain myself and get too wordy? How can I say it shorter?
- Do I make my point clear?
- Are my examples vivid and relevant?
- If I were reading this for the first time, what would I believe the work did not cover? What else would I like to have learned from it?
- Did I close my arguments properly? Did I not leave them hanging without the ultimate point?
- Am I too much “to the point”? Do my words feel alive? Do they feel as if a human wrote them? Or are they too dry, refined, or machine-like?
- What about humor?
- If expressing personality and humor isn’t allowed for the particular kind of work, think more in terms of what info you present. What details do you want to pay attention to?
- Do I use sexy vocabulary, i.e. words and phrases that, figuratively speaking, will turn my reader on? How do I make the text more engaging?
- What should the most exciting (which equals most memorable) information in my entry be? Did I present it in a tasty way?
[CASE STUDY: BLOG POST WRITING]
Foreshadowing stage 3. Map out, or Develop your hunger first (which will be exclusively dedicated to poetry and prose), I want to show you some of my notes on this very article. I’d come back to them every time I:
- feel I’ve lost direction;
- not sure if what I’m writing is the right thing;
- or if I’ve chosen the right tone;
- think whether I should include the point that sprouted off the main course;
- find myself stuck with where to develop the given point.
As you can see, I’d also update the list as I’d find new criteria and more precise goals.
Not only does it help structurize your writing but also serves as a litmus paper for whether you’re on the right path.
What I want this article to be like
- TOPIC: a helpful guide to overcome writer’s block → a simple how-to, no more than 3 main milestones | don’t overwhelm! | stay on topic!
- CONTENT: not too time- and energy-consuming steps (my kind of sexy!) → something I really can do → ADHD-friendly / neurodivergency-friendly techniques? → low-energy- and disability-friendly techniques?? → stuff I’d be excited to try out myself
work/rest hygiene notice?→ how to give yourself a boost in productivity with fun activities
- TONE: a piece that I myself would enjoy reading → light and humorous | don’t be a snobbish mentor (def not a turn-on)
- TAKEAWAY: make your piece hot → make characteristics tangible → TAKEAWAY (PURPOSE): a ready-to-use strategy of working with tangible aspects of the text
Basic sample criteria for fiction
As I’m only human, I won’t possibly be able to break down every genre there is. Still, here are some universal things to consider.
- Do my dialogs sound like a real-life conversation? (I’d read them out loud to find out, maybe record and listen afterward.) What exactly sounds unnatural? The tone? Certain expressions used? Or expressions are fine but their placement is off?
- Why am I bored when I read my first paragraph? Is it too long, general and introductory?
- Do I use overly complex and long sentences? Passive voice?
- Do I keep the balance between inner reflection and action?
- Is it clear what all the pronouns refer to?
- What about repetitions? Is my vocabulary rich enough?
- Am I using clichés in their usual way? How can I make them unconventional?
- How vivid are the metaphors used?
- Is the rhyme trivial? Does the rhythm break?
- Does the poem lead to the point I intend? What feelings does it evoke? What feelings should it evoke?
- Is this line break necessary here?
- Is this word dull? What’s the more exciting alternative?
Gather as much information on your own writing as you can. This data will give you tangible aspects of the text to work on and pay attention to as you write and edit. What would you rather see in place of unenjoyable highlighted passages in each particular case? Turn your list of shortcomings into a list of your writing goals.
And if you’ve opted to analyze someone else’s work rather than your own, determine the underlying principles which make that piece so appealing. How did the author achieve this effect? Remember: we’re here not to copy but to learn. You break down a technique to understand principles. Having understood principles, you will develop your own technique of applying them.
Now it’s time for you to figure out your intentions regarding your piece! This is a solidifying step that will serve you as a guiding light.
3. Map out, or Develop your hunger first
Let’s develop your own personal criteria for the desired result and set specific goals that appeal to you.
What are you hungry for? What is it that you’re seeking on your quest?
As always, try to be as precise as possible!
- FRAMEWORK: What is it that you’re writing? What genre are you aiming for? Or is it a mix of genres? What features of those genres do you want to incorporate in your writing?
- If it’s a poem, do you want it rhymed? Will it have rhythm? Or is it the free verse? What’s the main idea or purpose of each stanza?
- In the case of prose, how long do you want your chapters to be? What about the timeline? Are you telling your story in chronological order? Or do you put the reader in the middle of the action right away?
- DYNAMICS: Should the text remind you of a hasteless sea wave on a drowsy day or a gushing mountain stream?
- VIBE: What should your workpiece have and give so that you enjoy reading it? Is it suspense? a liminal feeling? fun?
- EMOTIONAL PURPOSE: What feelings do you want to evoke in your reader? Do you want them to cry, laugh, or get angry? Do you want the reader to go through catharsis?
- MENTAL PURPOSE: What do you want your reader to realize or think about? What insight do you want to share?
- DETAILS: What is the centerpiece of your literary work? How do you want to present it? What do you want to wrap your main idea in?
- WORD BANK: Write down words and expressions associated with your current work. Anything that comes to mind. You might simply like them, they can set the mood or vibe for you, or you may want to use some of them in the piece.
- RESEARCH: What do you need to learn about? It may be specific information or a skill.
- INSPIRATION: What reminds you of the piece you’re working on, be it a topic, vibe, idea, presentation, etc.? What sets you in the right mood for this piece?
This is not a definitive list, and you are welcome to think of other landmark aspects that you feel are important to you. Your answers to these questions are not set in stone, either. You may find yourself at a point where you’ll want to change your direction — and that’s perfectly fine! As long as you have a clear understanding of where you do and do not feel excited to go, you will be able to readjust your text in ways that make you happy with it.
TL;DR, or the Takeaway
Stage 0. Treat writer’s block as you would treat a quest in a video game: ask questions about it, search the surroundings, learn new information, try new things and, most importantly, have fun!
Stage 1. It’s no good for a professional hero(ine) to set out on a writer’s quest exhausted and displeased! Relax and indulge yourself before getting up to creative work. Do not confuse it with procrastination though. This particular fun-having is the first stage of your writing process. You’re charging up with positive vibes, and this is no place for guilt. Revel in joy, make your heart flutter, get high on dopamine — and use the momentum you’ll have built to fully and enthusiastically engage in further work.
Stage 2. In the process of reviewing your piece, arm yourself with the principle that Marie Kondo suggests for a home makeover: “Keep everything that sparks joy and discard all stuff that doesn’t.” To do that with writing, analyze it like a pro:
- Break the genre down to its prominent characteristics and requirements. Get to know the framework you’re writing within.
- Develop evaluation criteria and ask the right, i.e. informative questions that’ll help you identify specific, tangible aspects of the text for you to work on (see sample criteria for fiction and non-fiction).
Highlight and make detailed notes on every part of your text that you’re not aroused by as well as those that do turn you on.
Alternatively, learn from the best in the same fashion: take someone else’s piece that you like and get all the way down to the nitty-gritty of how the effect of that work was built up. Determine the principles and apply them to your own writing.
Stage 3. Finally, ask yourself: what would you rather see in place of unenjoyable highlighted passages in each particular case? Turn your list of shortcomings into a list of specific writing goals (see a sample list above and Writer’s Block Case Study: Poem Writing).
Whether you already have a draft to work on, or you’re facing an empty sheet, either way, answer these questions:
- What are you hungry for in writing? What exactly are you seeking on your quest? What turns you on?
- Based on your analysis (of your or someone else’s works), what does your piece need to become appealing and inspiring for you?
- What expressive means can you use to get to that point?
Map out the landmarks, check in with them as you get new ideas, and reconsider your path if you find better ways. And, most importantly, write!
Having ADHD means that any tool or strategy that seems to be working well now may not work for me tomorrow. That also means that I am cursed (or blessed, who knows?) to invent and look for more and more new ways to carry out my writer’s quest. This, in turn, means that there will be plenty of articles on writing and writer’s block in the future. Stay tuned : )
your local dreamer