Updated: May 11, 2021
Like many writers, I’ve often experienced writer’s block. I used to fear it, but since I attended a panel on short story writing by Jessica Lee Richardson at the Rutgers Writers’ Conference a few years back, I—almost—look forward to it. Richardson taught me how to transform my writer’s block into a building block for my writing by using a specific writing exercise, one which I used when writing “The Light of my Afterlife,” a story published in Tales From The Dream Zone by Flying Ketchup Press.
The technique is simple: when you begin to experience the block, stop writing. Go outside and take a walk. Make sure to bring your journal. While you’re walking think about the last thing about which you were writing. If you were not writing a description, think about the mood of the piece. Choose a single, simple word, and keep it in mind: light, darkness, decay, hope, despair, growth, etc. It can even be a cliché. Don’t worry about whether that word or phrase is something you would write in your story or not. Most likely it isn’t, or else you wouldn’t be blocking. Now, as you walk, describe and record all of the examples of the word that you see. Decay can manifest as a rotted tree stump, a broken piece of furniture left on the curb, litter on the ground, the stooped way an elderly person walks, etc. Light can be natural or electric, reflected or direct, filtered, flickering, bright, weak, etc.
The important thing is to keep an open mind and to focus on your keyword and not on your writing. Try not to think about the sentence which tripped you up. Try to stay present and open-minded. Be in the moment, and record what you see.
After you return home, put your list away. Do not attempt to write—at least not that piece—for the rest of the day. The next day when you return to your story, look at your list. Try to work as many of the descriptions from your walk into your writing as you can. You might, at first, feel like you’re overdoing it, but that is OK. You do not need to keep every description in your final piece. The point is to get past your block. Writing more in this situation is good. If you end up with too much, or if you feel a particular description doesn’t fit, you can always cut in editing.
Using your found descriptions, which all focus around a single motif, will give your imagery consistency throughout your story. In addition to helping you overcome your writer’s block, this exercise will improve your writing as well. I’ve written about the importance of imagery and figurative language grouping elsewhere, but, in summary, the use of grouped imagery gives a piece consistency, shape, and symbolic significance.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.. . .
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
For example, in Maya Angelou’s famous poem, “Still I Rise,” many of the similes compare the speaker to something of value: oil wells, gold mines, diamonds; each of these valuable things is hidden so that its value may not be readily apparent before it’s mined; each is also found underground, and therefore, has to, literally, rise to reveal its value, thus the imagery connects consistently to both the poem’s refrain and to its theme.
While imagery grouping is most commonly found in poetry, it works in prose as well. Consistency in imagery and figure is one of the things that will make your story memorable both to you readers and to potential editors as they decide whether to publish it.
When I wrote “The Light of my Afterlife,” I utilized this technique both to combat my writer’s block and to achieve imagery consistency throughout the story. From the contrast between the warm candlelight and the harsh fluorescent light in the opening paragraph, to the description of the candle-heat in the protagonist’s heart, to flickering of the lights during the haunting, even to the allusion in the title, imagery of light (and contrasting shadow) runs throughout the story. Moreover, the internal conflict that leads to the character’s change is embodied in the contrast between the old and the new methods of lighting the room. Thus, using this technique, I was not only able to overcome my writer’s block, but I was able to strengthen the symbolic elements within the story as well.
I hope this simple exercise will be as helpful to you as it has been for me.