Be in the Present: Using the Five Senses to Overcome Writer's Block & Spark Creativity - Craft Your Content
overcome writer's block

Be in the Present: Using the Five Senses to Overcome Writer’s Block & Spark Creativity

If there’s one thing we here at CYC know well, it’s the agony of writer’s block.

When you write for a living, your words are your moneymaker, but making them come out and play is not always easy, or possible. Sometimes, you’ll sit down at your keyboard, poised to make magic happen, and suddenly find that you’re down the rabbit hole of YouTube’s finest dog trick compilations.

What happened there?

Your creative juices just weren’t flowing, so you abandoned the empty document for the internet playground, in the false hope that distracting yourself would ‘spark something.’

But play is limited, ‘cause the clock is ticking and you’ve got an article due at the end of the week. Chances are your boss isn’t gonna accept “dog ate my inspiration” as the reason why you’re empty-handed at the deadline.

Even though writer’s block is well-researched, common, and universally lamented by all writers, we still seem to be at a loss for how to break free from its paralyzing grip… especially if we’re on a deadline. The stress of other looming due dates or life stressors don’t always help, either.

Sure, it would be great to do a whole refresh button on your life to spark writing inspiration (see: former President Obama kickin’ it in the south Pacific to work on his presidential memoirs after leaving office), but let’s face it: most of us just don’t have the time, or ability, to go stay on a private island at a luxury resort called The Brando. (Yep, that’s really happening.)

Unlike Barry, we need some fairly quick, easy, and effective methods to kick inspiration into gear.

The great news is that the ability to shake writer’s block has been within us all along. We don’t need Michael Jordan’s Secret Stuff (name that 90s reference!) in order to make magic happen on a Google Doc.

Actually, the ability to overturn our tendency towards staring at the dreaded blinking cursor for long stretches of time involves, not distracting ourselves, but being more present in the moment by tapping into our five senses.

Yes, all five senses. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to start eating your writing. Unless these are your books.

Neuroscientific research confirms that writing can elicit reactions from parts of the brain associated with certain senses. Word choice can actually activate your sense of touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound.

Stands to reason that calling upon the five senses could actually spark writing creativity, right?

The best way to find the answer might be to discover it for yourself.

So, I’ve rounded up some ways to boost your creativity through multisensory interaction: in other words, play with words. For a few minutes, free yourself from the confines of adulthood ‘shoulds,’ and even from the expectation that you ought to have wizard-like control over your creativity.

Taking a break from the stress that writer’s block causes (or that causes writer’s block) can help out not only your brain, but your whole being.

While some of these activities might overlap — we’re often using multiple senses at once, remember — I’ve broken down some ideas that relate most closely to each of the five senses.

One note before we go any further…

If you couldn’t tell from my earlier post about becoming a freelancer, I’m not a big fan of rules, especially when it comes to my writing, and I’m not about to tell you, dear reader, what to do with yours (unless at some point you write for us, in which case maybe I’ll encourage proper capitalization.)

So , I won’t be telling you what to write after you do these creativity sparkers. That’s for your brain to decide.

Instead, I’ll encourage you to pay attention to your brain. See if anything pops up when you do these activities. (Might be good to keep some kind of writing utensil or device handy, but again, your call.)

Some might not work at all, and some might work like gangbusters. The brain is weird, and we don’t understand a lot of it. Even neuroscientists will admit that one.

Don’t stress out if the falling apple of inspiration doesn’t hit your head and unblock your creative juices right away.

Relax. Enjoy. Play. Feel. Be.

Sense of Sight — Change the Way You See Your Writing

Chances are, most times that you sit down to write, you’re in a very familiar environment. Maybe you have an office, desk, or other workspace that you consistently use, or maybe you always use Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or WordPress.

Basically, your mind and body has probably become trained to associate writing with that particular environment. Which, in a way, can be a good thing. Our bodies and minds tend to respond well to routine and familiarity when it comes to performing tasks.

But, when the creativity well runs dry, suddenly all this familiarity just leaves you feeling, well, empty of inspiration.

One way to break out of your writing rut is to alter your perspective through a change of environment. Divergence from routine can cause your brain to fire on different cylinders than usual.

You can start small or go big.

Try adjusting the computer, device, or other writing object itself.

If you always write on your laptop, switch to your tablet, phone, notebook, or stone tablet (jk on that last one, unless you really wanna go for it, Moses).

If you don’t want to do that, or can’t find a pen, try adjusting the color of your screen depending on what time of day is, writing in a completely different application, or changing the font. Pen to paper fans — have you considered another color of ink? Upgrading from ballpoint to fountain or felt-tip?

Even a slight difference in what you’re looking at can make a difference.

Of course, more drastic changes in the way you’re looking at things could yield more evident results.

In connecting international travel to creativity, the Atlantic reports that since “Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit … New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and may have the potential to revitalize the mind.”

You don’t necessarily need to leave the country, but try completely upending your process by going to a new place to write.

Writing with the backdrop of a new café, park, friend’s house, or Walden Pond (if only), might be just the visual jolt your eyes need in order to fire your brain into action.

Other Ideas:

  • Pretend you’re an internet troll (minus the mean stuff) and WRITE IN ALL CAPS.
  • Print a piece of work out (you’ll recycle that paper, it’s ok) and edit it old school.
  • Write on a whiteboard, on the window, on the mirror, on a napkin, on a sticky note — anywhere you don’t normally see it.

Sense of Touch — “Write” Without Writing

Sure, we might be able to type with our eyes closed, or even write something down without looking at the paper, but as handy (couldn’t help myself) as those skills are, they don’t always serve us well if no words are coming out.

Revamp your writing process by alleviating the need to come up with anything new or interesting, and get in touch with your writing in a new way (seriously, the puns are just a-flowing today).

By including a novel, tactile element in your writing process, you can wake up parts of your brain that are usually on autopilot. It’s as though instead of driving to work, you had to bike, or even walk backwards. That would require some creative thinking, no?

You could start with something as simple as running your hands over something you’ve written before, like a journal, planner, or other handwritten doc. Pay attention to the impressions you made with your hand.

Can you remember how you were feeling when you wrote it? Were you so angry the pen nearly poked a hole in the paper? Is your journal so soft and beautiful that your fingertips smear the ink or lead?

Take these same tactile sensations outside. Depending on where you live, you might write something in the sand, snow, frosty window, or dirty car hood (try to at least be more creative than “wash me,” please).

If you haven’t caught on yet, the idea with these exercises is not to go out and start the next great novel on the windshield of your Honda Civic. Instead, it is to leave the familiarity of a pen and paper or keyboard, and welcome the strange sensations that unexpected writing surfaces can offer.

Physically touching writing isn’t the only way to get creativity in motion. Getting physical might work, too.

No, not like that. Or, I mean, I guess that might work…

Anyways.

While you’re outside, you might as well take the time for a brisk walk or do some jumping jacks. Cognitive psychologists and Henry Thoreau agree: exercise can boost inspiration.

Whether it’s a walk before a writing session à la Virginia Woolf and other greats, or some other form of physical activity, raising your heart rate and getting blood flowing is sure to energize you.

Other Ideas:

  • Bring your writing from screen to scrawl — copy out something you’ve written on the computer with pen and paper, or something one of your favorite authors has written.
  • Physically cut and paste words and phrases from magazines and newspapers to create a “found” poem.
  • Write a message with finger paints, magnets, Scrabble tiles, or your non-dominant hand.

Sense of Hearing —Listen Up

If you’re hanging around here at CYC, you’re probably a writer of some kind, which means your words are most often consumed through reading.

However, even for the most stage-frightened among us, there are times when produced writing becomes something for the ears rather than the eyes: think audiobooks, spoken word, presentations, and the like.

We know the rule that to become a great writer, you need to be a great reader. But what about a great listener?

If you’re not already listening to audiobooks, start now. Audible isn’t too expensive, and it’s a great way to multitask while driving or doing dishes. Or, for free ear candy, check out some literary or storytelling podcasts like The Moth.

But you don’t have to stop with listening to other people’s writing. You can also opt to listen to your own writing out loud. If you don’t like the way your voice sounds on a recording, throw a filter on it and listen to a serious essay you wrote with autotune; you could be sitting on a one-hit wonder.

Or, if you have a good friend with some time on their hands, have them record themselves reading your writing out loud or listen to them reading your writing directly.

What happens when your writing is read aloud by someone else? Does it sound the way you heard it in your head when you initially wrote it down? Does it have the effect you imagined?

Listening to your writing as opposed to reading it, as espoused by design behemoth IDEO, could spark unexpected new ideas.

Consider how you might write a passage differently if you knew someone would read it out loud.

Then, flip it on its head.

What if you spoke to write?

A good writing practice in general is to read your writing aloud once it’s complete to make sure everything flows.

Most computers have some kind of dictation function you can turn on. Try allowing your natural rhythm of speech to guide where the piece goes.

You might be surprised at just how different the formulations of your speaking mind are from those of your writing mind.

Other Ideas:

  • “Perform” something you’ve written as a spoken word poem. Change up the tone completely. Read a sad poem as a lighthearted jingle, or sing the product descriptions from a catalog. This can be especially fun with something like a children’s book. (Turn Chicka Chicka Boom Boom into a rap. You won’t be disappointed.)
  • Play word games like Mad Gab and Speak Out with your family to get your ears super in tune with the sounds of the words.
  • If you speak another language, spend some time chatting it up with someone else in your non-native tongue.

Sense of Taste — Eat Your Words

Generally speaking, we’re not eating our words. That is, if we have good tact and manners.

But as writers, like I mentioned above in the “hearing” section, we might often prefer writing words down to speaking them out loud. A lot of the time, it’s easier to express ourselves with our fingers on the forgiving keyboard than it is aloud with our tongues.

However, sometimes writer’s block can be a symptom of something else going on psychologically. Maybe you’re stressed, worried, or bored.

Maybe you’ve got so much going on in your life that when you sit down to write, it feels like a confusing jumble of incoherent sounds are trying to make it out of the bottleneck of your brain. If that’s the case, then it’s not surprising you’re having a hard time writing.

So, what if you spoke those words aloud? What if you sung? What if you scatted? What if you read the poem “Jabberwocky” under your breath or repeated the word “bowl” 100 times, à la Ted Mosby’s experiment?

You could shout at the top of your lungs, whisper as quietly as you can, try to communicate with someone using clucks, whistles, or sounds. You could talk to a baby.

Even do warm-up exercises as practiced by those preparing for a speech or a play. Try rolling your tongue, smiling big and releasing, scrunching your face — essentially, pretend you’re in a photo booth and just don’t give a damn about looking odd.

Abandon the goal of words on paper for a while, or even the idea of words making sense. Tap into your childhood sense of silliness. Let the stress fade into the back for a second and play.

I dare you to see how many times you could say “burp” without laughing.

Or if you don’t have a 12-year-old’s sense of humor like I do, you could just flip to random words in the dictionary and try pronouncing them.

Attempt to learn words from an entirely different language — a proven booster of divergent thinking.

Make a sound that doesn’t exist in English, like the Spanish r rolls, or those husky French back-of-the throat noises (clearly, I am a linguistic expert).

Before you know it, you’ll realize that we are actually tasting words all the time.

Other Ideas:

  • Have a Shiritori competition with friends. Go in a circle, with each person saying a new word that starts with the end letter of the previous word spoken.
  • Learn all the words to a really complicated or difficult song, like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel.
  • Pick some different adjectives, like ‘smooth,’ ‘choppy,’ ‘fast-paced,’ or ‘slow-motion,’ and write something or tweak something you’ve written before to match that descriptor. When you read it aloud, “taste” how it feels.

Sense of Smell — Follow Your Nose

Now we’ve come to what many may consider the trickiest sense to connect to words: olfactory.

When was the last time you smelled your writing?

Unless, like me, you’re a fan of that old book smell (but seriously, libraries should stay around forever if only for the intoxicating smell of leather-bound reference books and old parchment), you might not actually associate smell with writing at all.

But guess what does?

That’s right, your brain.

Since smelling involves the amygdala and the hippocampus (our emotion and memory centers), the sense of smell tends to evoke the strongest emotions and memories of the five senses.

Have you ever been walking down the street and caught a whiff of familiar perfume or cologne?

Stepped outside and smelled rain or the change of seasons before it had even happened?

Entered your school after many years out, only to find that a deep breath sends you right back to the feeling of being a student?

In these and many other similar moments, our nose can transport us to nostalgic, somber, hilarious, or gut-wrenching memories from the past. In a whirl, it’s as though we’re feeling and experiencing certain things all over again.

Using your sense of smell to provoke memories and emotions might be just the spark you need to get your writing flowing.

Head to old haunts, alma maters, or hangouts. Dig around in your parents’ house for mementos or out-of-style clothes. Go to a nursery and find the flowers your grandma always had in her garden, or ask your best friend about the candle she always used to burn in her room way back when.

What happens when the aromas of other times bring memories rushing back?

Going to familiar spots and smelling old smells will (hopefully) elicit either some memories that have been kicking around in the cobwebs of your mind, or spark some new connections, as you think back on old things with a new or more mature mindset.

It might be just the connection you need to formulate your next piece of writing.

Invite yourself into the past, or perhaps hang out with a different version of yourself for a second.

Ask yourself how things would change if another version of you were sitting down to write.

What would 10-year-old you have to say about what you’re trying to write about?

How would an interview with your teenage self about the topic look?

What would change about your writing if you did it at your grandmother’s kitchen table?

Let these scents guide you to other places and moments that help you reconnect with parts of yourself you may have forgotten or locked away.

Follow your nose, and you might find inspiration.

Other Ideas:

  • Go to a department store and find scents that you used to wear when you were younger.
  • Find out what cleaning products your parents always used, and pick up those same brands for your writing space.
  • Ask a family member (or help them) whip up a dish you always used to eat as a kid.

Be Open, Try New Things, and Pay Attention

If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you don’t think I’m a total weirdo crackpot for suggesting some of these ideas (if you think I’m a weirdo crackpot for other reasons, I might understand).

Like I said earlier, even though our senses can trigger activity in different parts of the brain, this isn’t an “If A, then B” kind of situation.

Ultimately, overcoming writer’s block and finding inspiration is not an exact science.

But what we do know about creativity and inspiration is that paying attention to what we are experiencing, be it seeing, touching, hearing, tasting, smelling, or a combination of all five, can help us get closer to the present moment, and so to our own inner senses and creativity.

Some people call these techniques mindfulness, but you might like to just think of it as being present. Regardless of what you call the rose, the scent (or in this case, its effect) can be just as sweet (or salty, or wistful, or rough).

Attentiveness to the current moment and all the sensations it brings will not necessarily make you a brilliant writer, or even a happier one.

But in a world with thousands of external blips, beeps, pings, and other “look at me” distractions vying for our attention, it can be refreshingly authentic to spend some time with our senses, and let go of expectations.

I’m not a seasoned meditator, pretzel-y yogi (see below), or esteemed writer, but I know that allowing myself the space and attention to be alone and present here and there has made my frequent journeys through the Great White Blank Space that is a new Google Doc at least a little easier.

So, next time you’re suffering an idea drought:

  1. Change the way you see your writing.
  2. Write without writing.
  3. Listen up.
  4. Eat your words.
  5. Follow your nose.

Who knows what you might find?

When I was taking such time for myself recently, I learned a phrase that I intend to apply to not only my life, but my work as well.

During a session with my virtual yoga instructor, Adriene, of Yoga with Adriene, she told us to place our hands and feet in a particular posture.

“But,” she said, “Don’t look. See feelingly.”

That was to say, tap into the senses we don’t normally use to find our balance, but still get to that place of stability.

I think we could adapt her advice for our purposes, no?

Breathe in, breathe out.

Get inspired.

Write feelingly.

Photo credit: BrianAJacksonGajus-Imagesservickuz, IgooAna, bimka1

About the Author Gina Edwards

Gina Edwards is an unapologetically snarky blogger with a love of parentheses (but who isn't?) and beer with funny names. She's currently be-bopping around Santiago, Chile on her bike, teaching her native language to fancy people. Her skills include making hilarious puns, no-bake cookies, and mountains out of molehills.

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