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3 Rules for the Writing Life

Susan Orlean’s top tips for beating writer’s block and accessing the infinite well of creativity

Image: Yulia Reznikov/Getty Images

People romanticize the writing life, but it’s not all launch parties and castles in Scotland. As anyone who’s ever actually tried to write a thing knows, it’s a whole lot of hard work to even just finish a, say, Medium post. So how are we to shake off our self-doubt, get unblocked, and tap into our creativity?

Susan Orlean is the award-winning author of eight books including The Orchid Thief, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and a frequent Medium writer. I was so happy to sit down with her recently for a chat about writing and creativity for the Medium in Conversation series. You can watch the whole thing here:

Orlean shared a lot of wit and wisdom about the writing life. Here were three of the most valuable directives, equally relevant for new and experienced writers:

Outlast your creative self-doubt

Surely someone as accomplished as Orlean has, as she puts it, “a bit of swagger” every time she sits down to start a piece. Right? Actually no — as she told me in our talk, she feels as if she’s starting from scratch every time. She noted that since writing is an art, of course it feels a little new and scary each time.

As she wrote in “Writing Is a Nightmarish Hellscape”:

After all, writing is not an exact science; there’s never a moment when you are given irrefutable proof that you’re a good writer. Rather, you’re only as good as your last piece, so you’re always falling forward into a new test of your abilities. And everything you write, every sentence, even, is a fresh test. You’re not making widgets. You can’t write a good sentence and have it as your template for all future sentences. You invent yourself anew with each word.

Still, Orlean said in our talk, the more you write, the more you learn that this uncertainty is just part of the process. “It gets easier the more experience you have, even if it’s merely a matter of saying, ‘Ugh, I know this feels really hard right now but eventually it’ll feel a little easier.’” It’s not that you lose the blank page nerves, more that you gain the muscle memory of working through to the other side.

Get unblocked by stepping away

It’s the looming, threatening beast all writers fear the most (well, after scathing reviews and, you know, poverty): Writer’s Block. Although Orlean did note that she doesn’t believe in it… she also admitted even she gets stuck sometimes. But oftentimes the problem, she noted, “isn’t finding the words to express it; it’s that you don’t even know what you’re trying to say.”

Sometimes, she told me, the solution is, actually, not writing. Really. “When I’m really stuck,” Orlean said, “I just feel like I have to get out of my office. I have to look at a bunch of newspapers and magazines. I have to be out in the world. I just have to open myself up to as many possibilities as I can, and odds are pretty good that something will click.” Go for a walk, go for a run, do something that is engaging but not distracting. Just don’t sit there staring at that blank page.

She also noted that sometimes when she feels stuck she realizes she just doesn’t know enough about the topic, and has to go do more research. And finally, once again, the key is to trust to process, to believe in the story. As Orlean writes on Medium, “confidence is fundamental.”

Remember that creativity is not a finite resource

Orlean notes that, like many young writers:

When I first started writing, I imagined that I was dipping my pen into a finite pool of creative ink. I thought creativity — in my case, writing — was something akin to a natural resource like petroleum: Limited, precious, nonrenewable. It made me nervous.

But as time went on, Orlean realized, “the more I wrote, the better I was at doing it. It seemed like writing a lot was enhancing my ability rather than depleting it.” As she said in our talk, “It was experience over time that made me realize that it’s quite the opposite… Creativity is a muscle, rather than a precious fluid, and it gets stronger the more you use it.”

Don’t worry about “using all your good ideas,” and don’t worry that someone else more prolific/successful/energetic/widely published than you is using up all the creativity that exists. There’s more than enough to go around.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a through line throughout these lessons. Experience. The more you write, the better you get — at the mechanics of the writing itself, at coming up with ideas, at fighting the fear of the blank page, at working through blocks. As with so many of life’s challenges, the only way out is through.

So, what are you waiting for?

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Amy Shearn

Amy Shearn

12K Followers

Formerly: Editor of Creators Hub, Human Parts // Ongoingly: Novelist, Essayist, Person