Every writer has a writing process that follows its own pattern of fits and starts. Some writers can't get started, while others cannot end. Some writers have started six or seven or eight different pieces and can't get past the midpoint in a single one of them. All of us have times when we just cannot write.

But writer's block isn't as serious as it sounds, nor is it as uncommon as you might think. Every writer tends to stall out somewhere in a project. It might even be considered part of the process, a time to daydream or write a letter. But the important task is to return to the work. Use any trick you know to get back to that page.

One way to kick-start the writing process once you've stalled is to simply change the subject. Write something new for a change. I remember running into one of my old creative writing professors, and he told me he had had to stop writing his novel. The novel had “just run out of gas,” he said. It had never happened to him before, so he wrote “three stories, boom, boom, boom” instead that summer and published the easily.

To overcome writer's block you shouldn't push against it so hard that you break your pencil lead. It's a matter of working around it. Write something else. Play with a new form or a new voice. Feint left and then throw right.

Some books will tell you that writer's block comes from the fear of being judged. And there's probably some truth to that - we all have had miserable writing experiences in school. My stories in second grade were always overshadowed by my bad handwriting. (“Your periods are as big as dimes,” one teacher complained. “Turkey tracks,” said another.) Teachers regularly paid more attention to my use of commas than the content of my work. So now I can't help but sometimes imagine a critic reading my lines, rolling his eyes, and dumping my manuscript into a bin.
Sometimes I can even visualize the match he throws in after.

Writer's block can also come as an aversion to writing something that didn't work out the first time. It's like the man whose wife left him wearing a red dress; he could never see the color red again. You might find yourself unable to write one more love letter because it is associated with something painful. The trick there is to discover some new way of expressing yourself. Write free verse on a playbill or a sonnet on a stone. Change the subject.

Or writer's block can come from having written too much of the same thing. You would rather quit your job than write the umpteenth technical report; if you have to write another sestina you'll scream. It's carpal tunnel syndrome of the brain. The way out of that kind of writer's block is easy: build in some variety. Play with flash fictions, skits, prose poems. Turn your technical report into a haiku and hide that haiku in your office drawer.

Or you could get another kind of writer's block: the problem of starting. Sitting down at my table and starting to write is the hardest part of my writing process. Even grading student papers doesn't look so bad. The actual writing, the act of editing, and the relief of having written, all have their own reward. But to get me in that chair to begin with? It's too daunting. I'd rather go to the dentist. I need some small challenge to help me begin.

The I Ching for Writers helps blocked writers, novice or expert, get back to their work by offering new ideas and motivation. The process is to throw three coins into the air six times, and then to record the way they land. That record leads you to a single hexagram, a six-line diagram based on a system 5000 years old. Look up that hexagram in the back of the book, and you will be led to specific predictions, quotations from writers, and a writing exercise. The exercise might be to write a paragraph about your mind as a piece of glass, to write a page where you describe your hands as though they belonged to someone else, or to write a manifesto, for example. There are 512 writing exercises in the book. The hexagram and its exercises are based on many traditional translations - and the odd part is how often the prediction matches up to the reality of your situation. The I Ching has helped me know clearly what my next step is, many times.

The I Ching for Writers can be its own kind of starting ritual. Throw the coins each day and remember how to relax and play. With a bit of practice, you will find a cadence and rhythm, a state of “flow,” that all serious writers eventually know.

Based on the book The I Ching for Writers by Sarah Jane Sloane (published by New World Library, 2005)

Author's Bio: 

Sarah Jane Sloane is a working writer and associate professor of English at Colorado State University. She lectures frequently on topics ranging from how to get started as a writer to the element of chance in writing. Her poetry has been published in numerous journals and her creative nonfiction and book reviews have appeared in Tricycle and Parabola. She is the author of Digital Fictions (Greenwood, 2000), a consideration of how computers are changing literacy and the literary practices of reading and writing fiction. She has studied at Oxford and the University of Edinburgh and holds a BA from Middlebury College, an MFA from University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an MA from Carnegie Mellon University, and a PhD from Ohio State University. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she teaches, paints, and throws the I Ching.