By Isaac Butler
I get stuck in my writing a lot. As a result, I have developed (and stolen) a few tricks to get me out of this hole. In the interest of helping anyone who might also be getting stuck, here they are:
(1) Give up for the day. No seriously, sometimes you acutally just need to stop writing. It does not make you a bad person or a bad writer or someone who will never finish this essay/story/poem/play/screenplay/novel/memoir/article/whatever. Sometimes you're just done for the day. It's okay! Yes, you're another day closer to death, but also, tomorrow, you're another day closer to finishing what you're working on. Sometimes slamming your head against the wall of your own creative blockage is just going to lead to you getting hurt.
The trick when you do this is to spend the rest of the time doing something useful to your creative endeavor rather than spending it feeling sorry for yourself. Maybe there's research that still needs to get done. Or maybe there's a text that's important to you that you can spend some time revisitng and reading. It wouldn't be important to the project if oyu didn't like it, so this has the side effect of being pleasurable. Or maybe there's some non-creative nuts and bolts shit that you keep procrastinating that you need to do, like set up a meeting with someone or an interview time. Or send a query letter somewhere. This moment would be a good time to do that. If you're really stuck for non-generative work to do, you could always pick an earlier part of the project and edit/revise it.
(2) Start writing about your struggle to write this current part of the project. No matter what, at first this will feel like meta self-indulgent bullshit, but I promise you once you stop making JO motions and calling yourself "Charlie Kauffman" that good stuff will come out of this one. Sometimes, the reason why you're feeling blocked is buried in some deep cavern that you need to be exploring. By doing so, you'll uncover what that is and you can carry out that treasure and put it back in the thing you're working on. Discussing the moment of difficulty itself might even make it into the thing you're writing. Great work has happened like this. I mean, like 50% of The Things They Carried is about how hard it is to write The Things They Carried and that's a work of fucking genius. Don't you want to be a genius? of course you do.
(3) Describe (or have a character describe) a photograph. You may notice that a lot of works of fiction (and creative nonficiton) contain within them descriptions of photographs. It's an odd device that appears everywhere when you start looking for it. Steal this idea. If you're stuck, describe a photograph that's relevant to your subject, or have a character describe one. Again, the point is not necessarily to write stuff that will make it into the project, this is just another move to keep you writing.
(4) Building off of 3: Steal Something From Writing You Like And Use It. I was seriously stuck on my August Wilson piece for American Theatre. I had way too much to say and not enough space to say it. I couldn't figure out my angle in. So here's what I did: I stole a gesture/technique from an essay I really like and then when I got blocked again I stole a gesture/technique from another essay I really like. These essays in turn got these gestures from somewhere else because that's how writing works. If there's a moment in a piece of writing you really love, try importing that technique for that moment in your writing and then bending it to your own purposes. If you're really stuck, literally steal a sentence from a writer you admire and then write from there. Just remember when you're revising that its stolen so you don't plagiarize. Or acknowledge that you've done so somewhere in your piece.
(5) Etymology is your friend. Is there some word that's important to the passage you are writing? That helps encapsulate what's going on, either in terms of deep themes or literally what is happening at that moment? Well, look it the fuck up in the OE mutha-fuckin' D. Only make sure it's the OED. None of that wiktionary bullshit. The OED. If you don't subscribe and aren't a student ask a friend to look it up for you. You will be surprised at what you uncover in both the definition and etymology sections. I got an entire essay out of doing this once.
Anyway, those are the five I most commonly use. What are yours?