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Finding a Path Through Creative Overwhelm When Starting a Writing Project

We’ve all been there – a brilliant idea for a story comes to us and it’s full of promise, insight and adventure. Your first response to this thought is, “Damn, I want to read that story!” But wait – you’re a writer! Your creative centers spring into action with growing excitement as the inevitable occurs to you: “No – I want to write that story!”

Tendrils of possibilities weave themselves around character ideas and cool plot points. You’re weaving straw into gold with your mind, thanks to this Rumpelstiltskin of an idea that dropped into your brain from seemingly nowhere.

And then you sit down at your computer or notebook and are faced with the blank page. The blinking cursor. Where do you start? Where do you take it once you do start? Why did you think this was a good idea? What is the meaning of life? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?!?

Enter the concept of overwhelm. In bigger psychology terms, overwhelm can happen when we are stressed and our environmental demands tax or exceed our adaptive capacity. There are many cognitive behavioral tools that a mental health professional can teach us to help overcome overwhelm in our lives. And I’ve personally found that these tools can help us on a smaller scale, too, if we apply them to feeling overwhelmed at the start a creative project.

When creative overwhelm hits, it can feel insurmountable. It’s more than writers’ block – it’s project block. But fear not: there is a way through. You can break down the block and plot your path through the project, step by step, to get your story moving in the right direction.

The first step is identifying your creative overwhelm. That seems like a no-brainer but sometimes we are so bogged down that we don’t even realize what it is we’re experiencing. There is relief in giving it a name. It changes “Why can’t I do this” to “Oh – I see what’s happening here,” which can be a turning point for your blockage. So, if you have reached Step One and identified yourself as overwhelmed by your writing project, pat yourself on the back and check that off your list. You’re already on the path through it!

The next step is to sit down and make a list of all the things that pertain to this project. It can be just a regular grocery-type list, or you could try doing a Mind Map. Ultimately, the goal is to get all these items out of your head and onto a page, so that you can then put them in an order in which they need to be tackled. Then you can sort out where to start with your project.

What are the elements you need to get started? Characters, setting, plot are the obvious ones, so start with those. Are you writing a mystery or a story with many plot twists? Start with the basics and then map in where you can add the elements that will change things up as the story goes on. And remember – you don’t have to have all the answers and details at this stage. Often, once we get writing, the story begins to fill out on its own, but it’s easier for that to happen if you’ve laid this groundwork. Think of building the foundation of your project “house” first and then adding walls, rooms, and décor.

Once you get the project basics in place, then you can build an outline. There are several forms of outlining, and all of them work in different ways. Find the one that clicks best with you and apply it to your project. With an outline in place, you now have a road map through your project! You can follow it through to the finish. And if, along the way, you find an interesting side road to meander down with your story and it brings up new creative overwhelm, it’s okay. That’s part of the writing process, and it may lead you to new and interesting story ideas to explore. It doesn’t have to bog you down. You can apply the same techniques to this new block and adjust your outline accordingly, and it will get you back on track.

Any creative project starts with a great idea, but then we have to figure out how to bring it to fruition. All of us can do that, in our own ways, with our own hard work, talents and limitations. Just use the steps outlined above, tackle them one at a time, and make your way toward that goal. Allow yourself some grace and flexibility to grow and learn along the way, too. It is doable, and you are capable.

Where do you get stymied with writing? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on our forum page!

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