It happens. Even to professional writers. I’m talking about writer’s block. You know, those times when you sit down at the keyboard to tap out great-grandma’s immigration story, or finally start the novel based on the unbelievable facts you gathered on that captivating “black sheep” ancestor, but then find yourself creatively paralyzed?
Now that you are nearly 20 days into this year’s Family History Writing Challenge, perhaps you are “hitting the wall” with your writing—either trying to finish up the project you’ve selected to work on, or develop a new idea into a narrative. Here are five tips to help you break through that writer’s block and tap into your inner creativity.
1. Start typing. Don’t just sit there staring at the blank page and blinking cursor on your computer screen. Write something—anything. It sounds simple, but just start. Type some notes, an outline, or a first sentence. Even just a few thoughts could be enough to stimulate the brain and get your creative juices flowing enough to make initial progress.
2. Mind Map. A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea—in simple terms, a graphical way of taking notes. Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as genealogists we can use them to solve our brick wall research problems or to sketch out a family history. Mind maps can be drawn by hand, or by using software (see this Lifehacker article “Hive Five: Five Best Mind Mapping Applications”), free online tools like Popplet, or even note-taking apps (such as Skitch or Notability). My current favorite tool is Scapple by Literature and Latte ($14.99 for Mac OS X or Windows; free trial available). To learn more about mind mapping, see the posts on The Armchair Genealogist.
3. Read. Have a folder at the ready for great pieces of family history writing, such as Blog posts (perhaps those of your fellow Family History Writing Challenge participants), or brief magazine pieces you can read whenever you need some inspiration. If you use Evernote or Microsoft OneNote, it’s easy to clip online articles and save them. You can also read books by genealogists to get ideas about how to tell your story. For extra reinforcement, you can even re-read some of your own writing–even if it isn’t the best thing you’ve penned, knowing that you actually wrote something before could be just the push you need to get going again.
4. Pretend you’re telling the story to a favorite relative or best friend. Imagine sitting at the kitchen table having a cup of coffee or tea with someone you are close with and start telling him or her about all the exciting things you learned about your family. Then, continue the conversation by explaining the key elements of the topic you’re writing about. Because you are telling a story, you’ll start with the most interesting material, give detail where it belongs and end by reinforcing the point you want to make. The natural progression makes this technique quite effective. You can use technology to help you speak your story such as dictation tools, or apps, a digital recorder.
5. Take a break. Writer’s block could be a sign that your ideas need time to develop. Take a walk, see a movie, or enjoy another activity besides genealogy or writing to let your mind rest and gather new experiences and new ideas before you dive back in. This is especially helpful after you finish one writing project and before you start another one.
Writer’s block can hit anyone at any time. You may have a great story to tell, but for a myriad of reasons—fear, anxiety, the end of a project, the beginning of a project, too much information to sort through—you may find yourself frustrated with the writing process. Hopefully, the above suggestions can help you break through whatever is stopping you and you can finally write that family history!
Lisa Alzo, M.F.A. currently resides in Ithaca, New York. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1987 and Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997.Lisa began writing creatively in the fourth grade with an assignment entitled, “All About Me,” and went on to win several English/Writing Awards throughout high school and college. Lisa has published articles in Ancestry Magazine, Discovering Family History, Family Chronicle, Family Tree Magazine, Genealogical Computing, Reunions Magazine, NGSNews Magazine, Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, FEEFHS Journal and Rocenka: Journal of the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, The Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly. An avid genealogist for 22 years, Lisa currently teaches online genealogy course for Family Tree University and the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. She is the recipient of the 2002 Mary Zirin Prize given by the Association for Women in Slavic Studies to recognize the achievements of independent scholars, and is a frequent speaker for national conferences, genealogical and historical societies. You can find this busy writer at her website Lisa Alzo and The Accidental Genealogist.