How to Smash Writer’s Block with a Toothbrush

Mark knows how it’s done

Elisabeth: Marie and I have this running joke.  Whenever one of us is stuck on a story, the other will say to go brush their teeth.  I blame Marie for starting it.  She couldn’t figure out how to get through a scene for several days then said the perfect solution came to her while she was working a mouthful of toothpaste.

Marie: It’s a tried and true method. And one that has helped me work through several stubborn plot snags. The challenging part then becomes trying to hurry and write down the idea or perfect line of dialogue somewhere without getting toothpaste everywhere. That’s an art I haven’t quite mastered yet. But I am getting better at jotting things down in places where I can actually find them again. That great lightbulb idea does you no good if you can’t locate it when it’s needed.

If you search the web, you’ll find oodles of advice as to what to do when writer’s block has got you. Common suggestions include going for quiet walks, cleaning / cooking / doing chores; switching to different creative tasks like writing something else, reading a book. It all seems to revolve around getting your brain to cruise into neutral. 

How idyllic. How calming. 

How dull as all heck…

If the idea is that some secret, covert part of your noggin is working over your problem but does so better when the spotlight is off, that sounds more to me like some shakedown in a dark alley. Or some clandestine spy plot that’s gone all awry.

So yeah, what if I don’t want to zen my way through a block?  What if it’s got me so riled up I want to fight back and smash through?  Where’re the tips for that?


Without further ado, here are some of our tried and true shakedown tips for breaking through writer’s block and getting inspired:

1. Brush your teeth.  Floss then use those picky stick things my dentist keeps telling me will firm up my gums.  Rinse thoroughly.

2. Go for a long walk –but not a quiet one.  Whistle, hum, talk to yourself.  If people look at you funny, just smile (someone who smiles to themselves in public is more unnerving than someone who looks angry, no?). Pretend the character giving you trouble is walking alongside you.  Talk to them, out loud. Cuss them out.  When people look at you even more funny, who cares? Chances are they already crossed the street to avoid you anyway.

3. Weather’s bad for a walk?  Take a long shower instead. Same idea.  Talk to your imaginary companion there. Then you have the cover of running water to hide your angry conversation with said imaginary companion from others. And if somebody does overhear you…. Tell them you were singing some heavy metal songs in the shower. It works like a charm. You sing heavy metal in the shower? Smoke on the Water? Yes. Or Enter Sandman by Metallica. That’s a favorite of mine.

4. If you have, take your car out for a drive.  Try to stop at as many red lights as you can.  The number of times I’ve thought up a plot solution when stopped in traffic and unable to jot it down is amazing. For me, too. To get the full benefit from this strategy, take the long way to and from work. And if you check the traffic reports before leaving, choose the route with the most construction or the stalled car sitting on the side of the road slowing everybody down.    

5. Keep paper and pen everywhere… especially the bathroom (see #1). Driving?  Pull into a parking lot as soon as you can.  You have to jot things down right away.  It takes literally seconds for something I’ve thought of to disappear.  Can you dictate it into your phone using a voice recording app?  Even better.  Do it on a walk for bonus points (see #2)

6. Read dialogue out loud to your cat, dog, hamster, fish, sibling, husband…(I like how the pets rank before the husband)…  whatever or whoever shares your living space with you and has no choice but to be a captive audience when you’re in one of your moods. That tricky dialogue will smooth its way out in no time as you run through the conversation and then imagine how your “captive” would respond if they were fully engaged in the creative exercise with you. ——–Full disclosure: While dogs will hang on to your every word like you’re revealing the meaning of life, cats will often walk away in disgust mid sentence. Fish will just keep on swimming. Siblings will roll their eyes at you before telling you to stop being so annoying all the time. And husbands will…well, I don’t have one of those so I’m not sure. Husbands will assume a serious, concentrated air then proceed to tell you in minute detail all the ways they would “fix” what’s “wrong” as if it were some engineering problem. 

7. Garden. You don’t have to actually plant anything for this one to work. Just puttering around outside, violently jabbing a sharp shovel into clods of packed dirt will really get your creative juices flowing. And you can cuss out your troublesome character no problem. In my neck of the woods, no one will question the curse words flying out of your mouth with abandon when you’re trying to dig a hole into Georgia red clay after a dry spell. I love this one!  I’m all black thumbs and it’s like channeling my inner plant gravedigger!

8. Color. Yes, that idyllic creative pastime from your preschool and elementary school days can really help you out with your writing. But doesn’t that fit into the dull, yawn-inducing list up above? Not if you channel your inner abstract artist. Choose wild and crazy colors that match the current emotion in your story…brown and black for the bad guys, soft blues and greens for calm moments, red and pink for passion and romance. And don’t worry about staying in the lines. It doesn’t matter if the finished product actually resembles anything. Coloring helps me work through plot points without my mind wandering off to places unknown when a pesky distraction ambles by. Did you know they have colouring books for adults now?! One that caught my eye the other day was titled “Fuck off: I’m Coloring” –now that’s a way that appeals for getting my brain onboard.  Heh-heh, I’d be so down for that as a *cough birthday present. Ooo…I haven’t seen that one before. It sounds fun!

9. Grocery shopping. This one really does belong in the list of dull suggestions up above. But I have to mention it because I have had some of my best ideas come to me while aimlessly wandering up and down the aisles of my grocery store. Sadly, this has never happened for me. I’m too busy having cart rage because of nimrods who park their cart in the middle of an aisle and block it because, you know, they need to decide if they’re getting chicken noodle or chicken rice soup and no else can pass through till they’re done.  I detest grocery shopping. It annoys me that I am forced to do it so often just to have something to eat in my house. My brain “checks out” as soon as I step foot through those sliding glass doors. Then the creative thoughts begin… as a desperate escape from my present nightmare reality? Probably. To liven things up, you could always discuss potential plot devices with your troublesome character… out loud as in suggestion #2 so people will stay as far away from you as possible. Then you can get in and out and back home in no time to write that great idea that popped into your head while you were staring at jars of tomato sauce or mulling over your many cereal choices. Just because you plugged in tomato sauce here doesn’t make up for real food for dinner, you know. Lol, it doesn’t?

This list doesn’t only apply to writer’s block however. It can come in handy when mulling over all types of different dilemmas or problems. Some if trying to get stopped for disturbing the peace.  I encourage everybody to give one of the suggestions a try the next time you’re stuck and your mind seems incapable of moving forward. It just might help. And if it doesn’t? Hopefully, you at least had some fun in the attempt.  If your readers don’t thank you, at least your teeth will!

Does anybody have any other helpful activities they would like to add to the list? If so, let us know in the comments.

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January 12, 2021 04:57

My favourite is going on long car drives in the middle followed by a coffee stop at the “Naked Man’s place” if he’s still awake before heading home and hill walking

Marie Bisset
Marie Bisset
January 12, 2021 08:57
Reply to  jayredj65

Long relaxing car rides are perfect! That’s a great one. I’ve always especially liked to drive the winding roads that go through the N. Georgia mountains. I haven’t been in a while but there are some great out of the way mountain trails to hike if you know where to look. Very few people visit them so it’s a good way to enjoy nature and get away from the stress of everyday life.