For Montclair Local

writer's block

Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. Check out the archives for her tips on building a college list, writing a meaningful essay, and more at For information on essay coaching, visit, and follow @college_essay_coach on Instagram.


Screenwriter and "Game of Thrones" showrunner David Benioff has said that writer’s block is simply “frustrated anticipation for inspiration,” and that you’re making a mistake if you think bright ideas should magically appear in the right side of your brain when you need them. He’s saying that writer’s block isn’t a thing and that you have to stick yourself in a chair, turn on your computer, and write — even when it feels like you’re producing drivel. Eventually, you’ll pull out some clear and interesting thoughts that meet your needs. It just may take some time — and backspacing.

I agree, although when you’re feeling frustrated with your writing, walking away may be the best approach—as long as you’re purposeful in what you do with your “down time.” To refill the creative tank, look for activities that have potential to encourage you to think. Even bingeing on a well-written TV show (yes, I’m not discouraging you from watching television) can feel like you’re receiving a tutorial on engaging an audience — which absolutely is one of the goals of an application essay. 

Here are some of my favorite diversions from writing. 

Read. Any section of a newspaper — from the day’s news to the opinion pages to the obits — can spark introspection and creativity. Note your reaction to the articles or columns that hold your attention. Or hit the library, and borrow books in fantasy, contemporary fiction, or whatever section you’re most drawn to. I’m especially fond of memoirs. Like application essays, these first-person narratives typically recount life experiences, albeit remarkable ones or the authors wouldn’t have sold books based on them. Still, the memoir is a relatable form of writing because the authors often hit on aspects of everyday life that are similar to our own. The New York Times “Book Review” recently assembled a list of outstanding memoirs written in the last 50 years

Read poetry. I process poetry differently than any other form of writing, so as a diversion, it gets its own space. I need to read a poem several times to feel the weight of it. I especially like the complexity of poetry, and I follow several poets who’ve moved me with their verses. I’m thinking, for instance, of Maggie Smith (@maggiesmithpoet) and Richard Blanco (@rblancopoet), both on Twitter. I also collect poems I love (Kay Ryan’s “Best of It” and Mary Oliver’s “Circles” are especially worth looking up, imho). Websites like will steer you to different works every day.

Revisit your photos. Among the hundreds, maybe thousands of images on your phone are likely several that you’d hate to lose. Identify 10 or 20 favorites. Why do you care about them so much? While you’re at it, do any of them begin to tell a story that helps to explain who you are and what you care about? The exercise of winnowing to the most important among a large group of pictures will activate thoughts on what matters to you — an important aspect of the personal narrative.





Make something. Whether you bake a pie, assemble a jigsaw puzzle, or construct a model, the act of building something with your hands is a vacation for your mind. Note the internal flutter that comes with the aroma of steaming strawberries in a crust you’ve rolled out yourself, the pleasing click of a puzzle piece as it joins with another, the smooth spin of a propellor you’ve connected to a miniature fuselage. Returning to your computer screen may feel a little less intimidating after you’ve completed a small and satisfying project.


Turn off the screens and sounds. Try being fully present on a walk or a run. Give yourself time to daydream and people watch. Be purposeful in doing nothing. If you have a hammock, now would be a great time to throw yourself into it (although you may have to work at not falling asleep). Look up at the trees or the stars. Note how your mind treats boredom as a problem to be solved. What solutions do your thoughts inch toward? Maybe there’s the thread of an essay woven in among those solutions. Try pulling on that thread, and see where it takes you.