Every author runs into it at one time or another. That point where no ideas break loose, no words come, and the keyboard grins up at you with evil contempt. Your stream of consciousness turns into a slimy, moss-covered retention pond with a foul smell. All the brilliant ideas you had yesterday are now somehow eluding you, and you feel like you couldn’t come up with an original thought if your life depended on it.

So how do you break through?

What tool do you use to drain that retention pond? To get the ideas flowing into something more like a stream?

Sometimes it pays to get out from behind the keyboard and go do something completely unrelated to writing. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, it means that your mind is unable to rationalize the problem, and you need to get some distance. It’s a form of tunnel vision, and in order to fix it, you need to get yourself out of the tunnel.

For example, I am an air traffic controller in my day job. I work in a darkened radar room where different sectors of airspace are divided up between multiple radar scopes. Each controller is responsible for a specific chunk of airspace and the aircraft in it at any given time.

When you are working one sector, you need to be aware of what is going on in the sectors adjacent to you, but that awareness is necessarily limited – because you’re giving the majority of your focus to your own airspace.

During busier periods of traffic, one controller will work as a coordinator for two or more positions, listening to multiple frequencies and coordinating between them so that the controllers can give even greater focus to directing aircraft.

The coordinator doesn’t actually speak on the radio – he just does the other necessary tasks between sectors that help things to flow, such as working out unusual requests, answering lines between positions and adjacent facilities and generally acting as a go-between. To do this, he stands behind the primary sector, often walking back and forth between positions as he coordinates between them.

The first time I ever worked a coordinator position, it felt very strange to not be able to communicate directly with the aircraft. I felt helpless, because I couldn’t simply do things my own way. I had to anticipate someone else’s needs and try to meet those needs before they became urgent, but I was no longer actually controlling the traffic. I had to help somebody else control it.

The benefit of this position is that it gives an incredible perspective of the larger picture. Working aircraft directly, I was always chiefly concerned with just one position at a time. The simple act of taking two steps back from the scope allowed me to see the entire operation and how it was flowing together at that moment.

It also takes the weight off the controller at the scope, since they can focus completely on their traffic and not worry about any extraneous tasks. Distractions go down, awareness goes up, and the operation runs more smoothly – in spite of the increase in volume and complexity.

Two steps back is all it takes.

Writer’s block is like that.

When you hit a creativity or productivity wall, you may need to take two steps back.

You may be struggling to see how two chapters relate to each other because you’re focusing too closely on one of them. Back up. Try looking at your outline again, to see the larger picture from a greater distance.

If you’re wrestling with writing dialogue, try writing just the dialogue itself, without all the narrative descriptors. No ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, no scene descriptions – just the spoken words of your characters as they speak them.

This gives you a bird’s eye view of the moving parts of the scene – the dialogue – and eliminates the minutiae of the narrative. It becomes two people talking, and now instead of trying to create the whole world around them, you’re just recording what they say. You can add the rest in later.

Two steps back.

Go for a walk.

Take a coffee break.

Try a free-writing exercise on a totally unrelated topic.

Do whatever it takes to get some distance from what’s impeding your creativity.

Before you know it, the retention pond of your consciousness will be a stream again.