Sting: overcoming years of writer’s block

StingIn March, Sting gave a TED talk called ‘How I started writing songs again’ (

As a youth, he lived by a shipyard, and constantly thought of getting free. As we all know, he did, selling more than 100 million albums and earning 16 Grammy Awards.

But something changed – he got writer’s block, stretching on for years. To overcome this, he recently found himself writing new songs by returning to the stories of the shipyard workers he knew as a boy.

I found his talk incredibly moving, as a creator and as someone who remembers a difficult childhood. In his talk, Sting sings songs from his upcoming musical, as well as my favourite of his songs, ‘Message in a Bottle’.

This ties back to my posts about incubation and writer’s block. I’ve written about how incubation of years has helped me to rewrite stories that I first imagined in high school now, as an adult. In Sting’s case, an unwanted incubation period that stretched for years (the writer’s block preventing creation) was solved by returning to childhood stories that had been incubating from even longer ago, bringing new creation.

Have you ever struggled with writer’s block? How did you get past it?


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

How not to write a speech

Disclaimer: In this post, I use a real speech as an example of how to write a better speech. If you were at the wedding and heard the speech I’m referring to, you know that it was a beautiful wedding, for a beautiful couple, and that I intend no personal offense to the speech writer or anyone else involved.

I did two subjects in uni that were all about speech writing and persuasive speaking for different purposes. I did well, so I’d happily say that it’s taught me how to structure a basic speech to make an effective effort, at least, to persuade my listeners to my point of view.

Image source: Corey Ann, "How to give a best man speech"

Image source: Corey Ann, “How to give a best man speech”

Then I went to a wedding recently, and I learnt how not to write a speech.

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The power of the spoken word

Reading Aloud - from Douglas School PTO

Reading Aloud – from Douglas School PTO

The one piece of writing advice that’s been most useful to me over the years is very simple: Read it aloud first.

Whether it’s dialogue or description in a short story or novel, arguments in an essay, or jokes at the start of a speech, I’ve picked up many errors just by reading my own work aloud as I’m drafting it.  There’s no way to know if your dialogue is forced or unnatural unless you’re literally speaking out what your characters would be.  If your 5-year-old’s dialogue isn’t right, you’ll hear immediately if it sounds like a 12-year-old when you have to say it.

I can’t imagine a children’s book being written – to be read aloud by parents to kids, or vice versa – without being read aloud first.  Oh, the delight of alliteration, of rhyme!  I may wax lyrical.

Addy Vannasy reads to village children on Discovery Day in Laos

Volunteer Addy Vannasy reads to village children on Discovery Day in Laos

Research has shown that young kids who don’t learn to “sound it out” find it harder to learn to read (sob), to master our complicated English spelling, and to create coherent sentences themselves when reading or speaking.  (See Blevins, W. Phonemic Awareness Activities for Early Reading Success for more detail.)

I will always remember one of my primary school principals, Mr O’Brien, reading out some of Shakespeare’s G-rated sonnets and complaining that no one used the verb “impignorate” anymore (no, I don’t know which one).   I think this “out loud” advice first came to my ears from him, in fact, this poetic principal who roamed the halls teaching poetry and theatre classes instead of filling in his endless paperwork.  I don’t know how efficient it was, but he inspired hundreds of Tamagotchi-obsessed children to read difficult and beautiful poetry – no mean feat.

These days, when I’m proofreading, I often mutter the words under my breath.  It must look and sound weird, but I usually work from home, so nobody sees it anyway.  Reading aloud as I’m proofreading makes sure that I don’t miss anything.  Your brain is happy to fill in the gaps if you’ve [left] out a word, or if you’ve misspelled something improtant [sic], or if there’s no full-stop.  (I simply cannot force myself to do that, even just for an example, sorry.)  But reading aloud makes your brain sloooow down to the pace of your mouth.  And your mouth won’t fill in gaps.  Sometimes it even trips over words, forcing you to reconsider your use of a certain adjective.

On a deeper note, when I think about the most powerful conversations in my life – the most encouraging, and the most damaging – they have all been literal, spoken conversations.  I remember them word for word.  And that says a lot, because I’m a letter-writer, preferring to hand someone my written words than work up the courage to say things out loud.

The “out loud” principle is true in our faith practices, as well.  I was at a workshop this week about conquering sin for women, and one of the most powerful things we talked about – among many helpful tips – was declaring God’s truths (scripture) out loud, and refuting the power of sin out loud.

The spiritual battle we face is real, and odd as it sounds, the devil who’s trying to tempt us doesn’t know what we’re thinking; he can only see our actions in giving in to temptation or hear us when we proclaim Jesus’ victory over ourselves and resist temptation.  James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

Drafting your novel?  Start drafting it out loud.  Thinking about telling someone they did an awesome job?  Don’t shoot them that five second email; have that five second conversation face-to-face if you can.  You’ll enjoy it more, and so will they.


Did I read this blog post aloud before I posted it?  You betcha.  And I definitely tripped over “impignorate”, but you can bet it’s staying!


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

The magic of the quill

The quillIt’s an old adage that what you write with, your tools, affects what you write.

When I turned twenty, I celebrated my birthday with family but didn’t make a big deal of it to my friends. (Parties are stressful. You have to make them happen. I loved my 21st, but by then I’d come out of my shell a lot.)

So one of my friends decided someone needed to make a big deal of it, if I wouldn’t.

He asked when I was working, went to my house, snuck into my room (with my parents’ help), and left me a present.

Don’t get all excited. It wasn’t a mountain bike or a pet puma or anything.

He’d given me a pen. One of those fancy ones, with a real brand name, and replaceable cartridges that cost almost as much as the pen. And these pens cost a little bit! They’re not exorbitant, but you don’t get them for just messing around in your school books. You get them for your office, for sitting on your desk when big clients visit, for signing important documents.

When I picked this pen up, it felt heavy. Metal. Full of the promise of unwritten, unspoken words.

I checked the card:

For all the stories you will write,

and for the story you will write with your life.

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How to put incubation to good use – lessons from the masters

Coming to hang out at GenreCon 2013 on Saturday 18th? Shoot me an email (see my Contact Us page)!


Today is the continuation of the incubation theory, and how to use it: “How can we use incubation to get past writer’s block, without wasting time?” Examples of famous people who’ve put incubation to good use in their creative process.

If you’ve missed my past posts on incubation theory, and you’re wondering what I’m talking about, here’s the recap…

Young Businessman Thinking and Wondering While Writing a Paper Image Source: Writing and PR Studio (BigStock Images)

Young Businessman Thinking and Wondering While Writing a Paper
Image Source: Writing and PR Studio (BigStock Images)

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