How to Keep Intrusive Thoughts from Ruining Your Writing

Writer’s block doesn’t always come from within. Sometimes obstructions fall into our path. One of the most difficult challenges writers face is when real life drama proves more compelling than our dramatic narratives. I’ve blogged about how it’s hard to keep our memoirs out of our fiction. Sometimes it’s harder to keep our minds clear enough to leave a figment for our imaginations.

Here’s what happens. You finish writing a sequence full of reveals: your heroine learns the hallucination that’s been haunting her is real. Her husband has known all along. He’s been lying to convince her she’s crazy. These twists move your story into the eye of the storm. You want to give your audience a chance to breathe before diving back in. Then something happens in your life that’s more insane than your writing.

Surprise, the girl you thought you were dating wasn’t as far along in her divorce proceedings as she’d led on. Surprise, the entire time you’ve been paying rent your landlord hasn’t been paying the mortgage. Surprise, a squatter has been living in your basement.

These situations get your imagination racing in the wrong direction. It’s exhausted when you need it for storytelling. You end up bringing your own tension to scenes that would be better off without it.

Only so many thoughts can fit in the same brain. When facts are stranger than fiction your fiction can’t compete with your situation. Your story pauses, while your imagination cycles through worst case scenarios. When something terrible happens you can’t help but wonder what kind of state it will leave you in. When the dust settles you fantasize about how things can get better. You’re too busy telling a story to keep yourself functioning to turn around and tell one to an audience.

How can you find the spark of inspiration when you’re so busy looking for a light at the end of the tunnel? First you have to acknowledge the situation. Then you have to develop an understanding of how your mind copes. Finally you have to come up with a system for working through it.

The Extent of the Problem

We all experience intrusive thoughts from time to time. If you’re afraid of heights you can’t help but picture yourself falling over a guard railing. If you’re responsible for children you can’t help but imagine something terrible happening to them. If you have to deal with a rude coworker you can’t help but hear yourself telling them off. Most of the time these nightmares are fleeting, but when you’re in the middle of a tough situation they haunt your daydreams.

These fatalistic flashes become obsessions you can’t help but dwell on, scabs you can’t help picking, songs you can’t get out of your mind. Your fantasy worlds are light years away while these terrestrial scenarios orbit you. You see triggers where you once found inspiration.

Writers are prone to neurosis in a crisis. We can’t help but imagine every outcome when we’re stuck in a bad situation. So what can we do to work this compulsion out of our systems?

How to brush those intrusive thoughts away
How to brush those intrusive thoughts away

Think About the Pink Elephant

Don’t think about a pink elephant. Don’t imagine a big pink elephant stomping through the dry wall. Don’t visualize it with a top hat on its head and a cain in its trunk, and whatever you do don’t imagine that elephant dancing.

If you tell yourself not to think of something while you’re trying to write, you’re going to think about it. That’s the irony of negative suggestion. The more you fear failing, the more likely you will fail. When you consciously try to push a thought to the back of your mind, the more it moves into the foreground. When you try not to think of the thing that’s bugging you, the more thought you give it.

If you have a pink elephant stomping you down: think about it. Think about the elephant in the room until it blends into the furniture. Run the elephant around your mind until its exhausted.

This is called exposure therapy. The idea is that everyone has triggers that call up their intrusive thoughts, things that remind them of their bad situations. Conventional wisdom would tell you to avoid those triggers to spare yourself the pain. This can turn the creative process into a minefield of ideas you need to avoid to keep yourself working.

If you have an intrusive thought, list as many of your triggers as you can. Expose yourself to the ones you can stomach and wear them out. Dwell on the thought until it’s a broken record, and becomes redundant. Think about your pain until you can predict how it will hurt you, until you go numb.

Tell people what you’re going through. Vent about the elephant. Give yourself a reasonable time frame to discuss your situation and cut yourself off when it feels like you might be getting too exhausting.

Cloud busting
Cloud busting

Methods for Writing around the Elephant in the Room


The easiest method for preventing a bad situation from derailing your train of thought is to map it out in advance. If you draft each scene, numbering them all before you write the first one, an intrusive thought won’t have a chance of making you forget what comes next.

This isn’t the ideal solution for writers like myself, who prefer to be surprised, but it never hurts to have some structure to fall back on. This is why I always have a vague ending in mind before I get started. I can always change it if I come up with something better along the way.

Keep a Routine

If you commit to putting your ass in the seat everyday, and keep meeting your word count goals, your routine will withstand a traumatic life event. You might falter, but once you prove you can write through a bad situation it’ll be much easier when you encounter another.


If you know what direction your story is heading, but something terrible happens to you while you’re writing, you might feel a strong desire to put it in your story. Your pink elephant will want a walk on role in your production. Ask yourself, if I wasn’t me would I like this story more or less with this new plot point? If the answer is “less” then put that pink elephant someplace else.

Closing Thoughts

Writing is always challenging. It’s even harder to spin a yarn when your head is tied in knots. Sometimes the best way to keep writing through a tragedy is to already have a routine going. Sometimes the best way to cast out an intrusive thought is to accept its presence. Sometimes the best way to avoid thinking of a pink elephant is to get used to it.


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10 thoughts on “How to Keep Intrusive Thoughts from Ruining Your Writing”

  1. I hear you, very good advice thank you! I certainly get distracted by everything that goes on in life, wish there were more hours in the day!

  2. I am quite lucky…when I’m in the zone, nothing much disturbs me. When I do have a problem, is coming up with new ideas. So your advice will come in handy!

  3. It’s difficult for me to compartmentalize but, other than that, I agree 100%. And not just for writing. 😉 I think in general, “If you tell yourself not to think of something…you’re going to think about it.” Allow yourself to think about it is really the only way to go here. Fantastic post.

    1. Thanks a lot for checking it out. I have my share of pink elephants chasing me at any given moment. It’s taken me a while to figure out what to do with them.

  4. This week has been marked by my favorite bloggers (present company included) getting real. Every post you share is certainly real, in the sense of being practical advice. But you got personal here; I could feel it. And that earns points with me (and, if research is to be believed, with all audiences).

    By the way, I’m struck once again here by your facility with language. You are writing “about” language and writing; but your own analogies are fresh, while retaining meaningful references. And your poetic approach (e.g., awesome alliteration) sets the Word Nerd in me aflutter.

    1. I’m happy you like the alliteration. I know a lot of folks don’t. I wish I had more time to infuse the blog entries with rhyme schemes, rhythmic language, and poetry, but I’ve been busy working ye old novel. I’m really happy you keep finding something worth coming back to.

      1. Plenty! I won’t play favorites, since it might come back to bite me with others; but let’s just say … you’re “one of” my favorite bloggers out there.

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