Can We Stop Being Weird About Writer's Block?

Are we blocked? Are we lazy? Let's get real about writer's block. |

Confession: I promised myself that I would never talk about writer's block. I mean, we've heard enough about it by now, right?

We've heard the debate: Does it exist, does it not exist. Are we lazy, are we unprofessional, or is inspiration a huge mystical thing and we haven't done the right sacrifices...

I'm tired of people saying, "I don't feel like writing today THAT MEANS I HAVE WRITER'S BLOCK, DOESN'T IT."

Oof. No. That's not what it means. 

And, on the other side of the spectrum, there are the people who shout: "Writer's block is just a construct. No other profession hides behind this. Be a professional."

I find that point of view extremely . . . unhelpful. (I'd like to hear what they have to say to a runner with a broken leg. Is that just a construct?) 

I believe that inspiration can be sought and found. I've done some excellent writing on days when I would have given my teeth to not write. Sometimes I go to my desk kicking and screaming.

But: I do think that there are times when we just can't write. There are times when your writing project cannot and will not go forward. 

The blocks that I've hit fall into three categories. And because I'm clever and subtle, I'll just call them Small, Medium, and Large. Here's what they're like, and a few ideas for how to get around them. Okay? Let's go.

The Small Blocks

What it feels like: These are the days you look at your computer or your draft, and you just feel this huge upwelling of "meh." This is your internal, "I would really rather not." It can keep you from your writing for a day or two... And that can grow into a few weeks. 

What that might mean:

  • This is hard.
  • I'm not prepared.
  • I'm really out of love with this part of the process.
  • Chocolate.

What you can do about it:

  • Writing is hard. So, this is an accurate assessment. Look around at how you're moving forward, and see if you're making it harder. Are you putting restrictions on your work that maybe you don't need right now? Can your deadline be adjusted? Is your topic too restrictive? Do you maybe need to bring in a bit more play, try to have more fun?
  • Get your tools out. Are you writing from an imaginatively dry place because you didn't research? (I do this all the time! Ack!) Maybe you need to browse a reference book or four, maybe you need to do a little Internet rabbit trailing? Or, maybe it's a writing skill that you need: grab a book on scenes, on structure, on dialogue. You can learn anything. Take the time to go for it.
  • You might be getting near burnout. Try working on a different part of the project. Try cajoling yourself back into it with some playful exercises. Give yourself an intentional, guilt-free day off to try and get some perspective. Read for fun. Take a nap. Clear your head for a bit, and then go back to it. Reward yourself for every step forward.
  • Eat the chocolate. Always. 

The Medium Blocks

What it feels like: It feels like there's an actual obstacle between you and your work. Your brain is fizzing-full of anxiety. Or, your brain is wiped clean of any real ideas. You go through your usual tricks, but the words are all coming out sideways. There is angst. Deep frustration. In spite of faithfully showing up and "trusting the process," you feel like you're just spinning your wheels.

What that might mean:

  • I'm not going to make the deadline.
  • I'm panicking.
  • The topic is wrong. Or the point-of-view is wrong. Something's just... wrong.
  • I can't keep working because I'm just making it worse.

What you can do about it:

  • Find a way to get yourself more time. To breathe. Deadlines are awesome to get you moving. But if you've taken a wrong turn, they might just help you get lost faster. Lighten your load, any way that you can.
  • It is really hard to imagine new things when you feel like you're writing your way off a cliff. Take a few days to recapture your perspective. Why did you start this story in the first place? What was it that you loved about it? Go for a long walk, and just think about the good parts of your story. Find a way to get back to the heart of what you're writing: take the time to do that.
  • A lot of what we call "writer's block" is really a huge detour sign. It's the part of the creative process that says, "You can't get there from here. You can't go that way." This is a really good thing. See it as a chance to look at all your options. Have you gone off a better, original track? Or are you a slave to your original vision, while your story wants to try a different way? Freewrite. Do a lot of freewriting. Give yourself a week to explore other ideas, other angles. Run down all the other paths for a while. Keep your grip light. When something you jot down gets you excited, keep going!
  • Perfectionism is writer's block's BFF. They show up together. You have to kill perfectionism. Really. Be merciless. Drafting is about making messes, making mistakes, and doing the wrong thing. You're going to have to redefine success. Success is: another day with words in it. Accept that your novel will not get better in a straight line. In fact, give yourself permission to totally screw it up. Write that down on paper, and sign it. Post it by your desk. I'm serious. I have to do this all the time to keep going.

The Large Blocks

What it feels like: A large block is a total inability to deal with words. (Sometimes accompanying a total inability to get up in the morning.)

I've hit this kind of block three times in my writing life. And each time, something else in my life had gone very wrong. So a large block might come calling if you're in a season of pain, depression, or a huge life transition.

What that might mean:

  • I'm in a state of total exhaustion.
  • Words are broken. I have zero faith in writing, zero confidence in my ability to write.
  • I can't write. I have nothing to say.

What you can do about it:

  • Let yourself off the hook. With everything. Take all productivity demands off the table. Put all projects on hold. This is serious: seek physical and emotional health more than any writing goal. Sleep. Sleep a lot. Binge on Doctor Who for hours (or some such thing). Do the gentlest, kindest things for yourself. Other professions let people have sick days, right? Take care of the writer; don't worry about words for a while.
  • If you've been hurt by someone (if your words have been taken and twisted and used against you), it can be really hard to put pen to paper. Really, really hard. I've found my way back to words through reading Billy Collins's beautiful poems. They're simple, charming, and moving. They got me believing again in the power of a few well-placed words.
  • In moments of huge transition, it can happen that you lose a sense of who you are. I once fell very suddenly and (it seemed) irrevocably out of love with writing. Ready to walk away, for good. So I did stop writing. Instead, I read. For two months. And then, out of the blue (it seemed), I had a new novel idea that was so precious it took my breath away. If you can read a whole bunch, I'd say just do that. Read yourself silly. Give it time. Don't force yourself to make any decisions about your writing future: just give yourself a lot of words to read. And wait to see what happens.

Dealing with blocks. You have to be your own doctor, to an extent. Diagnose yourself; discover what works for you.

If you're in this writing game for the long haul, you'll be doing this from time to time. So it's a good skill to have: you're learning to listen to your life, to look for signs of growth, signs of trouble. Keep practicing--you'll get better at it.

And you'll find your own best ways around the obstacles you hit. For me, the way around even the worst of blocks boils down to this:

Let yourself play. Stay curious. Seek health. Surround yourself with words. And give it time.

Do you have any anti-block strategies to share? Writer's block stories? Let's keep encouraging each other! 

Wanna keep reading? Check out: Beating the Writer's Paradox and How to Keep Going.