Writer’s Block

This fall, I’m getting back into writing after a nearly two year gap due to my husband’s stroke. It has been a rough reentry, but I’m feeling happy and productive again. I’m also thinking a lot about writer’s block, because things that helped me get over it before have helped me again this fall.

Let me clarify what I mean by writer’s block. I’m not talking about what happens with people who have been members of a writing organization for years and still haven’t completed and submitted a manuscript. That is writer’s block, but not a sort I feel qualified to write about.

Professional writers (regardless of publication status) learn to show up for work on a regular basis. The beauty of it is that writing begets more writing. You draft a crappy scene in the morning, then you go about your day job or errands and seemingly out of the blue, you get ideas for how to fix that scene and go on to the next. You ask why your hero is a loner and the next morning you wake up knowing.

What is going on is a partnership between your conscious and subconscious minds. It’s not always perfect, of course. Sometimes you need 10-20 minutes of warmup before the writing starts to flow. Sometimes you need to take a break to brainstorm a plot snag or murky character motivation. Sometimes you just have a bad day. These are minor blocks; you develop tricks to get through them. And when it’s going well, it feels great. Like an athlete who is in the zone, you are still working and sweating, but the work feels good and productive.

The writer’s block I’m talking happens when you are showing up for work but the ideas slow down or stop coming. At first you may think it’s just a bad day. But it happens again, over a period of weeks or even months. Your characters no longer feel real. They’re more like mannequins you laboriously push through their paces. You lose your gut feel for what works. You don’t know what to keep, change or cut.

What’s happened is like an athletic injury. Unlike a swollen ankle, you can’t see it. But it’s real. Your subconscious mind is on strike.

If you keep going, in a deadline crunch or just out of perseverance, you’re like an athlete compounding an injury. You start to associate writing with pain. You may have trouble finishing a book or starting the next one. It hurts like being at outs with your best friend. You may fall into depression and bad habits.

You could give up or wait it out, but I think it’s better to treat it as a professional athlete would an injury, with rest and therapy. You need to be both kind and tough.

The kind part means getting good sleep, nutrition and exercise if you weren’t already. It could mean massage, meditation, long walks or anything that makes you feel good and clears your mind. You need mental clarity for the tough part.

The tough part is figuring out what caused the block and what to do about it. Some writers say blocks are mysterious but I think one can figure them out. I find journaling (a process I first learned by doing The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron) helpful. I also talk through blocks with trusted writer friends. Some writers go to a therapist. (I think it’d be very important to find a good one.)

Blocks are caused by fear. It could be fear of rejection, decreasing sales, bad reviews, of not being able to do justice to your ideas, of your friends being jealous if your career progresses faster than theirs. If you fear being punished in some way for writing, your subconscious mind “protects” you by not sending any more ideas.

You can’t just dismiss your fears. Bad things do happen to good writers. You may have to teach yourself that you are strong enough to cope. You may have to work on surrounding yourself with supportive people but also learn to support yourself, too. You may want to change your career plan or writing process. Maybe you need to switch genres. Maybe you need to allow more time for each book.

While you’re doing all this, it’s also a good idea to try what Julia Cameron calls an “Artist Date”. Make time for a fun, creative activity that has no career baggage. It could be something you used to enjoy, or always wanted to try but haven’t had time for. Consider it a peace offering to your creative side.

Once you start back into the writing, be patient. Continue to take care of yourself and trust your gut.

So anyway, this is my theory on writer’s block. What do you think? If you’ve had it, what helped? If you haven’t, do you do things to prevent it?


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Jane Holland
12 years ago

I had appalling writer’s block for about three or four years following the publication of my debut novel. Mostly it was about starting things and then abandoning them, because everything I wrote turned t ashes in front of me. Everything was rubbish, futile, totally unreadable. Then, for about a year and a half of that time, I couldn’t seem to write anything – not even a poem. I developed a fear of even thinking about writing or being a writer.

This period of block followed a number of out-and-out rejections by an editor whose opinion of my work was – at that time, but no longer! – very important to me.

Then, in December 2003, I had my fifth child, and shortly afterwards sat down to write a poem about my pregnancy. It was a spontaneous act, the words just came and had to be written down. It wasn’t a great poem, but it was a good poem, and even now when I read it in public people do seem to love it. I knew – as you always do with ‘good’ work after a period of drought – that it was a turning-point for me.

It wasn’t my daughter’s birth that did the trick. I’d had twin boys the year before (lower your eyebrows, please, we all make mistakes!) and had not felt any change as a writer. So don’t feel blocked writers all have to rush out and get pregnant, or feel despondent if that is not an option! I think it’s more that I relaxed my grip on the block momentarily, because of this flood of emotion, and it just … dissolved.

Not terribly helpful as a block story, I suppose. What I mean is that writer’s block makes you tighten up to an incredible extent, and to release the block you may first have to release yourself. Sometimes in a very strong, perhaps actually physical manner. Or ask yourself, what is stopping me writing? And if it’s some horrid person whose opinion of your work has cut you to pieces, or a series of rejections, you have to let them go. Laugh at them. Give yourself permission to be rejected by others while not rejecting yourself.

I sound like a guru now. How very tiresome. But I wish all blocked writers out there a very fluid and productive time. 😉

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Elena, I agree with everything you said. I have The Artist’s Way, but haven’t used it yet, and journaling probably isn’t my thing, but I certainly would try it if I needed to.

I also think that sometimes Writers Block is due to a big problem in the book that one just has not discovered yet. When my subconscious (or my critique group) finally brings me the solution, the writing flows again. This can take more than an afternoon sometimes.

Jane, your story made my heart ache for so many reasons. It is incredible how harsh criticisms can affect us, but it was a beautiful story of your daughter’s birth allowing you to break through.

I had a similar incident that caused my writing confidence to be shaken and it made writing very difficult for a while. And I have a writing friend who abandoned writing for years because of harsh criticism.

We should be very careful about how we give negative feedback to other writers. Words have the power to shatter someone’s dream.

Elena Greene
12 years ago

Jane, thanks for sharing that story and I think it is helpful. Many of us are so hardworking that when we feel blocked, we think we can just push through it with grim determination rather than loosen up, which is what we really might need. Sometimes a life event like that can put things in perspective.

Regarding criticism, I have found that if it is on target it doesn’t really matter how gently it’s expressed. As long as it helps me figure out what to fix, I’m OK. What is harder for me is criticism that is vague, seems jealous, or clueless.

That having been said, I always strive to be gentle when giving feedback and to find things to praise. That is important not just to help the medicine go down, but to help the writer identify strengths to build on.

Elena Greene
12 years ago

Diane, I’m thinking more about what you said about block coming from a story issue. That sort of block happens to me when I’m trying too hard to follow my outline and should pants it instead. Switching methods can help. Another trick is writing longhand vs the computer, or in a different place than usual.

Now I’m sounding like a guru, when the reality is that I often struggle.

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Great post, Elena! I’ve also found that when I’m “blocked” it’s because I’m trying to make the characters go in a direction they don’t like. Once I correct the course, it usually moves along smoothly–until it stalls again! 🙂 It also helps to be constantly refilling the inspiration well, reading, watching movies, visiting museums, etc

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

Some really great insight here, Elena and something I badly needed to hear at this point! Thank you!

I tend to let stories percolate in my head for a long time before committing them to paper. If I try to force a story onto paper before it has fully “cooked” I end up with and excruciatingly painful series of writing days before I finally say “Okay, this one is NOT ready yet!” When I say not fully cooked, by no means do I mean it is completely plotted and ready to be taken like dictation onto the page. Please! I’m no Mozart. I just mean that the story is finally at the point where it is ready to be started on the page. It is hard to explain, but it works for me.

And criticism and emotional stress with writing buddies can shut me down in a heartbeat or at least it has before. I’ve decided not to let it anymore. I fully intend to put my writing first and to have fun with it. Criticism that is valid and helpful? Bring it on! Criticism born of meanness of a desire to rewrite something on the criticizer’s own voice? FUGGEDABOUTIT!

Elena Greene
12 years ago

Louisa, I’m so glad this post was helpful!

I understand what you mean about a story not being ready. I need to do a good amount of prewriting although I have friends who prefer to pants things.

It’s important not to let others impose their process on you, or criticize yours because it is different. I keep hearing people diss NaNoWriMo because it can result in sloppy unpublishable drafts. It works well for me because my drafts (despite the prewriting) are still a major part of the discovery process. I’m just mining for ideas, not final copy.

Writers who prefer to get every scene right before moving on (and I know several who do) probably won’t benefit from NaNoWriMo. I hope no one pressures them to do it.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

I’ve found I work best by writing, polishing, and moving on. Flat out, getting it down on paper without editing, doesn’t work for me. So no NaNoWriMo for me!

Another thing…give me a challenge like NaNoWriMo and suddenly I find I need to clean out my closets or rearrange my pantry. Or clean up my “book room.”

12 years ago

I am so sorry about your husband. Something like that completely changes you life.
It is interesting to hear the different experiences writers have had and how they diagnosed them and dealt with them.
You are so right about criticism. It can really shatter someone’s self-confidence. It takes a lot to rebuild your self image and belief in yourself.
Thanks for an interesting post and discussion.

Elena Greene
12 years ago

LOL, Diane! Clearly you don’t need NaNo anyway.

Thanks for the kind words, Pat! I am so grateful that my husband is still improving. The experience has taught me what a precious gift it is to have even a few hours to write.

12 years ago

I’ve heard other writers say there’s no such thing as writer’s block but that’s always struck me as a wrongheaded and dismissive thing to say. I can say I’ve never had writer’s block the way it’s described here, and to that extent, I can’t comment from personal experience.

But, when my writing is going badly, I sometimes sit there staring at the monitor not writing a word. For me, it’s a sign that I’ve gone wrong somewhere in the story and I need to fix that.

That isn’t at all the same thing as the depression-like experience I’ve heard other writers describe. I do think that writer’s block in that sense is not so much a sickness of one’s writing, but a displacement of one’s mental state to the writing — more a symptom of a bigger issue –and that’s what a blocked writer needs to get help with.

Elena Greene
12 years ago

Carolyn, I think you’re so right about different types of blocks.

As to writers who say it doesn’t exist, I wonder if they have successfully dealt with story problem blocks and just don’t realize that the mental state blocks can happen. Maybe they are more naturally robust (like people who are not prone to clinical depression) or just haven’t had the circumstances that can bring on that sort of block. If it does happen to them, I suspect they’re are risk of (like I used to do) trying to push through the block and beating themselves up for it.

Anyway, wishing everyone good writing!

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