Every writer gets stuck once in a while, but suffering from writer’s block takes stuckness to a whole new level. It’s said that the difference between writers and would-be writers is that writers write. They actually put the words down and keep putting the words down – regardless. So what happens when you’re a writer (or think you are) but you can’t write?
I know when my writing is blocked because I suddenly have a pile of enticing new books to read, despite having a whole shelf-full I haven’t read yet. I should be working on my book, but whenever I try it’s like the ground opens beneath my feet and sucks all the energy from my bones. And reading a book is infinitely easier than writing one.
“Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It’s very physically wearing not to write – I mean, if you’re supposed to be writing.” – Fran Lebowitz
A lot of the advice for dealing with writer’s block focuses on taking a more disciplined approach, as if writing is simply a matter of willpower. Sometimes it is. But writer’s block isn’t the same as procrastination or being disorganised. You might want to write but have trouble organising your time, or you spend a long time messing about doing other things before you finally get around to writing. It doesn’t mean you’re blocked. If you really want to write – you will, regardless of the obstacles.
Writer’s block means you can’t write – at all.
The Multiple Dimensions of Writer’s Block
There can be many reasons why you can’t write and feel blocked. Some are simple to deal with, such as being tired (go have a nap!), but others are harder to pin down and even harder to overcome.
Writing is a precarious profession and is hard work, even when it’s going well, so it’s not surprising if you have bad days occasionally. A bad day means you get stuck, but this doesn’t have to mean you’re blocked. Getting stuck only becomes a problem if you think about it the wrong way and create a negative story to explain your stuckness. “I can’t write because I’m useless and stupid and no one will ever read my ridiculous story anyway…” and so on. Then simply being stuck becomes a full-on blockage and one bad day runs into another, then another, until you realise you haven’t written anything for weeks – or months.
Let’s have a look at some of the things that can cause your ink to run dry:
Creative Process Issues
- Lack of basic writing skills which causes frustration
- Trying to get it right first time so you’re stalled at the start
- Trying too hard to be impressive, to sound like ‘a writer’, or to write a particular way
- Trying too hard to write well which makes you second guess yourself
- Difficulty getting into the flow of writing
- Too many ideas leading to confusion and unnecessary complexity
- Believing you have to be insanely talented to write well, when really it just takes hard work
- Unfavourably comparing yourself to other writers
- Waiting for inspiration to strike
- Fear that you’re working on the wrong thing or in the wrong medium
- Thinking too much about the marketplace or being popular
- Misunderstanding the creative process and the necessity of ‘not knowing’
- Problems with the work itself, such as the story not working or a character not coming to life
- Fear of failure, success, the unknown, self-exposure, criticism, etc.
- Too much pressure or having high expectations of yourself or the work
- Depression, loss of hope, or a sense of defeat
- Addictions that mask your anxiety but still stop you from writing
- Self-doubt due to negative self-talk and an overactive Inner Critic
- Self-doubt due to harsh criticism from others
- Difficulty focusing because your mind can’t settle
- Over-thinking the work due to defensiveness or avoidance of certain feelings
- Limiting beliefs about yourself or your writing, such as Imposter Syndrome or feeling like you don’t deserve success
- Not caring about the work because it’s not true to you or your voice
- Not knowing your own voice or failure to listen to what’s inside you
- Being emotionally exhausted from other crises in your life
- Loss of meaning due to failure, rejection, or not doing work you think is good enough
- Feeling the work isn’t worth doing, even if it’s good and sells
- Fear of confronting meaninglessness if the work ends up being crap
- Uncertainty over your purpose in life and whether you even want to be a writer
- Avoidance of the need to create meaning for yourself
- Fear of the responsibility that comes with the freedom to choose
- Fatigue from not sleeping well or overwork at the day job
- Bad brain chemistry from hormonal imbalances or natural cycles
- Bad brain chemistry from being hung-over
- Still drunk 😉
- Being ill (note: not the same as being drunk)
- Recovering from illness
- Low energy from laziness or lack of exercise
- Low energy from bad diet
- Jitters from too many stimulants like coffee and sugar
- Stress which messes up your brain chemistry
- Financial pressures and difficulties paying the bills
- Relationship and/or family problems
- Life getting in the way and struggling to get everything done
- Too many distractions
- Bad karma 😉
I’m sure you can think of many more examples – add your favourite (or not so favourite) blockages in the comments at the end.
The Real Cause of Writer’s Block
Writer’s block can be caused by one or many of these issues at the same time. You may think your problem comes from being tired or having wonky brain chemistry, but underneath there could be other reasons lurking in the subconscious. To find the real cause of the blockage you have to dig through the layers.
If you’re knackered from lack of sleep and stressed out due to problems at your day job, then you can’t expect the writing to flow as soon as you pick up your pen. You may have multiple problems that each need to be dealt with in a different way, such as sorting out your diet by eating more healthy foods, getting more exercise, switching off the router so you can’t get online, etc.
However, the real problems are the ones you actively avoid facing because they make you supremely uncomfortable. These are buried the deepest and most of them have the same root cause: FEAR.
Many of the fears that haunt writers are quite understandable considering what you’re trying to do. Writing well means confronting yourself and opening to the possibility of humiliation. To get into the flow you must surrender and accept you’re not in control of the process. You don’t know what you’re doing or how it will turn out. And everyone else gets to watch you fail. As Erica Jong says: “No one ever found wisdom without also being a fool. Writers, alas, have to be fools in public, while the rest of the human race can cover its tracks.”
It’s enough to drive any normal person crazy – and writers choose to do this to themselves!
“If you wanted to make a cheery person with no predisposition to depression depressed, you could stick him in front of a typewriter or computer for hours a day, feed him a typical writer’s diet – forbid him to exercise, isolate him from friends, and convince him that his personal worth depended on his ‘numbers’. Make him live the writer’s life… and watch him sag.” – Elizabeth Moon
Overcoming Writer’s Block
Sometimes you can’t simply distract yourself from your problems and make yourself write because trying to write moves you towards your fear – and that’s why you’re blocked. So you need to take a step back and find a new approach. Follow these five steps to unlock your fears and overcome writer’s block:
1. Acknowledge the Problem
You need to deal with the blockage head on and that means you can’t run away from it or pretend it isn’t there or make excuses for yourself. It may be true that you’re just tired or distracted, but check within yourself to be sure there isn’t something else fuelling the problem.
2. Identify the Blockage
Dig through the layers and be honest with yourself about what you’re feeling. Are you still blocked after catching up on your sleep and clearing your desk of distractions? It may take a while to identify exactly what the problem is, especially since your darkest fears tend to hide behind other problems and divert your attention by creating dramas elsewhere in your life. You may believe your problems are caused by stress at work or anxiety over money, but underneath there could be an existential black hole you’ve been sidestepping your whole life.
3. Shift your Consciousness
No matter what your problem turns out to be, you can usually shift it by changing the way you think. The fear that underpins writer’s block takes many different forms, but ultimately tends to come down to a misperception of reality on some level. You’re either taking yourself too seriously or not making a serious enough commitment to living your life – in other words, attachment or avoidance. In both cases, the problem will be found in your ego, and the solution will be found in your soul or Higher Self or Big Mind (whatever you want to call it).
4. Reframe your Fears
Think about why you want to write and what you need in order to create a meaningful life. Don’t look to others to answer these questions. Only you can define what’s important to you and what success or happiness means. Remember that writing is hard and the fact that you’re having difficulties isn’t a sign that you can’t do it or shouldn’t even be trying. Being human and conscious and awake is also hard. Giving up is easy. Nobody ever wrote a book worth reading sitting on their arse watching daytime TV.
5. Take Action
Do something! This doesn’t have to involve writing, but it should be a step towards dissolving your fears. A good place to start is to go out for a walk, get some fresh air and move around. Too much time cooped up indoors listening to your mind on a loop isn’t productive and won’t help you get back on track. Meditation can also help. Or you could listen to music, dance around and get silly. Or clean the house. Whatever works for you.
Ten Tips for Blocked Writers
1. Ask for guidance – and listen to the response.
2. Give yourself permission to write badly – it doesn’t have to be perfect. You can deal with it later in the edit.
3. Stop worrying about what other people think.
5. Keep a dream diary.
6. Write about why you can’t write – rant it out of your system.
7. Make a playlist for your story.
8. Find images that capture the essence of your story.
9. Reconnect with your deeper purpose.
10. Have some fun!
Whatever you do, don’t let fear stop you from following your dreams. While it’s important to be realistic, it’s equally important to remember that the meaning of life has nothing to do with keeping your bank manager happy or meeting the expectations of others. When you find yourself getting blocked, do everything you can to reconnect with the joy of creating – it’s always worth it, even if nobody else agrees with you!
Have you struggled with writer’s block and what did you do to break free? Share your tips in the comments below…
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