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When You Can’t Write This, Write That

I’m not a big believer in writer’s block. Generally I don’t think that people get into situations where they can’t write at all. Which is what writer’s block is: “The condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” If you can’t write at all, I think it’s time to question your occupation.

However, I do believe that there are times when a writer cannot write what they want or need to. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

You probably know the feeling: You turn up at the computer day after day and nothing happens. You spend hours trawling social media or inventing other things that need to be done right now. (Gotta clean out the pantry!) The words aren’t getting written, so you throw up your hands and say, “I’ve got writer’s block.”

Do you really? Are you incapable of writing anything at all? Can you not squeeze out a blog post, or the beginnings of a character sketch? Maybe a poem or a few lines of a new story?

If you cannot write anything at all, then it might be time to either rethink writing as the job for you, or it may be time for professional help. (I don’t mean that facetiously. Sometimes depression or anxiety can play a bigger role in our ability to work than we want to believe. Even easily treated medical problems can fry your brain or sap your energy. Professional help can save you if there’s something medical or psychological at play. Get checked out!)

Maybe, though, it’s that you can’t write this project. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Turning up every day and flapping your hands at the same project is insane. However, working on something else is likely to yield that different result you’re seeking.

It’s not that you can’t write at all, it’s that you can’t write that project.

Sometimes a project just stalls for whatever reason. Perhaps you lost interest. It happens and there’s no shame in it. Maybe global or personal problems are making it difficult to face what was formerly a fun project. (I’ve gone through this with some global and political concerns. It’s hard to write books about war and suffering when real war and suffering are constantly in the news. Or books about death when someone close to you has died.) Perhaps the project is unworkable (either in its current form or altogether) and trying to force it is causing you to simply stop writing. If you can solve the problem, you can beat the block.

But if you can’t easily see the solution to the problem, you can step away from this project and work on something else. If you can’t write this, write that. Start something new that inspires you or transports you away from the problems dragging down the other project. Work on an older project that you loved, but which you thought was stupid and shelved.

I don’t mean for you to forever discard the original project, however. Eventually, you’ll have to go back and face whatever is wrong with it and either fix it, continue on, or bury it in the backyard. But by taking a break and working on something else, you’ll get your confidence back and see that it’s not that you can’t write at all, it’s that you can’t write that project. Big difference.

It’s not as tragic as, “I can’t write anymore! I’m doomed!”

And it may not even be that you can’t write that project. It may be that you can’t write that project at this time. Given a few months, you may feel better about things, have regained your interest, or the world may have moved on and you’re in a better place to tackle a sticky subject.

See? It’s not as tragic as, “I can’t write anymore! I’m doomed!” You’re not doomed. You just need to move on/around/over the problem.

Now, if you’re on a deadline, stepping away can be a real problem. Your publisher might not care what’s going on in your personal life that’s keeping you from writing the next book in your series. They may not care that nuclear war is hard for you to write when it seems like it’s on the horizon every damn day. They just want the book. In that case, you’ve got to figure out how to get over whatever is bothering you. Can you alter the story so it rubs the raw wounds just a little bit less? Or can you find some way to think of it as therapy, or as an agent for change?

If, however, you have the luxury, try writing something else. Pick something you’ve always wanted to try, or an idea that’s been poking your brain for years. Or just try something that you think will be fun. Work on that for a while until you feel like you can revisit the other project. After a while of writing something else your brain will say, “It’s not me, it’s that project.”

That is a powerful change because it stops the feelings of failure and self-loathing that make “writer’s block” so much worse. The inability to write the original project is not a reflection of you, your talent, or your dedication. There’s nothing wrong with you, but there’s something wrong with that other project, or the time in which you’re trying to write it.

(Photo courtesy of Line-tOodLinGfc)

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