I once wrote an article on why writer’s block is a myth. Several readers took me to the woodshed on that one, vehemently defending the existence of this “disease.” For the record, I still think writer’s block is a myth that many writers use to put off or avoid writing. (I’m stubborn that way. Go ahead and beat me up.) I still believe that a professional writer can always come up with something to write, even if it’s not ideal, that will keep a project and career moving forward.
However, I am willing to concede that what people think of as “writer’s block” is really a problem or series of problems that can be solved. In other words, writer’s block is the symptom of a larger problem. Solve whatever problem is keeping you from writing and you defeat “writer’s block.” So, what sort of problems are likely to lead to this mythical block?
- Unrealistic goals. It’s possible to paralyze yourself with unrealistic goals. “I’m going to write a novel, get an agent, and have it published within two months.” “I’m going to make a million dollars in my first year as a freelancer.” Once it becomes apparent that the goals are way out of reach, many people either stop trying and just poke at the work, or give up entirely. They say they’re blocked, but what’s really happened is that their brain has realized the impossibility of the task before it and shut down. Adjusting your goals to something manageable will open your brain back up and make the work fun again.
- Laziness/Lack of discipline. It’s harsh, but some people are just lazy or lack the discipline needed to succeed. (And not just at writing.) Writing requires just as much commitment and discipline as any other career or creative effort. You have to show up, do the work, and then put it out there. If you’d honestly rather sit on the couch and watch football, writing may not be for you. On the other hand, discipline can be learned and practiced. Like any skill, the more you practice the art of showing up and working, the better you will become at it. You don’t have to work 24/7, but you do have to want to work and push yourself. It’s not writer’s block if you’re not even trying.
- Lack of desire. Writing is a highly competitive career, whether you pursue fiction or non-fiction. There are a lot of people out there who want to be writers. To succeed, you have to want it. Badly. You have to want it so much that you will deal with the rejection, criticism, and low odds of success. You have to want it enough to practice, learn, and to do all you can to separate yourself from all of those other people who want it, too. If you don’t want it enough, you won’t do the work. You may claim that you’re blocked, but what’s really happening is that you just don’t have the desire to work that hard for that particular goal.
- Stress/Pressure/Fatigue. If you’re stressed, whether it’s over something writing-related or in your personal life, it’s hard to focus on writing. Same if you’re not getting enough sleep. Stress and exhaustion compromise your brain, making it harder to concentrate, remember, think, follow ideas, and generate logical conclusions. Pressure (whether to repeat a past success or beat a scary deadline) can freak you out so much that you can’t do anything but sit there. These things look like writer’s block, but you’ll probably find that they are impacting all areas of your life, not just your writing. Get a handle on your stressors, relieve the pressure, and get adequate rest. Your brain will thank you and your writing will move forward.
- Burnout. I’ve mentioned above that you have to want to work and succeed, but it’s possible to work so hard that you burn yourself out. Burnout makes it nearly impossible to write or write well. You dread showing up at the page instead of looking forward to it. You don’t want to write one more word. You’re just sick of writing and everything to do with it. These things look like writer’s block, but it’s really that you’ve fried your creative muscles. Take a break. Go outside. Go on vacation if you have to. The writing muscle is a funny thing. It responds best when you exercise it regularly, but it will quickly shut down if you work it too much. Find a balance.
- Writing isn’t for you. Either you really don’t enjoy writing enough to make it a focus of your life, or you’ve discovered that you don’t have the ability to be a good writer. If your problem is the former, there may be no cure. You can stare at the page all you want and declare yourself blocked, but if you hate it, you hate it. It may be time to give up and get another job. The latter, though, can be cured. You can learn to be a better writer. Mechanics can be taught. Practice can hone your ability to tell a story or put together an article. If lack of ability is what’s got you blocked, find some courses and helpful resources and improve your skills.
- Perfectionism. Feeling like you have to be perfect can make you freeze because deep inside you know that nothing is ever perfect. You can’t be perfect so why try? You have to get past this idea. Look at how many great books have some fairly serious problems. Look at how many articles have typos. Look at how many bad stories get published. Look at how many drafts writers go through before they get to something remotely decent. Obviously you want to try and minimize the imperfections, but everything is imperfect. Once you accept that even imperfect work can still find a home and make you happy, life gets much easier and your writing becomes freer.
- The project is broken. Maybe the project is above your level of expertise and you just can’t bridge the gap. Maybe the subject doesn’t interest you. Maybe the client is a pain in the butt or their expectations are unrealistic. Maybe you’ve gone off the rails somewhere along the line and you need to start over. Sometimes a project just can’t be saved, for whatever reason. Sitting there trying to make it work feels like writer’s block but what’s really wrong is that the project is irreparably broken. It happens. Extricate yourself as gracefully as you can and move on.
- Research failure. Research can blow up on you in one of three ways and “block” you. First, you’re researching too much and using it as an excuse to avoid writing. Stop researching and start writing. You can fill in the gaps as you go. Second, you didn’t do enough research and the lack of information has left you with a huge hole in your project. It’s not that you can’t write, it’s that you don’t have the information you need. Find what you need and carry on. Third, you simply cannot find the information you need, or at least not easily. At that point you have to decide how to proceed. Do you need to go somewhere or meet someone specific to get the information and, if so, is it worth the expense and time required? Can you take the project in a different direction and thus avoid this prickly bit of information altogether? Identify exactly what you need, what it would take to get that information, and then decide where to go from there.
- Lack of confidence. Despite being some of the mentally strongest people you’ll ever meet, most writers suffer from a huge lack of confidence in themselves and their abilities. And this can continue even after they’ve achieved some success. (I’m right there with you.) It’s paralyzing to think that you’re not good enough or that your work sucks. It’s much easier to walk away from the computer than to confront that demon. There’s no easy way to get past this (at least I haven’t found it), but it’s essential to believe in yourself and your work. (Just don’t get so overconfident that you think everything you write is gold. That doesn’t help, either.) Once you start believing in yourself and trusting your ideas and skills, all the blocks fall away.
- Time constraints. Everyone is busy and it’s easy to say, “I’m too busy,” rather than write. But successful writers make time to write, even if it means giving up other things that they enjoy, putting off things that aren’t strictly necessary, or being “mean” to family and telling them to leave you alone for an hour. It’s easy to claim that being busy has you blocked, but it’s usually the other way around. You don’t really want to write so you claim that you’re too busy.
- Fear. There are lots of fears. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear that people will hate you. Fear that you’ll embarrass yourself. Fear of the unknown. Fear of getting sued. Any and all of them can make it impossible to write or write well. You’ll just sit at the keyboard, thinking about all the ways this enterprise can go wrong. However, if you can identify your fear(s) and develop some coping strategies, your writing will usually open up.
- Something else is more important. Hey, not everyone is built to put writing above everything else in their life and that’s okay. Sometimes there are things that you deem to be more important. Maybe they are really more important and maybe they aren’t, but the fact that you’re spending time and mental energy on whatever else is important in your life means that you have fewer resources available for writing. If this is a temporary problem it’s easier to fix. (For example, if a relative is temporarily in crisis and you’re helping them, the problem goes away once the crisis is over.) Other times it’s a chronic problem where you’re judging everything to be more important than your writing. If that’s what’s happening, it’s time to take a long hard look at your career choice and see if writing is really what you want to do with your life.
- Embracing distractions. This is also called procrastination. Any little thing that crosses your radar takes your attention away from writing. Social media, the latest cat video, TV, the news, a phone chat with a friend, etc. are all things that can be more appealing than writing. Finding yourself with no time or energy left to write because you’ve frittered it all away on mindless activities isn’t writer’s block, although many people call it that. Reduce your distractions, say no to activities that take you away from your work, stop picking up the phone every time it rings, and turn off the TV. This will preserve your time and mental energy for the work that matters.
- Health problems. There are many medical conditions that can cause or have symptoms that resemble what people think of as writer’s block. Depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, high or low blood pressure, hormonal imbalances, sleep disturbances, vitamin deficiencies, cancer, or anything else that keeps you from thinking and functioning optimally can cause a breakdown in your writing. If you can’t find the problem anywhere else, a visit to the doctor might be in order.
Notice that I didn’t say that any of these are easy to cure. If one of these problems is causing your inability to write, it’s going to take some time and effort to fix. You may even have to involve professionals (teachers, doctors, therapists, etc.). Whether it’s worth it to you or not will come down to just how badly you want to write. Writer’s block isn’t a condition in and of itself. It’s a manifestation of other problems that can be solved or treated. Once you get to the root of the problem, your “writer’s block” will miraculously cure itself.
(Photos courtesy of Greyerbaby, CPinoB, Kaz)
I’ll join you in calling this “block” a myth, though we know butt-in-chair writing days are not created equal. The productivity of some days can be discarded later when it is uninspired, but what it will do is set you to work and to better days.
Exactly. There is always something that can be done, even if it has to be redone later. But that’s the case for any job. (Except maybe brain surgeon. Do overs aren’t recommended there.) Some days are good, some are bad, but you still go to work. Saying that you can literally do nothing has always seemed like a cop out to me.
Thank you for your frank and tough talk on an important subject. I’m sharing this with “my” writers. They are intelligent, mature and highly creative, and sometimes they get stuck. I hope this will help them during those times, and facilitate self examination to determine what the problems really are.
Another factor might loosely be lumped with health problems. Weather, seasons, and seismic activity all affect us, often on subconscious levels. A first grade teacher, who said she’d learned it from watching cows before storm fronts, observed that she could tell when weather was about to change because her students were restless and unruly when nothing overt was causing the ruckus. So, when there are unseen influencers afoot, we sometimes need to admit we don’t know what’s going on, take as brief a break from the keyboard as possible, and ride out the tempest.
I’d agree. Things like Seasonal Affective Disorder (this is the time of year for it) can make it hard to write, but I agree that things like that are best lumped in with health problems.
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