by Ekaterina Fawl
This happens to every writer sooner or later: the words stop flowing. The muses have left. The writer’s block has descended, and you can’t write anymore.
That, of course, isn’t really the case. We’re always able to write. Any skills we have learnt are still there, our talent, imagination and creativity don’t disappear. And yet sometimes it feels like there’s no way to push through this slump, or worse, no reason to even try writing again.
It’s always distressing. Writing can be immensely important, even if we don’t make our living from it and don’t have commitments and deadlines to meet. It can be a huge part of our identity, our happy place, our beloved hobby. Writing is invaluable for certain forms of anxiety, as a kind of meditation, a way to gain focus and organise our thoughts and process our feelings. And the failure to write, as any kind of failure, is upsetting on its own.
There are many different types of advice for beating the writer’s block, a lot of it conflicting: just keep plugging at it! No, take a break! Be strong and disciplined! No, be gentle to yourself, listen to your subconscious! And when you’re already down, it’s hard to decide what to try.
There are probably no wrong answers! Different things will work for different people, or at different times in your life. A bit of all of the above might be required to regain your joy and confidence and establish good, healthy and productive writing habits. But to figure out where to start we first need to understand what is happening.
And for that we need to stare the problem right in the face and try to define it.
Here are some of the ways people describe feeling blocked:
- the very idea of writing is distressing
- no good ideas
- no desire to write, feel like I should be doing more productive things instead (pick up extra work, look after my family)
- no desire/fear of putting yourself out there. Feeling exhausted, over-engaged or empty
- blank page syndrome – I just stare at the screen for hours and nothing happens
- everything I write is terrible
- plot hit the wall
- want to write a different thing but committed to the one I’m blocked on
- fear of disappointing the audience
- nothing to say on the subject
Does any of that look familiar? And, sadly, no, I don’t have handy answers to each of these problems! This list is mostly there to remind us: we’re not alone. Writing can be a lonely pursuit sometimes, but whatever our woes, many, many other writers are going through the same thing at this very moment.
The idea is to examine the issue and try to figure out what fear, pain or worry is hiding behind it. As writers, that’s pretty much what we do anyway!
I’m going to talk about four different types of writer’s block causes. They definitely run in packs, and often all of them will pile up on you at once, but we have to start somewhere to wrangle them.
1. The brain weasels
Here’s the main concern: writer’s block is often just a symptom of the underlying problem. Stress, trauma, overworking, relationship problems will inevitably impact other areas of life. Low self-esteem will hinder every endeavour. Writing can be therapeutic, an escape, a relief and a release, but it might not work forever. Getting out of a bad situation, letting yourself accept and appreciate you should come first.
Sometimes writer’s block can be a symptom in a medical sense, and it’s so important not to suffer alone and get help. Losing an interest in a hobby is one of the signs of depression. Depression has a way to perpetuate itself, and it will work to cut out every source of enjoyment in a person’s life, especially something as freeing and deeply introspective as writing. It can create harmful thought patterns that can deepen and develop until the very thought of writing can trigger panic and despair. Similarly, anxiety can make writing an unbearable experience. Certain types of attention deficit and executive function disorders can make some types of writing practises almost impossible. Getting help and getting better is immeasurably more important than trying to finish a story. In fact, getting better will definitely invigorate your writing, so the story will be finished after all!
2. The brain lizards
These thoughts come from the lizard brain and manifest as fear of failure and its even more evil twin, fear of success.
For an animal in the wild, a sudden burst of adrenaline at the sign of danger, or an ability to freeze in place and be unnoticed by predators (or at least killed in a less painful way) can be quite helpful. For a human attempting to write a story – not so much. Fear, to quote Dune, is the mind killer. (And the path to the Dark Side). Fear distract us, misleads us, debilitates us. This is the more talked about kind of the writer’s block, the cause of the dreaded sophomore slump, when after the first successful book the writer can’t produce the second, paralysed by the audience’s expectations. Fear can make us stick with the idea that doesn’t excite us, because it seems safe. Fear can prevent us from putting a single word on the page. It can suck all the joy out of writing, make it all work and no play, turn this most intimate and immediate form of self-expression into something we do for others, or don’t do out of fear of what others might say.
In short: we must not fear. We must keep writing messy and selfish, easy and fun. This is a huge part of what Writing Tree is about.
And if we do fail sometimes, well, as Captain Pickard would say: “That is not a weakness. That’s life.”
3. The wolves at the door
Sometimes it’s not you, it’s them.
There could be people in your life who prevent you from writing by putting your down, monopolising your time, trying to control what you create. They might be jealous of what you can do, or might be afraid of how creativity might change you.
They might be afraid that your story will get out.
There are forces all around us, a huge part of our culture, that are trying to control our self-image and silence our unique voices. Patriarchy works by suppressing women’s stories, casting them as unimportant, second-rate. Imperialism works by erasing the stories of the conquered nations. Consumerism devalues the stories of “unproductive” people, disabled, poor. A lot of publishers now actively seek diverse voices, but it sill can be hard to get over this internal hurdle, to push away the idea that your writing has less worth because of who you are.
It comes down to that line from The Handmaid’s Tale: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It’s difficult, so difficult, but if we give up, our story will be told by those bastards.
4. The inner kitten
Sometimes I’m so tired and cranky I just don’t want to write, I want to play video games instead. I want a nap or a bubble bath. I want to go out for cake.
Writing is hard! It’s mentally and emotionally draining, and, especially after a full day at another desk job, it’s physically taxing as well. Sometimes it’s okay to be lazy and self-indulgent and do whatever you want. You genuinely might be working yourself into a breakdown. A lot of lazy impulses might just be safety valves going off in your mind, trying to convince you to take it easy so you can stay more productive in the long run.
Here’s where bringing a little structure to your creative life and your hobbies can be extremely important. It’s amazing, for example, what can be achieved just with two 15-20 minutes long writing sprints a day. Even one 15 minutes long writing session.
We’ve all seen that kind of advice about forming other habits, and frankly, it’s not always workable. Finding just 15 minutes a day to exercise? Unless you can do it first thing in the morning you’ll have to also find time to change, shower, probably redo your hair and makeup. Spending just 15 minutes a day tidying your house? Great, now the beds are stripped and there’s a pile of tangled cables in the front room and I have no time or energy to make the place livable again.
With writing sprints you can start any time and stop mid-sentence. The practice of quickly getting your mind into it and keeping it on the task for the duration is a form of meditation that will only help your well-being. Sometimes convincing yourself to write just for 15-30 minutes today will make a huge difference to your state of mind and the progress of your project. Sometimes limiting yourself to this time can be just as important.
I’m going to leave you with three exercises I find helpful:
1. Shift the focus from yourself to the writing
Sometimes when I’m so plagued by self-doubt I can’t write another word, I have to remind myself that this isn’t about me, after all.
There’s a reason why we want to write these story in the first place! These great characters need us to give them a voice, this cool idea needs a vehicle, the plot needs a resolution. Maybe it’s time to write those character sheets, or self-indulgent outtakes, or work on the timeline, or organise your research – just to remind yourself that writing isn’t about putting yourself out there to be judged. It’s about sharing something wonderful.
2. Copy someone’s homework
Follow in Hunter S. Thompson’s footsteps and, instead of agonising over your own writing, type up a page or two from your favourite book. Sometimes it will help to see what makes the prose tick, how the sentences are put together. It can give you the feel for the voice, the pacing. It can be incredibly inspirational to connect with good writing so deeply.
Sometimes it’s just amazing to see such beautiful words spring from your fingers. The greatest writers in history only did what we do: put some letters in particular order. After you’ve filled some of that blank screen, your own words might flow.
3. Make a mess
Creativity is a tangled mess of a journey, and sometimes it’s good to go back to the beginning. Grab the best pen or pencil you have, get the loveliest paper, and make it not blank. If nothing comes to mind, just put a dot in the middle and draw a spiral from it. This focuses your mind and relaxes your hand in a specific way – in fact, a little doodling is a lot better rest while you’re pushing for the deadline than reaching for social media or looking at the TV. Observe the glide of colour on paper, try to recall that childlike joy in the very act of drawing and scribbling. Write anything, you characters’ names, random thoughts, anything that feels enjoyable to write and look at. The physicality of writing gets a little lost when we write on our computers, and it can be amazing to remember the smells, the sounds, the subtle depressions on paper, even the way our own handwriting looks when we’re not in a hurry.
Best of luck! Write, and be happy.