Breaking Through Writer's Block

You find yourself unable to write, perhaps for so long or with such force that you lose the faith that it will ever be possible to write again. Memories of trouble-free afternoons before the keyboard seem to be mere delusion; could you truly have ever been so absorbed, so in the flow? You might even envy your past self, certain that you'll never return to those halcyon days of blissful first drafts. To non-writers this sounds like a minor inconvenience, but to writers it can be almost traumatic, and can cause daily grief for days, or even years. This essay gives a brief overview of what writer's block is and isn't, why it happens, and what you might do about it. I go into some of this material in more detail in the chapter called "When You're Stuck" in The Writer's Survival Guide, as well as several other chapters that I refer to throughout this piece.

I. What The Symptoms Are, and Classic Causes

The main symptom of writer's block is, as you probably know firsthand, the inability to write. At times it might strike just as you're sitting down to launch into a new project. It might also rear its head at any stage of the revision process, from early tinkerings to late-stage polishing. Though writer's block might hold you in its grip so completely that it is ludicrous to imagine sitting down to a new project at all, much less wading into revision. No new ideas occur; there is nothing. But what brings such mental stagnation about? On occasion, it is caused by the material being too unwieldy, or too close to home. Or because your ambition exceeds your skill level. However, quite often writer's block is generated by a larger problem: when you attempt to think about writing, your thoughts divert, seemingly beyond your control, to other matters. You believe you want to write, and might even have a story idea in your head, or perhaps even outlined, but the very notion of writing triggers a detour into thoughts that make you squirm, or seethe, or otherwise digress into an entirely different focus. The six most common distracting thoughts that I've seen people wrestle with are:

1. What loved ones have told you they think about your writing. The concern here often involves the knowledge that they dislike and/or judge you and your work, and might not even think it worthy of your time. I've had students tell me many times that they really want to write, but can't get beyond the image of the boyfriend who dismisses their writing attempts, or the nun who ridiculed their poetry twenty years ago in grammar school, or the wife who insists they finish the book by January 1 so they can spend every day of the rest of their lives together without the nuisance of this futile hobby. This problem — indeed, all these problems — stem from an internalizing of others' opinions; the mind, rather than staying trained on the project at hand, gets derailed into thinking about those who wish to impose limitations. You don't want to prove them right, yet their obvious displeasure at you or your previous writing attempts looms so large you can't see beyond them.

2. What you think loved ones think about you. You spend so much effort trying to see yourself as they see you — and hence to guess at just how or even why they treat you a certain way, or, god forbid, appear to dislike or judge you — that you pay no attention to the matter of the story you'd wanted to write. This happens frequently if you have lost an important relationship and no longer have access to the former friend or lover. "How could they do that?" you might wonder. "What's wrong with me?" It is often a sign of unresolved shame about some incident involving that loved one, or the pain of suspecting that you are now seen in an ungenerous and perhaps unjustified way. There is generally a lot of anger associated with this problem, though sometimes it's so suppressed that it becomes evident only through the symptom of writer's block.

3. What professional contacts (editors, teachers, co-workers) think about your writing. If an editor has rejected your story, you might have tumbled into self-doubt along the lines of, "If he doesn't think I'm worth publishing, then I must be untalented!" If a teacher has urged you to revise a story, you might be resentful or disappointed that you need to put in more time. The very idea of writing becomes burdened by these relationships, even though they're not in the room during the writing itself, and are really only part of the writing process.

4. What you think professional contacts think of you. You might confuse the professional's reaction to your work with a reaction toward you as a person, and feel so crestfallen at the thought that someone doesn't like you that you sink into self-doubt. Or you might become so afraid of future rejection, or a teacher's critique yet to come, that you fear doing anything. Some might refer to this as a problem with codependence.

5. What you think about all your failures, possibly with writing, possibly with humanity. This can run the gamut from the sentence your writing group didn't like to the knowledge that you've had ten divorces and can't find a date. All you can think about is what you haven't done, or have done foolishly or poorly, and therefore what you'll never do well. The past stains the future, and obliterates any pleasure you might take in the present.

6. What you think about all your successes, and how you can't possibly match up again. You were simply a prodigy then, or very lucky, or somehow smarter. You keep thinking about how you managed to pull it off back then — or you keep agonizing over whether you should try to duplicate the same work so that you don't risk failing, even at the expense of taking no more pleasure in the writing process. This problem is commonly known as "sophomore slump," and it often afflicts people after a first finished story, or first published story, or first book.

II. What The Symptoms Are Not, and Likely Cures for These False Ailments

Before I go into what you can do about writer's block, it's important to review other maladies that can masquerade as block. Indeed, almost every other person who tells me he or she is blocked turns out, upon further examination, to be struggling with matters that aren't truly block. It's not that they lack the ability to write, but that is what they tell themselves. This denial of the real problem allows them to make no changes, and so they stay just where they are: not writing, and erroneously ascribing the problem to block. Here are the three most common reasons that people mistakenly grab onto the term "writer's block," along with what you can do about each.

1. You don't have time to write. Or so you tell yourself. You have immense family obligations, or friends who insist upon visiting, or social clubs that oppress you. You have two jobs. A car that breaks down. A new dog. You want to write, you really do, but there's just no time in the day. I go into remedies for the time issue in Chapter Four of The Writer's Survival Guide, "The Big (And Small) Logistics." But here I will summarize the three things that you can do, which are all intertwined.

A. Make the commitment to writing, just as you would make a commitment in marriage, or to something smaller, like brushing your teeth every day. Once you are committed, then it is less onerous to work out the time involved, because you know you have to do it. (I cover commitment in the first few chapters of the Writer's Survival Guide.)

B. Then use the techniques I discuss in the Writer's Survival Guide to set up your time — and, here's the most important part — commit to seven hours a week. Try to spread those hours out through the week. If seven is easy, increase to ten, or fourteen, or twenty-five. If seven is impossible, question how much of a commitment you really have. The creative, resourceful person can almost always find a way to put in that time, even if it means stopping other activities to do so.

C. This gets to the necessity of learning to say "No." If you are really committed, and truly plan to put in those seven hours a week, you will have to start saying "No." No, you can't go to lunch, or a party, or you can't vacuum the carpet as much as you used to. This is not easy to learn, but it's imperative, and all writers do it. Sometimes the No is said to others, but just as often it is said to ourselves: No, I won't sleep a full eight hours, no I won't indulge in a movie or drink or lengthy phone call or shopping trip. Learning to say No might seem like an odious task, but very soon you'll see how it can free you.

2. The second problem you might confuse with writer's block is: You don't have ideas. Maybe at one time you did, or maybe you see others who boil over with ideas on an hourly basis, but at this point, you simply can't come up with anything to write about. This can leave you feeling sad and empty, or just annoyed with yourself. I discuss this in more detail in Chapters Six and Seven in The Writer's Survival Guide, "Before The Draft" and "During The Draft." But here are two simple things you can do right now:

A. Observe externally. Look at the world around you, and record the stories and details that you see. Any one of them could trigger a new idea. It is best to do this with a journal in your hand, so you can actually write something down. Then let yourself take off from here. You can look at the people you live with, but familiarity might breed inertia, so consider going out for a twenty minute walk, or taking ten extra minutes in the grocery store, or sitting in the mall and watching. If leaving your house is difficult, then listen to different radio stations than you're accustomed to, or watch different television stations (without falling into the TV trance). Even looking or listening out the window can set off ideas.

B. Develop your thoughts. Again, using a journal, take more note of the stray thoughts you have during the day — and night. Some of my best ideas have come when I'm falling asleep, so I just haul myself awake and record them. Sometimes I'll have ideas when I'm reading the paper, or washing dishes, or doing physical exercise. Keep a writing tool handy at all times for these occasions. I have even given myself assignments: by the end of this twenty-minute drive, I'll have five new ideas. I also have a friend who reads books this way, writing copious notes as soon as she hits something that triggers thoughts about herself or life in general.

3. The third false positive for writer's block is the thought that you aren't well-read enough to be a writer. It is true that writers need to read widely and deeply, just as musicians need to listen to a lot of music. However, you can learn to write at the same time as you are becoming more well-read. Indeed, the flow of new books will never cease, and it could take a lifetime just to catch up on books you always wanted to read but still haven't gotten around to. Why not do what musicians do — and practice as you're exposing yourself to the work of others? Then as you read, you can implement the lessons you're observing, and get an increasingly better sense of what you need to be learning. There is a difference between reading for inspiration and example, and reading to hide from one's fears about the creative process. So what can you do about this? Go back to the tips I gave above. And if you really want to be methodical about it, then when you schedule yourself for your seven hours of writing a week, schedule an additional seven — of reading.

III. The Diagnosis and Treatment

Whether you have actual writer's block, or other factors interfering with your ability to sit down and write, the larger diagnosis almost always comes down to fear. Sometimes this is fear of what others think of you or your work, a fear which somehow looms larger than your own feelings about yourself or your work. Sometimes it is the fear that you can't become the great writer you'd always thought you could be, and so this fear causes you to imagine that you don't have the time or ideas, or aren't well-read. There are a number of steps you can take to work through this fear. I've broken these up into changing what you think, and changing what you do.

1. Changing What You Think:

A. Ask yourself: do you truly want to write, or do you want to have written? If the dream is really to have the writing done so you can bask in the presumed glory that would follow, then it might be worth considering a different, less lengthy path to glory. Virtually all of a writer's time is spent sitting alone in a room doing the actual writing; only a tiny fraction of a writer's time is spent on interview shows or at book signings. There are many myths surrounding the writing life, and one of the main ones is that writers just dash off their books in a few weeks, and then spend the next year being wined and dined and living off their fortune. If this happens at all (which I doubt), it is maybe to one person in two million. The reality is that "write" is a verb — you have to do it. If you don't want to do it, there are many easier ways to spend your time.

B. Ask yourself why it matters so much what others think of you. Yes, maybe the people with whom you're preoccupied are or were close to you, but that doesn't mean that their thoughts need to become yours. That is, you can have a sense of self that doesn't have to get shaken or disrupted by others. This is easiest to do if you're actually writing, thereby gaining competence on a daily basis, and hence building up your confidence about your ability to write — or accomplish whatever you set out to achieve.

2. Changing What You Do:

A. Write. Seven hours a week. The discipline itself will erode your fears, no matter what they are.

B. Work on eliminating your ego. See the section on Ego in Chapter Two of The Writer's Survival Guide, "The Big Emotions and States of Mind."

C. Be patient with yourself. See the section on Patience in Chapter Three of The Writer's Survival Guide, "The General Antidotes."

D. Set better boundaries between what others think of you and what you think of you. Again, see "The General Antidotes."

E. Work on your ability to concentrate on the task at hand. This might mean that you read up on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. It might mean you learn how to compartmentalize the different matters that concern you.

F. Try writing something else, something that's perhaps more fun, just to get yourself back into it.

G. Tell yourself you'll never show this piece to anyone. Then don't, until you feel more confident about it.

H. Tell yourself you'll write five versions of it, so you don't allow yourself to get stuck in one spot. You'll probably get so engrossed in the first version that you won't need to write the others, but this way you'll be freed up to consider doing so.

I. Go away for a day or a week. Plan to alter your schedule — and outlook — when you return. Then do. The fresh start is often very effective.

J. Take heart in the fact that, wherever you are, someone nearby is writing, too, and that person is sitting in a room alone, working, just as you are. Allow yourself to feel a part of something larger, a collective of individuals who are working away in solitude. With this thought, you'll never really be alone. All you need is to sit down and do it, and then you are part of the writing tribe.