Writer’s block: it’s the monster under your bed, the little devil on your shoulder, and the cat stretched across your laptop, blocking the keyboard. Some people call it a myth, claim that it’s all in the writer’s head, or accuse the writer of using it as an excuse to be lazy. Is that all that writer’s block is? An illusion or a figment of our imaginations? An excuse?
General opinion is divided on this matter. Some people, such as the late Terry Pratchett (quoted above), very firmly believe that it does not exist. I vehemently disagree with them, both as a writer and a born-and-raised Californian. I know from personal experience that it’s not that simple. Yes, sometimes writers are looking for something to blame for their lack of productivity. That is often not the case. I’ve spent many days wanting to write, playing the scenes out in my head, but everything disappears as soon as I get to paper or a computer. Paralyzed.
Writer’s block comes in different forms for different writers. I’ve found that, overall, the blocks fall under three broad categories: external distraction, internal discouragement, and excuses. Every writer experiences each category at some point in their careers, usually multiple times.
No matter where your block originates, it can be conquered. There’s no way to eliminate it entirely–it’ll always creep back at the most inconvenient times–but writer’s block can be overcome. All you have to do is find the method that works for you, which will take time and experimentation. For now, here are some approaches for each category that you can wield against writer’s block:
I’ve heard writers say that they don’t need any special conditions to write. Noisy café, quiet park, secluded bedroom, it doesn’t matter. They will write when they want to write despite what’s around them. Many other writers say that the stars must align precisely or else they can’t get a word out. You may be somewhere between these two extremes.
No matter under what conditions you can normally write, at one point or another external stimuli will get the better of you and tear you from your craft. Maybe people are talking louder than normal or the show your partner’s turned the TV to is particularly intriguing. Maybe the neighbor dog (or, in my case, rooster) won’t shut up, hasn’t shut up for hours, and doesn’t seem likely to shut up in the near future. Perhaps the drip drip drip of that leaky faucet in the kitchen has gotten on your last nerves.
Whatever the reason, your environment is distracting you. Sometimes there’s a simple fix. You can leave the room or put on headphones. You can even politely (and I can’t emphasize that word enough) ask others in the room or your house to be quiet or spend the day elsewhere. They may not like it but if you explain the situation to them nicely, they’ll probably understand. You could also find somewhere else to write, if needed.
You can’t control everything around you. It’s possible that people won’t leave you alone or that your brain is conditioned to not work wherever you’re trying to write. Desperate times call for desperate measures. You may have to spend money to temporarily lease a small office. It’s a big step and something I would only suggest if nothing else works for you. At least at a private office you’re less likely to be distracted by a barking dog or the latest episode of How to Get Away with Murder.
We’re our own worst critics. While our inner critics may work to our advantage when editing, they are our worst enemies when writing. My writing freezes constantly because I start thinking that it’s not good enough, that no one will ever like it, that I’m a horrible writer, the list goes on and on. This train of thought leads to what I call “internal discouragement.” Unless you have an incredibly thick hide or an ego the size of a zeppelin, you’re going to experience such discouragement many times throughout your career.
This form of writer’s block is not so easy to resolve. We have to retrain our brains, silence the inner critic until we finish writing. I haven’t discovered a foolproof solution yet. If I had, I would probably be a successfully-published author by now.
I digress. The most effective coping mechanism I’ve come across thus far is to simply step away for a bit. I find that doing something to expend excess energy–taking a walk, yoga, playing with the dog–helps best. Much of my internal discouragement comes from misdirected energy. If I dispose of the extra energy, I am less critical of myself and can write with a sharper focus.
Taking a break from writing can do internal discouragement a load of good. You can do something fun to put yourself in a better mood. You can complete the chores you’ve let pile up. Pay the bills, cook dinner. Anything to get your mind off of the discouragement. When you get back to writing, the inner critic will be quiet enough to get some work done.
No one wants to admit that they’re making excuses. We often fool ourselves into believing our lies and talk ourselves into a writer’s block. There’s no reason to be ashamed. We all do it, even if we don’t realize it. In order to manage this form of writer’s block, we have to own up to the excuse and then we can address the source of the block.
After admitting that the writer’s block is an excuse, we have to ask what caused us to create this excuse in the first place. Are we doubting our abilities? The story? Are we being lazy? Are we tired? Have we become stale, bored by our surroundings and our inner worlds? Do we not want to continue with this story anymore? Once we discover the reason behind making the excuse, we can find a solution to the block.
Many of the reasons for the excuse point to the first and second categories of writer’s block. In that case, we can try the same solutions for the excuse writer’s block as we do for the others.
But what if we don’t want to write that story anymore? What if we’ve lost the thread that led us to it in the first place? Well then, it may be time to take a break from the project. Read. Watch TV. Knit. Go to the movies, spend time with your family, do the cleaning you’ve been putting off for the past few months. You can even start another story, essay, or poem, if you feel the inspiration for that. Just shelve this project for now. You can always dig it out again later, and maybe you’ll be ready to write it next time. Until then, walk away.
These are just a few approaches to conquering writer’s block. The more you explore the concept, the more solutions you’re going to find. The March/April issue of Writer’s Digest offers seven pages of suggestions. Finding prompts and tips for solving this problem is not the issue. Discovering why the block happened in the first place is the hard part. In order to find the method or methods that work for you, you have to identify the source of your block. Only then can you overcome it and return to the page.
What are your methods for dealing with writer’s block? Feel free to tell us all about them in the comments.