Considering what I’ve been going through the last few days, writer’s block is a really appropriate topic for me to cover right now. Tonight we’re going to define writer’s block, the various ways it can manifest, and one or two approaches for getting past it.
Is Writer’s Block Real?
I have at least one friend that will tell you that writer’s block isn’t real. When a journalist gets up in the morning and they have a deadline, or when a grad student has an assignment, they get to work. They don’t have the time or leisure to entertain writer’s block. By that argument, according to my friend, writer’s block doesn’t exist.
Other friends talk about writer’s block like it’s some kind of disease. Something they may or may not be able to treat. When asked how they’re doing on their manuscript, they might answer simply, “I have writer’s block” the way someone might say “I have pink-eye.”
Writers get blocked. I think it happens to fiction writers more than non-fiction, but it can happen to anybody. As a term, “writer’s block” might be loaded and misused the same way “kill your darlings” is sometimes misunderstood. When a writer is unable to produce, it is accurate to describe that condition as writer’s block. It is accurate, but not very helpful unless the reasons for the block are examined.
Why do Writer’s Get Blocked?
Fear can block a writer. Fear of failure, of success, of getting it wrong… fear can freeze a person like a possum playing dead. Fear is insidious, because it disguises as other emotions, and it can be subtle. Fear can keep us from submitting our work or sharing it with friends. It can also keep us from completing our work. If you never finish the story, you never have to submit it, right?
Uncertainty or ignorance can also keep a writer from being productive. You can be moving ahead with the story at full speed, then hit a wall. How will the character get out of this one? How do we span the gap between what I saw in my head and what is appearing on the page? What do I write to fill in this gap in the outline? Not knowing what’s next can make a writer hesitate. Fear of getting it wrong can keep the writer frozen, unable to take the next step forward.
External factors can also block a writer. Creating fiction, finding the right words and putting them in the correct order on the page takes time and energy. If the writer has a full time job, maybe working overtime, they might find some days they don’t have the energy at the end of the day to make the words happen. In a previous post, I said healthy writers having more stamina. This is one of the places where it helps. But even the most industrious writer runs out of steam eventually, especially if they’ve been pushing themselves hard for a long time.
There are many other reasons a writer can be blocked, but the last I’ll mention here is depression. Mental health impacts everything we do, and not just writing. Someone like me, a programmer and a writer, might find themselves in a predicament where they can’t product code or fiction. That failure to act compounds, adding extra internal barriers to productivity on all fronts.
What To Do About Writer’s Block
Before a writer can handle their writer’s block, they must determine the underlying cause. Writer’s block is a symptom of some other problem. The only way to treat the symptom is to address the underlying cause, which takes time and introspection.
If fear is blocking you, take some time to build up confidence. This could mean writing something else that’s light and fun. Or, it could mean sharing some of your writing with someone that’s supportive, that enjoys reading your work. Fear is tricky, but once seen, it disappears like a shadow at noon.
If the reason you can’t write is because you don’t know what comes next, take a step back and figure it out. Go for a walk and think about the story. Try expanding your outline. If you’re a discovery writer that eschews outlines, try making a tiny outline, just for this next part. Or, try some flow of consciousness free writing in a separate text editor. Free writing can often prime the pump and get things flowing again. It’s remarkable how effective it can be.
If you’re just exhausted or depressed, the best thing you can do is forgive yourself. Be honest and kind to yourself. Don’t push yourself into unhealthy behavior. If work is consuming all your time, then it’s not time to write.
Depression is common among all the writers I know. I don’t see any of my coworkers succumbing to it, but I see it in my writing communities all the time. Some very famous writers are open and clear about their mental health issues.
As a society, we need to get past the stigmas surrounding mental healthy issues. A wound in the brain is just as serious, or more so, than a wound in the flesh. It is unhealthy and painful to walk on a broke leg. It is equally unhealthy to ignore depression, something I’m guilty of all too often.
The last few days, I’ve struggled. I’ve been blocked. It hasn’t impacted my ability to write these essays, but it has kept me from making meaningful progress on Synthetic Dreams.
Why am I blocked? It’s a bit of everything I just described. I thought it was just a funk, a bit of depression keeping me from moving forward. A couple of nights ago, I figured out that I was trying to make a scene work that could never work, because it didn’t line up with my notes. The main characters went some place looking for a connection that didn’t exist, and I kept trying to will the connection into being. Ignorance of what comes next stopped my forward progress.
Then there’s the pressures from work, the constant fear of failure… I show up every night, open Scrivener, put the words in front of me and my hands on the keyboard… and I can’t make the words materialize.
It’s easy to just describe this as writer’s block, but that does nothing to address the underlying problems. I figured out what I was doing wrong with the scene and correct that problem. I’ve written some more notes, expanding that part of my outline that looked murky. Now I just need to move forward.
When next I try to work on Synthetic Dreams, I need to go with care. I haven’t been able to program at work, either, which is a sign that it’s not just writer’s block. I’ve got other issues to contend with, so I need to remember to be gentle and kind with myself, and not try to push too hard.
At the same time, I do need to continue showing up and being ready to do the work, because that is also a form of kindness to myself. To succumb to “I have writer’s block” and let that be the excuse why my novel is unfinished… I know how unhappy that will make me. So I’m not going to do that.