Writer’s block is a nasty sickness that plagues writers of all ages and experience levels. But it doesn’t have to control your creative life. There is a way out and you don’t have to feel trapped. I hope this helps you move past this illness and finally write what you were meant to write.
What Writer’s Block Isn’t
Before I talk about writer’s block, it’s important to understand exactly what writer’s block isn’t. Misdiagnosis of Writer’s Block can lead to creative frustration and depression.
Writer’s block is not a mystical creative sickness. It’s often said that mechanics don’t get mechanic’s block or doctors don’t get doctor’s block. If we lived in a world where a mystical force could strike you useless for your particular job, humanity would have a hard time surviving. Don’t get trapped into thinking that writer’s block is something that’s out of your control. It’s a very treatable condition.
Writer’s block is not a dry creative well. Refilling your creative well is very important, but it’s not the same issue. A dry creative well is the result of working creatively and then getting to a point where you need to stop and rest. Or you feel like you don’t have any ideas. If you'd like to learn more about your creative well, I have an article on the topic, but don’t confuse the two.
Writer’s block is not a creative burnout. Creative burnout, similar to a dry creative well, occurs when your well dries, but you need a much longer time period to refill it. This happens when you work harder than your creative muscle can handle and you need time to heal. I also have an article for this issue, but again, don’t confuse this with writer’s block.
Defining Writer’s Block
Now that we know what writer’s block isn’t, we can talk about what writer’s block actually is. Writer’s block is a condition in which your creative self is in conflict with your logical self. Writer’s block is actually a form of creative block, but that term is not as widely passed around. Musicians can also run into the same issue. It’s really the same problem manifest in a different creative endeavor.
When writer’s block attacks, your logical self is trying to tell your creative self something profound or vice versa. This conflict is not apparent, but once we look at what causes this form of creative block, you’ll see what I mean. Understanding this conflict is the very beginning of learning something new about your creative process.
Symptoms of Writer’s Block
1. You stare at a blank page or a blinking cursor wondering why the words or story won’t come.
2. Your character is stuck and you can’t figure out how to get him out of the mess he’s in.
3. You feel like you’re not connecting properly with your story.
4. You feel guilty that you’re not writing your story, but you get bad feelings about the story every time you think about it.
5. You find yourself going out with friends instead of slaving away in a dark corner with your word processor.
What Causes Writer’s Block
1. You Haven’t Planned Enough
When most people describe writer’s block, they say something like: “I don’t know what to write.” Well, that’s a big problem. Obviously, if you don’t think the story idea through, you’re probably not going to write anything. And if you do write something, it might not be good.
2. Your Story Is Broken
Sometimes you’re having a hard time moving forward even when you know where you’re going. This might be because of a deeper problem. Your writer’s intuition might be telling you that your story is broken and moving forward feels wrong.
3. You’re In a Bad Mood
When you’re sick or stressed, your creativity can be strained. Life isn’t all good times. Your creativity can be spread thin by the stress of what’s going on in your life.
Healing Writer’s Block
1. Planning Ahead
Knowing where your story is going makes for a much easier trip. When you’re having the “I don’t know what to write” issue, it’s your logical self trying to tell your creative self to pick an end point.
Think about it: You’re far more likely to get to your destination on your next road trip if you know what location you’re going to.
If you’re having trouble with Writer’s Block, ask yourself: “Do I know how this all ends?” and “Do I know the emotional and event pathways this character needs to take in order to get to where he needs to be?” If your answer is no, you might need to look into answering them.
Not all of us heavily outline when we write. Some of us do very little or none at all. Maybe your personal balance of plotting and pantsing needs to be recalibrated. How much you plan ahead or follow your muse may need to change as you become more experienced. Try tweaking your method. You might be a die-hard pantser and you feel that changing that process might not be the best thing for you. But if you find that you’re suddenly stuck, you should at least know where the scene you’re writing needs to end. You can plan ahead that far without breaking your pantsing technique.
2. Find the Story Hole and Patch It
A broken story is hard for a new writer to identify. It takes a certain amount of knowledge to be able to understand when this is happening. If you’re dealing with a broken story, your logical self is trying to tell your creative self that your story doesn’t make sense. Or, it could be your creative self trying to tell your logical self that your story is too boring.
When your story is broken, you may not know how to identify the problem or how to fix it. This is why it’s very important to spend as much time as you can studying your craft. Doctors don’t get doctor’s block because they understand their job and have the tools and education needed to solve their problems. You need to acquire those tools and a proper education!
So get the education! Read your genre, read more of your genre and then read even more of it. Read outside of your genre. Watch films and go to stage plays. Consume and digest it. Process what’s going on. Learn to ask why you liked what you experienced and question what the creator did to make that experience real.
Get the tools you need! Read as many books on crafting stories as you possibly can. Create a naming convention (or learn someone else’s) for the elements of story so that you can label what each piece of a story actually is. Then learn how to reverse engineer what the stories you love are actually doing piece by piece. This tool-set, combined with your own personal experience, can help you identify the hole in your story and fix it.
You may also want to join a critique group and let more experienced writers read your work and let you know what’s wrong. Have a brainstorming session with them and see if you can become inspired to write something much better than your previous idea.
3. Keep writing forward (or take a break)
If you’re in a bad mood or life is really kicking your butt, you may feel like what you’re writing isn’t that good. You might think that you’re a talentless hack and that this project is going to be your demise as a creative. But what most writers don’t realize is that (unless you have a hard time channeling your story in this state) 90% of the time no one will be able to tell the difference. Your mood may not change your writing at all.
Your mood doesn’t change your skill level, but your mood CAN affect your ability to stay motivated or focused. If you’re a professional writer, taking a break won’t always be an option for you. If you have plans to become a professional writer, try to train yourself to avoid this option by continuing to write anyway.
Sometimes you’re in a poor mood because you feel like the work load is too heavy and you will never get to the end. This is a big problem for a lot of people. It’s hard to stare at an Everest of work and not feel paralyzed. You may feel like you can’t begin climbing or continue to climb. If this is you, please read my blog on 3 Goal Setting Methods That Will Keep You Motivated.
Sometimes you’re in a bad mood because your internal heckler is telling you that you’re a horrible writer and you need to give up. The internal heckler is the devil on your shoulder that whispers doubt into your ear.
He tells you that what you’re writing sucks and that no one in their right mind would read it. He says that if you just give it all up, your life will be better and more fulfilled. He tells you that you’ll never accomplish any of your goals and it’s best to just give up. He tells you that you’re a hack and someday everyone will see you for what you are: a wannabe.
This is a magnified version of your logical self telling your creative self that you’re not the writer you want to be. If you let that devil spiral out of control, you will lose your will to fight on and may fall victim to depression. Most creatives experience this, even great creatives. You need to learn the difference between this guy and when your story is actually broken.
Sometimes you’re in a bad mood because you’ve lost someone close to you or your kids are driving you crazy and you burnt dinner for the 4th day in a row. These things happen. You need to learn to put your bad mood behind you and keep working. Walmart doesn’t care that your neighbor is annoying, they just want you in on time and functioning like a professional. You need to be able to approach your writing the same way if your end goal is to be a professional.
But there are times when you should take a break from writing. There are some emotional states and conditions that deserve a break. When a close family member dies, it might be best to pause writing that day or longer because you need to process those heavy feelings. Learn who you are and how you handle life.
It could be that you have a very real condition that keeps your from writing. If you have a condition like this, please seek some professional help. There’s no shame in this just as there is no shame in going to a doctor for a viral infection. Do NOT ignore a serious condition like this.
Preventing Writer’s Block
I wish there was an easy button for this, but I don’t think there is one. Every creative mind is different. Therefore, the best way to prevent creative blockage is to know thyself. Pay very close attention to what inspires you to create, and what kick-starts your ideas. It may be movies or music. It could be people-watching or going for a jog. Some people just need to talk it out with someone else.
Be sure to keep absorbing other stories and ideas that others share. Keep reading books and articles about your craft. You never know when you will find that little nugget that will make your own creative process more effective.
One big thing to try is to make a creative routine. I used this method to get back into the habit of writing. Instead of trying to power through a story, I decided to write for very brief periods of time every day while using the same environmental triggers to spur creativity and train my brain to create when a certain set of triggers occur.
There is a downside to the method: you may have a hard time writing outside of your triggers. I experienced this problem, so I’ve learned to take away or vary my triggers so that I can slowly break free of the crutch while maintaining my creative momentum.
Write every day. Even if it means only 30 minutes a day, the habit insures that you’re exercising your creative mind consistently. Though some of us (myself included) have a very limited amount of time to write, writing every day for 30 minutes over a week’s time will do more for your creativity than writing one day for 3 hours and 30 minutes.
What About You?
I hope you found this helpful. If so, please share this blog with someone who might need it.
Have you experienced writer’s block?
How did you conquer it?
I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below and tell me what you think!