On Writer’s Block

I don’t think there’s writer’s block, I just think you’re unable to enjoy the work that you’re doing. You can still write, it’s not like you forget the words or how to put a pencil to a piece of paper.” Jason Isbell.

Jason Isbell is one of my favorite current artists. I loved his work when he was in Drive-By Truckers, but have been particularly taken by his latest three albums Southeastern (2013), Something More than Free (2015), and The Nashville Sound (2017).

Part of what appeals to me about Isbell is how nakedly he grapples with not only life — most artists do that — but on the writing process itself. The quote above is from a great, hour-long interview with Isbell. You can access it at about :30 on this from YouTube. “You just aren’t having any fun anymore,” he tells the interviewer.

Those words ring true for me! Perhaps they do for you too.

I experienced this in spades this past spring as I wrote my dissertation. I remember one day early in the process when I was just flat-out STUCK. It triggered my fight or flight reflex, and for a fleeting moment that seemed to last forever, I thought to myself, “I can’t do this.”

Unlike Isbell, I don’t write lyrics. I don’t write fiction. Nonfiction is my “medium” (such as it is). Whether writing historical monographs, blogs posts, letters of recommendation, proposals, grant applications, or for social media, the fear and impact of so-called writer’s block is very real to me nonetheless.

And the only way through it is to write your way through it.

Soon after encountering Jason Isbell’s thoughts on writer’s block, three pieces came across the transom that addressed this. Since they hit so close to home, I thought I’d share them here.

First is this from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block.” (N.B.: As an editor, I did have to overlook the use of the numeral instead of the word “six.”) Rachel Toor writes that “getting stuck” is part of the process:

“What I know is that most writers experience these inevitable and awful periods, to differing degrees. So it’s not a question of whether you will get stuck but of what to do when it happens.”

One thing Toor highlights is something that was really beneficial to me, the process of percolating with your ideas. I did this on daily five-mile walks with my dogs.

Remember: Even when you’re not writing, your brain is still churning like a background app. It always feels like a gift when the ideas and the words start flowing again. It’s easy to forget how stuck you were. Life has returned to normal. We tend to take normal for granted and forget to count ourselves fortunate during good times.

You really should read Toor’s points in context. GO HERE for the rest of her sage counsel.

Next is this blog post from Joyce Kwon of the Tronvig Group, “On Rigor and Creative Block.” I took away lots of lessons from Kwon, but one really stood out: the importance of practicing, of honing your skills daily. She writes:

Instead of leaving creative challenges up to chance, rigor allows you to be as ready as you can be for the serendipitous, confident that your thousands of hours of preparation and the tools you have developed over time can deliver. It’s a combination of practicing technical skills and leaving room for free play to explore new ideas.

What does this look like in practice? Kwon shares:

I have recently started writing something, even if it’s only a sentence or two, every single day. I forgot a couple of times and had to start over but now that I’m on day 30, I’m intent on not breaking the chain and am hopeful that I’ll get to day 100 and day 1000. On some of the earlier days, I felt I didn’t have much to write about but now I’m accruing a backlog of topics because I’ve more ideas than days. This exercise flexes my creative muscles, making them stronger.

Ultimately, Kwon is developing a habit of mind. And practicing the art of creativity (writing or otherwise). Here’s her full post.

My last piece is from my colleague Stan Deaton of the Georgia Historical Society. Stan’s recently begun a “What I’m Reading Now” feature on his blog, and his latest is on Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott (1994).

I love how Stan begins:

“Writing,” someone once said, “is easy. Just sit down and wait for the blood to pour out of your forehead.” Mark Twain said that to write, all you had to do was cross out the wrong words. This is not unlike the fellow who carved birds out of a block of wood. All you need do, he advised, is carve away all the parts that don’t look like a bird.

Like Kwon, Lamott implores her readers to develop the discipline of writing. Stan likens it to the argument he’d already made about making the time to read. (You really should read what he has to say.)

Ultimately, he writes:

The daughter of a writer, [Lamott] de-mystifies the process and boils it down as best she can. Like finding time to read, there is no secret formula for writing. You just have to sit down and do it, day after day.

So what are my takeaways here, and the lessons that I learned in my own writing?

  1. There’s really no such thing as writer’s block. You still know how to write, you’re just not enjoying the process.
  2. Everyone (yes, everyone) gets stuck.
  3. The only way out of being stuck is to write your way through it.
  4. Even when you’re not actively writing, your brain is still working. Make time for that.
  5. Practice, practice, practice.

I’ve found, there really is no magic formula to this. If you write, or do anything creative, the only way forward is THROUGH.

Please share with me any thoughts you have on this topic, or others that strike your imagination. You can find me on Twitter, https://twitter.com/Lyndhurst_Group, or at http://lyndhurstgroup.org/contact-us.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.

ps: This past Wednesday, June 13, I successfully defended my dissertation, “You Wanna Play in My Band, You Better Come to Pick”: Duane Allman and American Music. This signature page for a 400p dissertation is proof.