The Real Reason You Suffer from Writer’s Block — and What to Do About It
It’s happening again.
You know the feeling.
You sit down to work on your book or short story, but when your fingers hit the keys, you realize you have nothing to say. Or you have things to say, but when you do, they come out flat and lifeless.
Your words taste like dust. Your muse has abandoned you.
This is too hard. Everything I write sucks. Why did I ever think I could do this?
And worst of all:
What if I can never write again?
You feel frustrated, inadequate, and afraid.
Some people say there’s no such thing as writer’s block, that it’s resistance or laziness, or some other name. But giving it another name doesn’t make it any less crippling if you have it.
When you look at that massive, daunting, metaphorical mountain between you and your words, it doesn’t help to tell yourself it isn’t there. But fortunately, there are ways to conquer your mountain. It begins with understanding why it’s there in the first place.
If you feel stuck, ask yourself if one of these is going on with you. Then follow the Block-busting plan that follows.
The Surprising Things Keeping You from Writing
There’s a hole in your heart
A friend whose mother had recently died said, “I don’t know why, but I just can’t seem to write lately.”
Grief is a powerful emotion. For some of us, writing is both a distraction from the pain and the catharsis we need to move past it. Others need all their energy just to get through the day.
Both are normal.
If you need time away from the page and can give yourself that, by all means do so. Then, after a few days or weeks, when you can begin to think about your story again, come back and write — whether it’s your magnum opus or an outpouring of emotion on the page.
But what if you’re on a deadline and don’t have the luxury of taking time away from your writing?
First, be patient with yourself. You wouldn’t browbeat a friend who had suffered a devastating loss. Treat yourself with the same compassion. Then follow the “Break the Block” program below.
You’re battling the black dog
Clinical depression can sap your energy and make it hard to force yourself to do much of anything, let alone write. If you have the symptoms of depression, the first thing you need to do is get help from a professional.
Some people are afraid that, if they get treatment for their depression, they’ll lose their creative spark. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s much easier to be creative when you’re physically and mentally healthy.
Then write. You’ll find some tips below for getting those words on the page.
Your voltage is low
Sharon McCrumb wrote her first novel while riding on the train to and from work each day. Stephen King wrote Carrie around his full-time job as a high school janitor. Octavia Butler got up at 2:00 AM to write before heading off to work each day.
We each have the same 24 hours each day. But some of us have more responsibilities than others, and not all of us start with same reserves. If you’re battling an illness, working multiple jobs, and taking care of your children or an ailing parent, chances are good you’re physically and mentally exhausted.
If you want to write, but you just don’t have the energy to do it, again, be kind to yourself. Arrange your schedule so you can get the amount of sleep you need. Eat healthful foods. Take a good supplement. Then figure out when you can squeeze in time to write. Because the truth is, you can never find time to write. You have to make it.
Consider taking a laptop or a pen and a spiral notebook everywhere you go. Got a fifteen-minute wait between appointments or a 10-minute wait at the doctor’s office? Pull out your notebook and write a few paragraphs. If you can, cluster appointments to give yourself a larger block of time before or after.
If you’d rather speak than write, you can record your story or essay during your morning commute and have it transcribed.
Slowly but surely, the pages will mount up.
This is where your brain may balk. Why should I bother? At this rate, it will take years to finish this project!
Guess what? Those years will pass, regardless. The only question is what you’ll have to show for them.
You’re a deer in the headlights
You’re afraid it won’t be good. Afraid people will laugh at you. Afraid you won’t find readers/an agent/a publisher. Afraid you’ll be published and get bad reviews. Or that you’ll be wildly successful and then your second book will be awful and you’ll be forever shamed.
The fear of not being good enough can be paralyzing.
But if you let those fears paralyze you, something even worse happens. You give up. And someday, you look back and regret the dream you let go without even trying to hold on.
Don’t let that happen to you. The blank page isn’t really as scary as you think. It’s just…clay.
Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
Think of your final, published book as your angel. If you were a sculptor, you would begin with a slab of marble, or a block of clay. Let’s go with clay. It’s soft and malleable, like words on a page. But as a writer, you don’t have the clay. You have to make it.
That’s all a first draft is.
You can find the angel in it later.
You made a wrong turn
Sometimes you’re struggling because you’ve boxed yourself into a corner or made a wrong decision in an earlier chapter.
Try this: Go get a pen and some paper. Pick a point in your story where you made a plotting decision. Ask yourself, “What if x had happened instead of y?”
Then just free write whatever comes to mind. Would it make the story better? Does it get you past the spot where you’re stuck?
No? Pick a different point in the story and ask what would have happened if that had happened differently.
Keep exploring “what ifs” and alternate threads until you stumble on the path that will unravel your knot.
You need to prime the pump
Nothing is easier than not writing. Thinking about writing, planning to write, researching your story — all those things feel like writing. But they’re not.
Once you’ve gotten out of the habit, it can be difficult to start again. Think of creativity as an underground spring with an old-fashioned hand-pump. Use it every day, and it easily pumps out clear, fresh water. But go without using it for a while, and what happens?
The pump resists. When it finally begins to move, nothing comes out. Then a sputter of rusty, brackish water.
Keep pumping, and before you know it, you’re getting a stream of cold, clean water.
It’s the same with your writing. You sit down at your computer and struggle and sweat and squeeze out words until your head aches, then look at your word count and realize you’ve increased your word count by a mere 100 words.
But you keep going, and after a few days, it’s not such a struggle. By the end of the second week, you’re regularly reaching a thousand.
You aren’t all in
It’s fun to think about writing, fun to have already written, but way less fun to actually write.
If you’d like to write but you don’t really want to write, there’s a pretty good chance your book will go unwritten. And that’s okay. Only you can decide if writing is something you’d like to do or something you want to do.
So, what’s the difference?
Well, let’s say I’d like to have a new car. I daydream about it. I might even look up makes and models on the internet and imagine which I’d like to have. If someone handed me the keys and a free-and-clear title to my dream car, I’d be thrilled to have it. But I’m not doing anything to make it happen.
Let’s say, though, that I really want a new car. Now what will I do?
I might start a savings account for it. Maybe I’ll give up my morning Starbucks and start taking a PB&J sandwich to work instead of eating out. Maybe I’ll sell some things I no longer need, or even some things I love — but not as much as I’m going to love that new car. Sooner or later, I’m going to get that car, because I really want it.
We dream about the things we’d like. We work for the things we want.
Still Stuck? Break the Block!
All that’s well and good, you say. I understand why I’m not writing.
Now, how do I fix it?
First, take care of your physical needs. Commit to giving your body the rest, water, and nutrition it needs.
Then follow the steps below.
Choose a writing goal you can achieve.
Pick a number that feels easy. Maybe 500 words. Maybe 200. Maybe a paragraph. Maybe a sentence.
Some writers prefer to make time goals rather than word count goals. An hour a day. Fifteen minutes. If you choose this method, you’re allowed to do only one of two things during your allotted time: write or stare at the blank screen.
Whichever option you choose, your goal should be small enough that when you dangle it in front of your muse and ask if she’s up to it, she looks up from playing Angry Birds and says, “Pshaw! I could do that with my eyes closed and both hands behind my back!!”
“Great,” you say. “Prove it.”
Make a regular appointment to meet that goal. A daily goal is best. If your schedule will absolutely not allow it, a weekly goal will work. Look at your calendar and pick the time or times when you are going to write.
Keep your appointment.
Your resistance won’t want you to. It will make all kinds of excuses why you can’t write just now or why tomorrow would be better. It will tell you you’re no good. It will tell you that nothing you write matters anyway.
“That’s okay,” you say. “It doesn’t have to be good. I’m just making clay.”
“It’s really ugly clay,” Resistance says. “I bet there isn’t even an angel in it.”
You force a smile. “It doesn’t matter. Right now, all I have to do is make it.”
And yes, you say it out loud if you have to. You say whatever it takes to get yourself in front of your notebook or your computer.
You say, Hemingway said the first draft of anything is shit. I don’t have to be better than Hemingway.
Or you say, What am I afraid will happen if I write this? How about I just write it first, and then worry about that later? I don’t have to show it to anyone if I don’t want to.
The words you write don’t have to be earth-shattering. Let’s say you made a very tiny goal: to write one sentence of your time travel mystery every day. You write, “Tom Binford thought the Middle Ages smelled worse than he’d expected.”
Now, that’s not a great sentence. There are lots of ways to make it better. And you will. Later. Right now, you stop and congratulate yourself. And really mean it. You met your goal! Huzzah!
Now ask yourself, “Do I want to keep going?”
If the answer is yes, write another sentence. Yes! You’re on a roll. Do you want to keep going?
Keep writing until the answer is no. Then stop. Take another moment to pat yourself on the back.
This is when Resistance may rear its ugly again. It may try to minimize your achievement. Don’t let it. Use your self-talk if you need to, whenever you need to.
Then confirm to yourself that you’ll be back to do it again tomorrow.
Keep showing up.
If you get stuck, try interviewing your main character. Ask, “What happened next? What did that feel like? What was she wearing? What did the other guy do?” Then write down what you come up with.
If you’re using a real setting, consider going there. Write down what you see, hear, taste, smell. Observe the people. Choose the best and most relevant details to include in your story.
Try writing longhand. Sometimes that’s enough to shut down your inner critic, as handwritten words feel less “serious,” and thus not worth your critic’s time.
Consider writing about the scene you want to write, rather than writing the scene itself. Chances are, you’ll find yourself caught up in the story and adding dialogue and description. Like this:
What if Jared gets to the office and one of the strippers from the office downstairs is waiting at his door? “I want to hire you,” she says. “Someone stole my monkey. No jokes. He’s a capuchin, and his name is Pete.” What does she look like? She was tall for a woman, just a few inches shorter than I am, with a wild mane of black hair and a double piercing in each ear. There are strands of silver in the black. What if she thinks a rival stole Pete? And maybe this rival has a boa constrictor, and the black-haired woman is afraid Pete is going to be snake food. I leaned back in my chair and said, “So, how would this snake lady have gotten your monkey?”
I’m shifting tenses. I’m inserting questions that will come out later. But I’m moving the story forward. Making the clay.
Remember, there’s nothing you can do that can’t be fixed.
When you’re regularly reaching your tiny goal, make it a little bigger. Just enough to be a challenge, but not so much you’ll be tempted to quit.
Take it one step at a time. It’s hard to write a book, but it’s not hard to write a sentence, and then one more. Then a page. Then a chapter.
If you stick it out, Resistance will heave a sigh and go away. Your brain will say, “Fine! You want words? Here are some stinkin’ words!”
Writer’s block can seem insurmountable when you’re at the foot of the mountain. But once you know the cause of your resistance, you can start to find the way back to your words.
Just take one step. Then another.
Next thing you know, you and your muse will be viewing the world from the summit.