How To Overcome Writer’s Block
Once more, with love
Stuck, paralyzed, unsure, bored, frustrated, angry.
We want to keep writing but, for whatever reason, we “can’t.”
I know a lot of writer’s think it’s about “motivation,” or “inspiration,” but it’s not. Not deep down. We’ll get to that.
But first I want to hit on the real issue with writer’s block. I want to talk about the deep and authentic actual cause, before I feed you some quick fixes that won’t actually work without understanding the real reasons.
Step I: Develop the right mindset
Get your head straight.
I recently watched a Youtube video by physical trainer Max Posternak of Gravity Transformation, who said:
“99% of the battle is in your mind.”
He was of course talking about fitness, and on the surface it may seem like that has nothing to do with writing, but on a deeper and more real level, it has a lot to do with it, because we’re both talking about human nature.
No amount of “process” or “inspiration” can ever overcome the wrong mindset — in the same sense that no fitness plan can compete with an overarching lack of responsibility and commitment.
This is why I — and many writers — say “there is no process.” Because when you get your head straight, it works itself out and becomes clear.
GET IN TUNE WITH YOURSELF AND YOUR BODY
I know — this section is about “getting your head straight,” but when I say that, I mean the full mind-body experience.
Here, I mean mindfulness. Meditation. Sitting with yourself, becoming aware of yourself, finding that you are not fully breathing, that you are rushing, that you are hiding, that you are feeling whatever it is you are feeling (and we feel a lot.)
Develop awareness of your body; a sense of self. Presence.
There are two reasons for this:
1. If you are dodging your writing, something is wrong.
As Heidi Priebe wrote,
“99% of the time when a piece of writing or creating or whatever is not working for me, it’s because I’m not telling the truth… Whenever I’m really f*cking stumped on something, I just sit back and look at it and ask myself ‘what is the truth’ and then that’s what I create. Everything else is a waste of time.”
Getting back in touch with yourself will answer this for you. You are hurt somewhere, or hiding something, or hungry for something you’re denying. If you don’t know what or where it is, sit with yourself. Listen. Be tender, be patient, and be still. Your subconscious will tell you.
It took me years to figure out meditation, but the first time I finally got serious about it, I sat for 30 minutes straight, comfortable and immersed, and when I came away I realized inner feelings I didn’t even know I had.
2. The most beautiful and strongest reward system for anything, including writing, is intrinsic.
And if you’re silencing and suppressing your own head and heart and body, you will never enjoy this benefit. You’ll always approach the writing from a dark place, a place of love-hate, anxiety, fear — rather than love and play and wonder.
And in line with this:
VALUE YOURSELF AND YOUR OWN VOICE
I’ve been writing since I was old enough to know how, but it wasn’t until the last year and a half that anybody really “cared” about my writing. (I had a blog with like 8 followers throughout my 20s, and I didn’t join medium until my 30s. Many writers, including John Gorman, have very similar stories.)
You will get “haters.” Even if you have like 12 followers and write seemingly innocent pieces about some small town Texas, you will get haters. I do — all the time. It doesn’t stop me from doing me, because that’s all I’ve ever done.
Don’t value some stranger’s opinion on the internet above your own, especially regarding your work. Value yourself, and your own voice.
Just remember who you write for, and remember that it’s you.
Max Posternak says a ton of awesome things about this in his video, and regarding anyone who feels “too lazy” to adopt or maintain a fitness routine, he says,
“It all starts with your mental disposition… You have to take responsibility... Nobody will take responsibility for you… Nobody can make the decision for you… You have to take full responsibility…
Every time you stop, no matter what reason you come up with, you are refusing to take responsibility. And then you fall down this slippery slope and make it harder and harder to take that responsibility.”
And as Tim Grover, physical trainer to many professional athletes including Kobe and Michael Jordan, put it,
“Unsuccessful people make excuses.”
Successful people reclaim their ownership.
REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE IN CONTROL
Every time that you make an excuse regarding your writing — whether it’s because you don’t have “an idea,” or “inspiration,” or “motivation,” or “willpower,” or even “time;” whatever your word of choice is — you strip yourself of your own innate agency and power.
Every time you make an excuse, you hand your control over to the universe and deliberately keep your fate out of your own hands, pushing yourself down.
But as Posternak said,
“You are in control. You have a choice.”
You can choose to reclaim your agency. It’s already yours.
It’s not about “inspiration” or “motivation” or “willpower.” Thinking that anybody’s success was built on any of these is a total fallacy, and anybody who’s achieved anything of note got there by doing it, not waiting on inspiration to “save” them.
It’s about building the pathways.
As Posternak said,
“Every time you say ‘screw this’… it makes it that much easier to say no again in the future. Likewise, every time you force yourself… when you don’t feel like it, it makes it easier the next time. Your motivation snowballs, and is very much under the influence of momentum… if you stay disciplined and push yourself through that pain, you’re wiring your brain to will your way through future obstacles.”
If you’re thinking,
“This doesn’t sound like fun.”
Then you are correct. It doesn’t. Few people think it does. Even if it’s fun sometimes, it’s not fun all the time. It’s work.
If you want your writing to always feel only fun and inspired and passionate and pretty, that’s totally fine! Just keep it as a hobby. Don’t try to make a living off of it. Because every job comes with a “shit sandwich,” and everyone got there by eating theirs.
No professional athlete likes the hours of practice. None of them. But as Tim Grover put it,
“You don’t have to love the work. You just have to be insatiable for the results.”
ACCEPT THAT YOU WILL HAVE TO DO THE WORK
— even when you don’t “feel like” doing the work.
I always like to quote Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, here. In her TED talk on “creative genius,” she said, of her “process:”
“I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.”
Best-selling memoirist Mary Karr said,
“I’m not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.”
And as Scott Berkun wrote, regarding his “process:”
“I start with the first word of the first sentence and then write the second word. I continue with words until the sentence is done and then I move on to the next sentence…I don’t think there is anything magical in any writer’s process. You have to do the work and as you do the work you figure out which process works best for you.”
Just do the work.
Which brings us to:
Step 2: WRITE.
“Wait a minute! Where’s the fix for writer’s block you promised!!?”
If you’re thinking that, I understand. I hear you. And I’ll get to that.
But first it’s important to emphasize what I (and most writers) will tell you: If you were to ask for a single word on success in writing, it is: write. This is the biggest “fix” for “writer’s block.”
If you are physically unable to put words down on paper, then seek help. Otherwise, this is bullshit.
And if you say it’s emotional or something similar, then re-read Step 1.
We can always put words down.
That’s not to say that I haven’t dodged writing, procrastinating from a more general standpoint (especially when it came to high school and college essays, the latter of which were larger written from 3–6 am on the morning they were due), because — lol — I definitely have.
But a lot of that is fixed by what I mentioned above. And the rest of it — the writing — is fixed by writing.
So here’s how to do it:
HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY!
I’ve written about this before, so I’ll just be brief here when I mention:
I have no idea what people are talking about when they ask where I get my “ideas” or “inspiration.”
Look: you either have something to say, or you don’t.
“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
“So you want to be a writer. If it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything, don’t do it… if you have to sit for hours…searching for words, don’t do it.” — Charles Bukowski
“It’s no accident that bad writers also have nothing to say. Having something to say seems to inspire people.”— Robert McKee
“There are two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. While the one have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, the others want money.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
And sure, there are probably people out there who, for whatever reason, literally just sit down and say, “ah yes, I think I shall be a writer now.” But if that’s your preferred journey, then you’ll have to ask them how this works.
SCRATCH YOUR OWN ITCH
This ties back up to “value your own voice.”
Don’t write for everyone— write for you. Keep it simple in that sense. It’ll be far better that way.
DON’T HOLD YOURSELF TO SAYING IT PERFECTLY
There are always edits. There are always imperfections. Always. I don’t think I could point to a single essay that I consider “perfect.” Many writers are outright horrified by their earlier work. It’s completely normal. So calm down. The reality is: people don’t care. Nobody (except an editor, and it’s their job) is combing your piece for perfection. That’s not why readers read (and if they are, they seriously should be getting paid for it.)
People read to feel something. To connect. To share. To feel human. And to feel human, they don’t need to read perfection. They just need to read you.
Whatever is in your head is nothing more than hypothetical and nonexistent. And just like in improv and life overall, if you aren’t jumping in, you aren’t playing.
In software, we call this “iteration” (or “continuous deployment”), not that that matters to you, but my point is: this is true everywhere. Don’t just sit on something — ship it and keep moving. Because doing so means improvement, feedback, and freeing up “writing baggage.”
“OKAY! JUST GIVE ME INSPIRATION!”
As promised, I will deliver on this.
But PLEASE note that if you blew through everything above and came straight to this, or if you think that this will resolve all of your problems, I am here to tell you: it will not.
What I’m sharing below is like me saying “I prefer green apples over red ones” when asked about my diet, as though the color of apples is more important than the fact that “I care about my body, staying healthy, and I’m committed and responsible to staying shape.”
And the point is this: if you figure out the first part, and get your head straight, it won’t matter what kind of apple I (or anybody else) eats, because what kind of apple works for you will become apparent.
But. That being said, here we go:
Problem 1: “I don’t know what to write”
Here. I will share some of the things I use when I want some “rich color.”
I’m not messing with you. Nobody is messing with you. This is truly it.
In improv, you are encouraged to say something, anything, even if it’s total crap and terrible and not funny, because moving is always better than not moving, and sometimes, like actual crap, you just need to move through things. So write about not being able to write. Plenty of writers do.
This isn’t my favorite route — at least, not on its own — and when my agent first encouraged to me to write more personal essays about things like my childhood, I flailed and claimed I couldn’t possibly.
The big problem for me is this: I don’t dwell. I move on. So this also means: my memory isn’t great.
That being said, I’ve written some pieces I really love about things that happened 6–18 months earlier, and that’s a timeframe I can handle. Find one that works for you.
I know this is the basics of writing, and again, this one really baffles me, because I always have like a million things on my mind, so the concept of “ideas” isn’t too hard. But if you’re just stuck, then write out something future-looking, or fantasy-based. Create.
READ SOMETHING—BUT MAKE IT SOMETHING GOOD!
I know a lot of writers say “read a lot!” or “if you can’t write, read,” and that’s true. But when it comes to the issue and goal of inspiration, quality matters A LOT. I will feel nothing but restless and antsy if I try to “read instead of write” with a crappy book I don’t enjoy. But if I read a good one, it all but lights me up.
I always mark up the margins in books when I read. But I know a book is really doing its job when I am so lit up and on fire that I have to put the book down and rush to paper to get something onto it stat.
These are very precious feelings! Use them! And then remember which books inspire which feelings, thoughts, etc, and come back to them. In many cases, I can come back to good books time and time and time again and still wring more from their pages.
Here are a few books that inspired me to stop mid-chapter and write in 2018:
- “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman
- “So Sad Today” by Melissa Broder
- “We Are Never Meeting In Real Life” by Samantha Irby
- “Naked, Drunk and Writing” by Adair Lara
You probably have your own. Mine aren’t the secret. The secret is whatever makes you leap and lunge and lit up. Use it. Come back to it. It’s yours.
CONSUME OTHER TYPES OF CREATIVE WORK
I looooove this “fix” when I’m feeling “stale.” I shamelessly indulge in other people’s material — songs, films, stories, etc. — to feel something.
I’m partial to the emotion of sadness (especially heartbreak, and especially the romantic kind, but, shit, even “the sad scene” in Fox and The Hound will do. Two notes in and I’m already crying almost every time.)
Similarly, I have a short-list of music — a mental repertoire — that I know will inspire feelings or head spaces, and I’ll go back to it time and time again. You may be different, but I find that my media input doesn’t need to be “new;” what I put out still will be. Favorites for this purpose specifically this year include: Whilk & Misky, Milky Chance, Tep No, Until The Ribbon Breaks, Oh Wonder, Angus and Julia Stone, ambient chill (I’ve been using this mix for four years, and the entire Ambient Youtube channel is amazing.)
And, like Ryan Holiday, I will shamelessly play one song on repeat to really nail and stick with that feeling. If this works for you too, keep a list — mental or written — of what you like.
If it doesn’t, use whatever does.
I should credit Julia Cameron with this, because she did a great job of outlining this concept in “The Writer’s Way.” In short: creatives need input, not just output. We have to experience things. So periodically, get out of the house. (She calls it a “date,” and that’s fine. Whatever works.) But go do something. And then be present. Absorb what’s going on — don’t sit there and write; now’s not the time. Just absorb, collect, wallow, indulge.
Problem 2: “I just can’t make myself do it.”
Fam. I love you, but this is a farce. If you felt it strongly enough, you wouldn’t not be able to. Your problem is addressed in Step 1. I encourage you to reread.
Writer’s block is in us
It’s always in us.
And that means we — not anything else — have the solution.
That’s not to say that we should beat ourselves up over it, feeling shame and guilt and anger — that’s not healthy. What I’m saying is to approach it from a feeling of empowerment and excitement; energy and love.
Get that, and the rest will come.
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