The Difference Between Procrastination and A Writing Block

Helen Cassidy Page
Jan 11, 2020 · 9 min read

Is your psyche trying to tell you something when you can’t put words on the page?

If self-flagelation would cure a writing block, I’d corner the market in whips and bats and retire on a warm beach with turquoise water and white sand.

Sadly, it isn’t that easy to beat a story out of a recalcitrant psyche. Else, what writer worth her delete key wouldn’t gladly suffer a few bruises and black eyes just to hit publish on a regular basis.

I always say I don’t suffer from writing block because I can come up with a few thousand well-chosen words on the subject of my choosing at any time or place.

They may be garbage words, but at least they’d fill a page. Proof that I don’t suffer from writing block. Right?

Well, almost.

It’s been ages since I’ve suffered from that terrifying, frozen state where I’ve stared at a blank page or screen and couldn’t will a noun or verb to the front of my brain, much less a simple declarative sentence.

In the early days, before I planted a flag on the territory known as “writer,” I could just walk away and say, that’s proof I don’t have what it takes. I’d go watch whatever the equivalent of cat videos was back then.

Once you set out to earn your living by your words and tell the world you’re a writer, giving up when the going gets tough is no longer an option.

Not when editors and deadlines loom.

So you figure out a workaround, or that’s what I apparently did.

Until last night when I had to eat a huge bowl of my words for dinner. Those labeled, “I don’t suffer from writing block.”

I had decided to try a different tack and write a new kind of story, at least for me.

I started off with a good opening. After two or three snappy paragraphs, I completely lost traction, and the piece spun out and ground to a halt. Literally, it left rubber all over my living room.

I could not think of another word if you’d put a winning lottery ticket in front of me and said it’s yours if you just finish your article.

Of course, I have strategies for those times I hit the wall. But that’s not the same as a block. I knew I just had to tease out the next part of my story, so I took a break.

Nothing.

I stretched, ate a sweet treat. Nada.

Read an inspirational affirmation, but by then, the jitters had started.

I was in deep water here, floundering on the edges of a panic attack.

My pulse started to race, and I couldn’t distract myself, as I can quite easily when I get bored or fatigued.

Anxiety has very specific symptoms, and they all knocked on my heart, my pulse, my stomach acid at the same time.

This miserable state of mind brought me back to my early days of my writing career, when I first got some notice and editors asked for some work to publish in newspapers and magazines.

I was great at pitching a story, but when it came down to actually writing for a deadline, my performance anxiety would take over. The voices in my head kept screaming, fraud. What makes you think you’re a writer?

Today, they call it imposter syndrome, and I paid my dues subduing that monster.

Of course, there are times I hear negative messages in my head. Our internal critics are always along for the ride, whether we’re writing, parenting, or running a marathon. We never get rid of it, we only get better at shutting it up so we can get on with the business at hand.

I’ve become a master at giving my critic the side-eye and finishing whatever I set out to write.

So what was up last night? Why the sweaty palms, the enormous doubts?

Dealing with my critic hasn’t been the only work of my life.

Life isn’t that easy, at least not for me. I’ve also had to get to know myself pretty well over the decades to reach a relative peace of mind. To do that, I’ve had to travel into the dark places that exist in all of us. For a good part of my early life, I lived with no awareness of the hold some dark events had on me.

But I forged ahead and discovered in time the liberation of bringing all parts of my life into the open, so I could learn to at least negotiate some peaceful co-existence with them.

During this process of self-discovery, I learned to recognize the signals when some dark piece of my life had control. They all added up to anxiety and feelings of panic, the symptoms that plagued me last night.

Finally, the cause became apparent. The new tack in the piece I was writing.

Some writers have a no-holds-barred approach to revealing their lives; some of us draw a line in the sand. I wrote recently that I’ve chosen not to reveal certain secrets, whether my own or others I’ve witnessed. Last night, I decided to take a dip in unfamiliar waters. I had a great idea for a story, but as it progressed, something inside of me recognized I was violating my pact with myself.

If I was getting messages that this subject wasn’t okay for me, I clearly ignored them. So my psyche took matters into her own hands and shut me down. Full stop. In mid-sentence. And then the punishment began. The anxiety, doubt about my abilities, the shortness of breath.

An old-timey panic attack, what many of you might know as a writer’s block.

Since I’ve been around the block with this stuff a time or two, it only took me until about midnight to realize the cause. I was violating my pledge to myself that, no matter how cleverly I disguised it, the subject I was writing about was taboo for me.

I had some soul-searching to do. How important was it for me to continue writing the article? My symptoms lasted until I decided I wouldn’t write it. Like magic, I was cured, and ideas for articles started flowing to the surface.

Boom, I had kicked my writing block to the curb.

But letting go of the subject matter didn’t end this episode. It struck me that what I had thought was immunity to writing block, was merely my way of skirting it. I just never wrote anything that got me into trouble with my writer’s conscience.

But letting go of the subject matter didn’t end this episode. It struck me that what I had thought was immunity to writing block, was merely my way of skirting it. I just never wrote anything that got me into trouble with my writer’s conscience.

I can write about topics that may be taboo for other people. When I revealed to a thirty-something neighbor that I’ve written about elderly people enjoying sex, I thought he would pass out on my living room floor.

I’m sure I’d get more reads if I wouldn’t include my age because some readers probably write me off as not relevant. But I’m proud of the fact that I can still feed myself at my age and put a few sentences together at the same time.

Same goes for writing about death and illness. I don’t shy away from those sticky subjects that frighten other writers and readers. Yet, I have my line in the sand. I don’t impose it on anyone else, and what territory lies behind my wall is not important, except to me.

I’ve written that the episodes in my life that I choose not to write about are no more sensational than anyone else’s. It’s just not my material.

The fact that my internal censor shut me down does not mean that I shouldn’t write about that subject. It just means my critic was on guard duty last night, in place, actually, since I decided my subject matter was off-limits.

Now that this episode has brought the issue of writing block into the open for me, and I realize I do have an “off” switch when it comes to certain topics, it’s up to me to decide if I want to keep it in place.

Perhaps loosening that restriction would be liberating for me. Perhaps, not. But at least I know there is a lock on my writing brain, and I have the key. That is better than an unconscious demon that ties me in psychological knots.

Let’s hear it for knowing thy self. The search never ends, but maybe that’s just me.

Now procrastination is another kettle of worms. Of which I am far too familiar.

Procrastination and organization appear to be at least in part genetic or an executive function of the brain. At any rate, my sister got all that good stuff. She was organized as all get out and never put off for ten minutes what she could have everybody doing right now!

“Rita! I’ll do the dishes as soon as I finish my dinner!!!!”

You get the picture.

Whereas, if I decide I have to polish the silver that’s been at the bottom of my cupboard for ten years before I can finish an article, that’s procrastination.

Part of my adult training has been overcoming this personality trait. I’m a whiz at meeting deadlines and lunch dates, but on my own, well, that silver can call to me if I’m bored, tired, or just don’t feel like putting in the work to meet my own goals.

I use all the tricks you read about, and they work. Do the hard things first. Break up a task into bite-size pieces. Or, just suck it up and do it.

But, for me, at least, procrastination isn’t a block in the sense that it prevents me from coming up with words. A spell of procrastination or a petulant whine on the order of, I don’t feel like it, happens now and then, sometimes more than I’d like. But I have ways of pushing through it rather than giving in to it.

A block acts as if it’s made of pig iron. Nothing gets through, until, as I described my battle last night, I figured out how to dismantle it.

Will I write that article I began last night? I have no idea. It certainly won’t change the world, whether I do or I don’t. The answer will only have importance to me.

My writing process is very different from yours. I pass this on because as writers, we have so many mountains to climb. If my insights help you with your challenges, I’m pleased beyond words. None of us write in a vacuum. We all learn from each other.

Writing block may be a different beast for you. But if you get stuck again, give some thought to whether you’re afraid of a loved one’s criticism. Or a rebuke from a person you fear. Or receiving rejection or trolling you can’t handle.

We knock our heads against the wall trying to come up with writing that won’t come, when it’s often deeper issues we have to address.

One thing I know for sure. If we want to write, nothing should stop us. No law says you or me cannot put any words we wish on paper, at least if we have the luxury of living in a free society.

You have as much right as I do to say whatever version of fuck off you like to the fist that is trying to strangle your voice. Stake a claim on the material you want to write, then learn your craft to write it as best you can. Know that the gremlins that tell you can’t, whether they live in your head or out in the world, don’t speak the truth just because they’re loud. Tell them thank you for sharing and get on with your writing.

When you’re my age you’ll regret the hours you wasted giving them air time. Life is short and this one belongs to you.

When I look at my writing process throughout the course of my life, that really is what my writing is about, the lessons I learn about me.

I’m an editor and writer on Medium with Top Writer status in several categories. I’m also an editor for the publication, Rogues Gallery. I’ve published 55 titles on Amazon and edit for private clients. If you’d like to hire me as your editor for fiction, non-fiction, or business writing, please contact me here. If you’d like to read more of my work on Medium, click here to sign up for my newsletter. I’ll make sure you don’t miss a word. Thank you for reading.

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