Writer’s block is a lot like pain. And I don’t just mean that it hurts. But, like pain, block is a sign that something is wrong. That something needs changing or repair. The body has an amazing nervous system designed to (among other things) alert us if anything’s awry. If we couldn’t feel pain, then we wouldn’t know to take our hand off the hot stove, or keep off the throbbing ankle before we seriously injure ourselves. In the same way, writer’s block can often stop a writer in her tracks, forcing her to backtrack, reevaluate, or address issues she might not have realized she had, before resuming forward. And often, the writer – and her writing – emerge stronger and better for it.
I believe that writer’s block, like pain, appears in order to guide us. It lets us know something’s wrong so we can fix it. And if we look at our blocks closely enough, or from a different angle, they even contains gifts. You could say block is a blessing in disguise. In order to unpack its blessings, though, it’s important to first understand the reasons why we feel blocked. Then we can find the silver lining on the flip-side of each reason. Are you ready to open your gifts? Let’s do it!
Reason for Block #1: Obscurity
A new writer, or one who’s been struggling to find an audience for his or her work, may experience block because the endeavor suddenly seems futile. Hardly anyone’s reading, after all, so what does it matter? I’m an obscure author; why put myself through this process, taking time away from family, putting in so much effort just to produce something very few people might ever read? The gift of being an undiscovered (or yet-to-be-discovered) writer is freedom. You don’t have an established base yet, which means no pressure and no expectations. You don’t have to cater to anyone. You can write what you want, without fear of disappointing the fans. You can also experiment and work at your own pace. Freedom to say what you want, and to reinvent yourself as many times as you feel like, is the oxygen that inspiration requires to breathe. So rather than view your obscurity as a setback, embrace the freedom and joy it gives!
Reason for Block #2: Guilt
Many writers decide to procrastinate or come down with a case of bad block due to guilt. Am I being selfish and unproductive by spending all this time alone in my room, writing? What about my family? I should be doing the laundry, walking the dog, watching a movie with my spouse…and so on. Any of this sound familiar? These are all valid excuses not to write. But let me ask you: Do you ask yourself the same question when you go to the bathroom? How about when you shower, or take care of your hygiene? What about exercise? For writers, we need our work to stay sane. It even serves as therapy for some of us. Writing fills our souls and is a totally valid form of self-care. Look at your writing time as an important practice for your mental and emotional health, just like exercise is for your body. And when you’re in good health, then you are a better spouse/parent/person for your loved ones. To paraphrase Laraine Herring, author of On Being Stuck, write so that you have a full heart to give to others! It’s perhaps the least selfish thing you can do!
Reason for Block #3: Boredom
Experienced writers may get blocked because they’re simply bored. They’re in a rut, they’ve written it all before, and things are starting to feel redundant. No fun! The hidden gift in boredom is the realization of the need for growth. Congratulations! Boredom is a sign that you’ve graduated this stage of your writing journey and are on the cusp of something exciting and new. Take advantage of this opportunity to enhance and transform your craft!
Reason for Block #4: Fear of Criticism
Every writer is going to be criticized. Period. There’s just no way around it. If you hang around long enough, and especially if you publish, there’s going to be negative criticism and judgment from someone, somewhere. This fact paralyzes some writers. New writers may convince themselves that they will be the exception. Play the game, however, and you’ll quickly find there are no exceptions. Accepting this fact as a given will help soften the blow. While sometimes more painful than writer’s block itself, criticism can help point out where our writing needs improvement, and where we might need to be a bit more diligent or sensitive next time. And when it’s unhelpful? Consider Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, who says that the critic only criticizes that which he didn’t have the guts to do himself. Doreen Virtue in The Courage to be Creative adds that armchair critics sure spend a lot of time pointing out other artists’ flaws, and wouldn’t it perhaps be a better use of their time to go create their own art?
Reason for Block #5: Failure
Gift: Nowhere but Up!
One of my favorite movies my little boy watches is “Sing”. In it, the main character, a Koala named Buster Moon, says: “You know what’s great about hitting rock-bottom? There’s only one way left to go, and that’s up!” This is the great gift of failure! So, you wrote and finished a book, got it published, and…it bombed. Congratulations! You have officially broken through, and now there’s only one direction your career can go…up!
Think of it on the flip-side: What if you had an instant best seller? (There are a lot of instant best sellers to compete with, by the way.) Imagine writing your next manuscript with that kind of pressure and expectation hanging over your head. Your next releases might do well, but they also might never replicate the success of your first. You (and your publisher) may perpetually lament how it didn’t live up to your first success. Best selling author Elizabeth Gilbert discusses this phenomenon in her highly recommended TED Talk, “Success, failure, and the drive to keep creating“. See your failure, your bomb, your $0.35 royalty check, as a boon. The worst has happened, and you’re still alive. Hooray! Previously successful authors may never be able to replicate their own greatest success ever again. But you’re in a position where the slope can only curve upward…as long as you keep writing. That’s the only requirement. Don’t let one or two, or even twenty-five, failures block your flow. Keep creating, from the bottom up!
Reason for Block #6: Overwhelm
Sometimes we go as blank as the new doc on the screen. Especially if we’ve done this before, we know how steep the mountain we’re about to climb. The sheer overwhelm of the undertaking of writing a book is cause enough for some authors to take their notebooks and go home before even trying. It’s perhaps not the most PETA-friendly line, but as Johnny Andrews of Author Platform Rocket tells his clients: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” What he means is, patience is key. No one’s asking or expecting you to swallow a whole elephant. Learn to break off your work into chunks. Begin with one line. Then one paragraph. Then one scene. Then one more scene. One chapter. And the next. Take it one transition, one conversation, at a time. Nothing worthwhile is ever “fast and easy”. Honor the timing. Don’t set limits. Make a checklist if it helps. Don’t if it doesn’t. Either way, give yourself the gift of patience and take baby steps in the midst of overwhelm.
Reason for Block #7: Disappointment
This ties in with #5, but disappointment from a past outcome (or lack of outcome) can leave a writer feeling frustrated and resistant to starting – or continuing – anything new. I remember my 10th grade English teacher had a poster on the wall that said: “Success belongs to those who’ve tried and tried and tried, not those who’ve tried and tried and tired.” Every day, I’d read that poster and be confused, because I didn’t notice the very last word was different. My eyes just sort of glazed over and I thought maybe the poster was trying to say that there’s no formula to success; that, just like luck, it chooses its winners at random. Only when, one day, I read the last word correctly did I realize and finally understand the true message of the poster.
Don’t give up. Just because something didn’t work out once doesn’t mean you might as well quit. Hardly anyone succeeds on their first try, and sometimes when they do, it’s a fluke. The past does not define the future. Instead of dwelling on previous disappointments, focus on your optimism for the future. The past is known – we’ve been there, done that. But the future is unknown, a mystery yet to solve, a present to unwrap. Throw away yesterday’s junk and unwrap tomorrow’s promise!
Reason for Block #8: Performance Anxiety
New and established writers alike experience performance anxiety at one point or another. ‘Will my work be good enough? Can I pull this off? Will ‘they’ like it?’ (‘They’ might be editors, publishers, fans, even your parents.) Just like how criticism is inevitable, so is the fact that you just can’t – and won’t, and shouldn’t even try to – please everybody. So forget what you fear ‘they’ all might want or say, and reconnect with the heart, the source, of your writing itself. What’s the reason you started writing in the first place? What intrigues you? What do you really want to say? Everyone knows Joseph Campbell’s immortal advice to “Follow your bliss.” Writing clearly gives you bliss, or else you wouldn’t be a writer. But what, specifically, about it? What kind of writing, and about what topics? Find the answer, and hold onto that. That is the gem, the golden nugget, the core, right there. Give yourself permission to write for your bliss – whatever shape that takes – and not for ‘them’.
Reason for Block #9: Burnout
Sometimes we simply can’t write because we feel totally tapped or burned out. Nothing left to say? It might feel that way, but most likely, you just need to give your voice a rest. Don’t worry about losing momentum either, because even when you’re not writing, you’re still writing. You writers know what I mean! Do you find yourself daydreaming, or literally dreaming, about new story ideas? That’s still an integral part of the process. Dreaming, doodling, conjuring up thought bubbles and letting them pop…it’s all necessary and needed for your next project to gestate. Burnout simply means you’ve reached the incubation stage of the writing cycle. And what do we know about cycles? They repeat! Which means you’ll get back to the physical writing stage eventually. So, stop worrying about ‘doing’ (or not doing) at the moment. Babies aren’t born the day after they’re conceived and neither are books. Rather than see burnout as a block, see it as a signal that your next story needs to percolate and take root further, while you rest up in preparation to write it. And, just like the case of Archimedes in the bathtub, sometimes the best ideas spring forth when we’re relaxed or doing something else entirely.
Reason for Block #10: Impostor Syndrome
Wanna know a secret? I’ve been published since 2014, have two publishers, have written over a dozen novels…and I’ve *still* turned down speaking engagements because I didn’t feel “qualified” to stand up and lecture about being a writer. Whenever acquaintances mention my books, my stomach plunges and I pray for the subject to change immediately. “Oh, that? That’s just something I do for fun… I’m not, like, an actual author.” Except I am. I am an actual author. Even writing that last sentence makes me jumpy. Because I fear that, any second, someone’s gonna write in and call me out: “You’re not actually an author, and here are all the reasons why!” Logic doesn’t seem to combat the debilitating case of impostor syndrome that I know I share with countless other authors. I’ve written books. Edited them. Published them. Held them in my hands. Signed and sold them at conventions. So, why do I still not feel “legit” (whatever “legit” is supposed to “feel” like)?
Potterheads will recall the tavern scene in Harry in Harry Potter in the Order of the Phoenix, when the students solicit Harry to lead Dumbledore’s Army. As proof that he’s a natural-born leader for their group, they point out all the incredible feats he accomplished in his first four years at Hogwarts. Harry insists he’s not being modest but that, while it sounds amazing the way they’re all putting it, behind the scenes he had loads of help, no clue what he was doing, and a lot of dumb luck. Still, his classmates are convinced he’s special. Like Harry , you try to explain away your writing: it’s nothing more than a conglomeration of other books you’ve read, movies you’ve watched, places you’ve traveled, and people and events in your life. That you didn’t really “come up with” all that stuff, but rather made a pastiche, a collage, of your experiences to create something somewhat original. But if anyone looks closely enough, they’ll see the seams, the hairline cracks, catch the references, and mistake the homages as ripoffs.
Maybe you say you’re “only” self-published (as if that makes you any “less of” an author). Maybe your publishers are “only” small, independent, or university. Maybe you’re not even published, and you’re “just” a hobby writer.
Yet, the other person rebuts: “Well, I still could never write a book!”
Rather than give you a pep talk all about how you are legitimate, you are an author, and it’s time you own it, I’ll instead say this: See yourself as talented or don’t. Bask in others’ praise or deflect it. Believe you’re a phony or that you’re the real deal. Either requires a conscious decision. No one likes a big head. Neither does anyone like a person who can’t take a friggin’ compliment. There’s nothing wrong with humility. There’s also nothing wrong with admitting you’re gifted, and using your gifts for good. Impostor syndrome gives us the gift of choice. Which will we choose?
If you’ve been suffering writer’s block, my heart goes out to you. It does. I promise you will get past it, and I hope that this article was helpful in any small way. Identify the reasons holding you back, flip them over to see the gifts, and most importantly, by all means, write on!