Here’s an interesting article on writer’s block, written by Chuck Wendig, first posted on his blog at terribleminds.com. It’s a bit long (I personally think several of the categories can be clumped together), but also quite insightful, with thoughtful analysis of the common causes of writer’s block as well as excellent suggestions to keep you moving forward. It’s a great read, but also be warned – there’s quite a bit of bad language.
WRITER’S BLOCK MIGHT BE:
I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore than I believe in, say, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, or a UFO-load of butt-probing, almond-eyed, macrocephalic aliens.
That said, I believe that when people see those things, they’re usually seeing something. Bigfoot might be a bear, or a loose chimpanzee, or my Uncle Dave. The monster at Loch Ness is probably a log or a sunken vessel. Those aliens are probably your old college buddies pulling a prank on you, or maybe a hallucination from when you ate that really old lunchmeat and assured your family, “No, no, it’s fine, it’s supposed to be slimy and move of its own volition across the counter.”
And so it is with writer’s block. I do not believe in writer’s block.
But I do believe that all kinds of people get blocked about all kinds of things.
Writer’s block is a thing in name only. And we give it power by naming it. Worse, we give our own power away when we fail to see it for what it really is. See, writer’s block manifests in a number of ways, and it’s very important to understand the root cause of the mental and emotional obstacle that feels like it’s preventing you (because it’s not really preventing you, unless your version of Writer’s Block is some big dude who sits on your hands so you can’t type — once again I must apologize for my Uncle Dave). The notion of writer’s block has a vibe of doomed romanceand starving artist to it, suggesting that we all share this common experience of being held off from our own gracious poetry. Writer’s block must mean I’m a real writer! Horseshit. It ain’t romantic. It isn’t your doom. Get shut of that idea post-haste.
So. If writer’s block isn’t writer’s block, just what the fuzzy, fizzling fuck is it?
…LACK OF CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF
Problem: You don’t believe in yourself or your ability to do this work well. Your vision of the work in your head fails to match the execution on the page. I used to watch my aunt paint watercolor and think, “YEAH SHIT BRO I CAN DO THAT,” then I’d try and it would look like I splashed gray garbage water on a once-nice piece of paper. And so I gave up because of the unrealistic expectation that I held for myself. We are frequently holding ourselves to unrealistic expectations and that fucks us up. The pressure builds a wall between us and the work.
Solution: Care less. Calm down. You’re not curing cancer. Enjoy your ability to suck. Realize we all suck when we begin (and often throughout). Recognize that sucking during a first draft means that later you can come up behind your own shitty manuscript like a motherfucking editorial ninja and snap its neck and then use its blood to redline the work to make it better. Very few people are awesome the first time they try something, anything, and yet we’re trained to believe that writing is easy. “Just write,” people offer as their reductive writing advice, which makes this sound as easy as taking your first steps as an infant — and maybe it is, but also remember the infant only managed six first steps before taking a header into the dog’s waterbowl. The way through this block is to write. Write through your lack of confidence and write through your limited ability. Writing through the suck is how you get better at it.
…DOUBT IN WHAT YOU’RE WRITING
Problem: This thing you’re working on just ain’t working. It’s not writer’s block. It’s the material. Something wonky is hiding in the various gears and dongles of your wordsmithy. You halt because you instinctively recognize that you’re charging forth into an uncertain reality, as if you went back in time and stepped on a butterfly and now you’re back and something feels wrongand you can’t tell what it is (hint: Hitler is president and we all have two butts).
Solution: A few ways to go here. First, say “fuck it,” keep writing. Act like nothing is wrong. Persevere and write through it and eventually the solution may present itself. Or: stop writing forward and start looking backward. Flip through and see if you went wrong somewhere, if there’s some moment in the story where you feel like you took it in a wrong direction, or see if you can spot a plot-hole whose heretofore-unseen absence of logic has been haunting you like a gibbering ghost rising from past pages. Or: take a good long long at the story. Is this really the story you wanted to tell? Is this your heart, minced into narrative, or is this the story someone else wants you to tell? Sometimes writing to a market or to another person’s expectations feels unnatural, like we’re wearing someone else’s underwear. It’s halting, jarring, unpleasant — and it can lead to creative blockage. Here, I’m afraid the solution is to go and write the thing you really want to write. The thing that speaks to your storytelling soul. The thing that is your blood on the page.
…UNCERTAINTY ABOUT WHERE THE STORY IS GOING
Problem: You’re running around like a car-struck squirrel, tail pinned to the asphalt, little scrabbly-paws carrying in you in endless circles. You’re lost. Lost in the story same way old people get lost on the Internet. (“AM I HOME YET.” “No, Grandpa, you’re on Tumblr watching animated GIFs of Castiel from Supernatural.”) So your mind protects you by doing what it knows best: sheltering in place. It tells you to hunker down. Help will come. Hang out here for a while where no words are being written. Feels like writer’s block, but what it really ends up being is your inability to move forward due to dire uncertainty in the tale at hand.
Solution: Some people are into this kind of mystery. They like putting on a blindfold and barreling through an eventide forest just to see what’ll happen. They like writing without any sense at all of what’s happening. You might not be that person. You maybe think you are, but you might be like me, instead: a pantser by heart, a plotter by necessity. I can be paralyzed by not knowing where to go next, which is why I prep ahead. And during. And after a draft. And that, there, is your solution. Plan! Prep! Draw a fucking map before you leave your house. Outline before you begin, or outline during the writing, or outline retroactively to see where you went and how you’ll do differently on the next draft. If you feel like you’re in the dark with a broken flashlight, then plot out your steps. Many authors gain confidence by knowing that there is still a story ahead of them and that they haven’t just written themselves into a brick wall.
…FEAR OF FAILURE
Problem: You have already designed your failure. It exists as a hilarious Rube Goldbergian blueprint inside your mind — the orchestration and execution of your ultimate stupidity. This mechanism clicks and whirs and in its robot voice reminds: They’re all gonna laugh at you. They’re gonna dump pig blood on you at the Prom. You fool. You hilariously deluded fool. Fear is a powerful thing, especially fear of failure. We fail at things in life and particularly as a kid and the world is not always kind to failure, is it? People do laugh. Or mock. Or teachers give us a bad grade. Or parents chide us and yell at us to do better. And we learn from this that doing better is only an act driven by the need to not be punished when really it needs to be driven by our own love of of seeing improvement and our desire to manifest what it is we really want to accomplish. When it comes to writing the problem with failure is that it’s internally-driven. Nobody’s going to give us a grade and so we have no metric. The only one punishing ourselves is us, and we are the cruelest judges and most shame-inducing critics — perhaps as a way to undercut our own future failures, to pre-punish for our as-yet-unseen rejections. In this way, we allow fear of failure to creep in the door. And by opening that door, we become our own worst enemies. Our fear stops us cold.
Solution: Psst. Psst. Failure is fucking amazing. Failure is an opportunity: to try, to learn, to do it all over again with a greater sense of awareness and confidence. Rejection is a beautiful thing because rejection is scar tissue formed in battle. Rejection is proof you’re fighting and not just sitting around with your nose up your own ass. Failure is armor: every time you fail you build a new layer of chitin to protect yourself the next time. Learn to love failure. Fail as many times as it takes to succeed. Writing is a job with as many chances as you need; our books live in a Groundhog Day reiterative existence where we can redraft and redraft as many times as we need to (outside the external pressures of deadlines and the like). Success is just the tip of a mountain — the highest peak built on a bedrock of failure. Failure is essential. Quash the fear. Write till its right.
…FEAR OF SUCCESS
Problem: Oh, fear, you tricksy fucker. Fear of success? Is that a thing? You bet your sweet cocaine-dusted nipples it is. We can fear various aspects of success: we might fear that success will up the stakes too high and we won’t be able to live up; we might fear that our success won’t be enough or won’t be something we can repeat; we might be secretly certain that we don’t deservesuccess. It’s easier to just stop where you are. Success is scary. It levels up your game and comes with a whole new host of pressures. And that can freeze us out of our own writing.
Solution: Relax. Stop thinking about success as external. Don’t worry about validation from anyone but yourself. Set a metric for success that includes you, and only you. Stop worry about things you can’t control and set your meter to include only those things you can control. Realize that a writing career — hell, a single writing day — is a thing with many peaks and valleys. Do you deserve success? Who gives a shit? If you get it, assume you worked for it and that you deserve it. Anything else is whispers from a demon. (And, that demon might be named “depression” — more on that pecking, thieving magpie-of-doom in a few minutes.)
Problem: You flared up and burned out and now you’re naught but a crispy charcoal briquette. Your internal creative space looks like what’s left after a house-fire. You’re tired. Exhausted, even.
Solution: Jeez, take a break. Step away from the story or I’ll Taser you right in the naughty bits. Go reward yourself for working so hard. Have some ice cream. Go for a walk. Build a Lamborghini from the bones of your enemies. Don’t go away from your story for too long. A few hours. A day or two or three. We spend a ton of IEP (Intellectual Energy Points) on our work and our life, so go, recharge, let your creative juices once more pickle your headcheese. Then get back to work with fresh eyes. Bring coffee. Because coffee.
…OTHER PEOPLE GETTING IN YOUR HEAD
Problem: People can be poison. This is not true of everybody, but most writers know folks whose sole purpose seems to be quietly stabbing you with invisible knitting needles — shitty jerky fucky fuckers who prefer to diminish than build up, who are dire cynics but prefer to present themselves as helpful realists, who want to remind you again and again what a bad awful no-good idea writing is, either as a career or a hobby. Over time, this is erosive, corrosive. It gets into you. Eats at you. And when you go to write, it’s their doubting voices you hear. Not your own.
Solution: SPACE THEM FROM YOUR AIRLOCK. Watch them scream soundlessly while spiraling into the blackness of space. Translation: KILL THEM. … whoa, wait, no, I mean, uhhh, translation: cut them out of your lives. If you can’t cut them out for whatever reason (it’s your mother, your drug dealer, your dog), then you need to build a resistance to them. They are iocane powder and you must not let them destroy you. Try talking to them. Try letting them know that they’re hurtful instead of helpful. If that fails: hit the ‘ignore’ button and walk away.
…JUST A CHEAP EXCUSE TO NOT DO WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
Problem: Mmmmyeah, you’re lazy. Sorry! You say, “I have writer’s block,” and yet, there you are on social media or you’re playing World of Warcraft and you don’t seem to be trying very hard at all. Reality is, sometimes writer’s block is just an excuse. It’s an easy and acceptable one, too. You’re not writing, people ask why, you tell them you’re blocked up like a colon. And they nod, because they’ve heard about this dreaded writer’s block and gosh, it must be bad. And the trick is, writer’s block still makes you feel like you’re a writer. It’s something writers get. You got it. Well, you must be the real deal. Except, you’re not trying very hard to get unblocked, are you? Because it’s much easier to talk like a writer then to do the actual writing, innit?
Solution: Stop fucking around. Stop lying to yourself and others. Super-glue your derriere to that overturned bucket you call an office chair and refuse to stand until you’ve written. Full stop. Game over. The only thing you get to quit is quit making excuses.
Problem: You think you have writer’s block. In reality, you’re depressed. I don’t mean that glibly, like, oh, eye roll, you’re depressed, womp womp. I mean, you join the oh-so-many creative types who suffer from some variant, some gray goopy flavor, of depression. The thing is, depression is invisible. You won’t see the bleak, black sword through your heart. You’ll feel it, though, and it’s very easy as a writerly type to mistake this sensation as some kind of creative block. And then you go about treating it the wrong way. You think, well, I should just write through it, and while that might work for several of these other variants of creative blockage, it almost certainly will only create a multiplicative effect in terms of depression — meaning, it’ll hurt instead of help. Because you can’t just force depression, you can’t just shoulder your way through it like you’re Hercules slogging up a muddy hill. In this case, writer’s block is a symptom of a larger concern. You have to treat the disease rather than the result of the disease.
Solution: I am not a doctor (to which you all collectively gasp). If you worry that you might be depressed, it is at least worth talking to a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or family doctor whereupon I assume (though am not assured) that the solution will be some combination of talk therapy and medication. What I do know, again, is that you’re not alone. It’s important to remember that. It’s important to remember that depression is a real thing, not just some cartoon stormcloud hanging over your head. It’s not an excuse, it’s not self-doubt, it’s not lack of outlining, it’s not your story, it’s not writer’s block. Acknowledge it. Call it what it is. Because unlike writer’s block, once you’ve named it, you can now work on destroying it. And that is the most vital part, I think: depression is woefully common, but the truth remains that the only way forward is to treat it. The only way out is through. Address it. Acknowledge it. Recognize you’re not a mutant, not some freak, but rather part of a rather large collective of folks. And at the end of the day know that if you want to be a writer and you suffer from depression that this must be dealt with or you won’t get to be the writer you want to be. And that is truly sad.
…JUST A BAD DAY
Problem: You’re just having a shit day. We all have them. Fuck it.
Solution: Go do something else. Just for today. Come back to it later. You shouldn’t have too many of these free days, of course, because if you do, that says that something bigger is going on, some larger obstruction that must be addressed. But sometimes the obstruction isn’t big. Sometimes it’s just: today sucks, tomorrow will suck less, walk away from the Writing Machine and go do some other stuff for the moment. See you back at it in 24 hours, yeah?