I originally shared this on my old blog in March 2019.
When I first started writing as a child, I didn’t believe that writer’s block was real. Since then, I’ve had many years to learn otherwise! Of the many books I’ve written, the most difficult has been the now-trunked book I wrote just before my chronic illness crisis, which challenged me on multiple levels and led to multiple kinds of writer’s block. I have never struggled so much with a novel. This challenge led to me developing a new mental model of writer’s block where there are four main causes. Today, I’d like to talk about those causes and what my recommended solutions are for each of them.
Problem: Lack of motivation/connection
This is probably the most common cause of writer’s block. People tend to believe that writing is something that happens when you feel “the Muse” speaking to you. But “the Muse” often doesn’t cooperate, and writing is in fact work. It doesn’t always come easily. So what do you do if you’re lacking in motivation or in connection to your story?
Solution: Put your butt in your chair and your fingers on your keyboard
If you want to actually finish your project and achieve publication, in all truth, you need to write even when you’re not feeling like it. As I discovered with the previously mentioned book, sometimes, your motivation doesn’t make its appearance until you’re in the middle of writing. Your connection to your story, too, often requires you to be working consistently so that you don’t lose sight of the beginning. (For me as a person who writes more by experienced intuition than by well-organized craft, this is especially true. You can see more about the importance of writing in a way that fits your style in this post.)
The refrain many authors repeat is thus “butt in chair, fingers on keyboard.” Sit down and start writing! If doing that for a while doesn’t help, you should consider whether you’re being affected by another type of writer’s block, like the next one.
Problem: Writer’s doubt
A second common cause of writer’s block is “writer’s doubt,” where your anxious lack of confidence gets the better of you. Writer’s doubt makes it impossible for you to work on your writing without having a wave of a million worries bowl you over.
Solution: Give yourself a pep talk
If this is the problem you’re running into, give yourself a pep talk! Your writing isn’t meant to be perfect, especially in the first draft. The beauty of being a novelist is that you can develop and build the story over time, with multiple rounds of editing, and see it slowly become what you envisioned. It’s a process. So give yourself permission to make mistakes–lots of mistakes. You can ask your writing partners and loved ones to give you pep talks, too. Then go back to solution #1 and put your butt in that chair.
This problem haunted me with the previously mentioned book. From the beginning, I was terrified that it would prove to be just too much for me. I’ve always liked to challenge myself, but the unique point-of-view, the creative internalization, and the complex and deeply personal themes were more than I’d ever taken on before. Every time I thought about opening that document, I was terrified that I would discover an irreparable mess. Still, I am a writer, so I always did face that fear eventually–and every time, I was relieved to find that it better than I thought. When the day did come for me to let go of that story, I did so knowing it had fully fulfilled its purpose in my life, though that purpose had not turned out to be publication. I benefited personally and authorially from putting all that work in, and I consider it a victory.
Problem: A personal life issue
If you can’t seem to push through your writer’s doubt, that may be a sign that there is a larger problem at play. When something important is wrong in your personal life, it can destroy your ability to write. You might be facing a mental or physical illness, a broken relationship, a triggered past trauma, or another stressful situation.
Solution: Take care of yourself
Consider the issues in your life that could be throwing off your creative flow. The previously mentioned book was not only a challenging project that triggered past traumas for me, but when I wrote it, I was unknowingly at the forefront of a horrific health crisis. My inability to focus and my growing anxiety as I stumbled through my first and second drafts were early warning signs. By the time I realized that my body was failing me, it was too late to prevent the years-long nightmare that would alter my reality forever. While I’m very proud of the work I did, that book will always be associated, for me, with suffering.
So take my advice: Stay in tune with yourself emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. If you start to sense that something is wrong, make changes in your life to prioritize your health. You may need to seek help from loved ones or professionals. You may even need to take a good, long break from writing. In my case, while I was at my sickest, I was unable to work on original fiction, but I found much-needed solace in slowly creating my first-ever fanfiction. (I truly might not be alive today if I hadn’t had that to lift my spirits.)
Problem: Being too stubborn
Stubbornness is a key trait for creative people who want to make a career from their art. You have to be stubborn to face rejection and critique and keep going. Sometimes, though, that stubbornness prevents you from recognizing an issue in your story (or in your life) that has you stuck. If you’ve tried all the solutions above and your story still just isn’t working, it’s time to humble yourself.
Solution: Stop and listen to the truth
I’ve learned from working with other writers that some people thrive with an extensive practical understanding of the technical craft. For them, organizing their pages and plots and characters into something they can break down into diagrams and charts is what reveals problems. I am not like that. I find craft to be helpful at times, but writing for me is a beautiful kind of chaos that I create by feel. It’s where I’ve always been able to let go of the tight control society taught me I needed to have over myself. (See also: growing up with autism.) After years of voracious reading and writing, I do have a strong instinct for when something is wrong and for what would better create the “soul” that’s lacking there.
I run into trouble when I get too stubborn to listen to that instinct. Sometimes, I want a story or a character to be something they’re not. Sometimes, I have a plan that I don’t want to let go of. Over time, I’ve developed the skill of recognizing and humbling myself to that little twinge of wrongness in my heart. I’ve learned to trust my creative instinct. I find that I avoid a lot of writer’s block by doing so. Thus, even when it’s difficult, I recommend that you pay attention to whatever it is that guides your storytelling. The same goes for life issues. Be willing to open yourself to possibilities you might not like, and you may find that you’ve known the answer all along.
Image via dolmansaxlil on Flickr.