In this post:
What is Writer’s Block?
According to dictionary.com, writer’s block is “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” This may be due to a perceived lack of topics to write about, struggling to see how to advance a plot, finding it hard to focus, difficulty in making a story compelling, etc.
The thing is, there are a million reasons for writer’s block. Depending on who you ask about the subject, you’ll get completely opposing views and theories. Just give this LitHub roundup a read and you’ll see what I mean. In fact, some writers don’t even believe in writer’s block! As Toni Morrison said in her 1994 interview with Claudia Dreifus, “I disavow that term [writer’s block].”
Personally, I don’t see the world as black or white. Some struggle with writing, while others don’t. I suffer from chronic depression, so writer’s block is a way of life. I have to work around those spells and find ways to keep getting back to writing, over and over again.
What Causes Writer’s Block
Whether you think writer’s block is a real thing or “fiction,” as Rumaan Alam calls it, there are times when you’ll [most likely] find yourself stuck, or just not writing for longer than you’re comfortable to admit. The reasons are as versatile as writers’ takes on the concept itself, but here’s a list of a few scenarios I’ve experienced myself that ring especially true for new-ish writers.
1. You’re a new or a returning writer without/out of practice
This is that classic “there’s an empty screen and I’m just as empty…” feeling.
New writers struggle with this more simply because of their inexperience; it takes practice to become an idea machine, after all. But even seasoned veterans have moments — sometimes fleeting and other times prolonged — where they go through dry spells, regardless of what the pros on that LitHub article say.
In fact, a few days ago I ran into this funny tweet from the features editor at The Rumpus — T.L. Pavlich —asking about getting back into the writing process after taking a long break.
This thread got quite a few responses ranging from taking intentional notes, writing daily haiku, immersing yourself in creative pursuits other than writing, outlining thoughts, reading with the intent of writing, etc.
My favorite response came from Anna Shults Held —another editor at The Rumpus. Her way back into writing after a five-year break was through a writing class. According to her, assignments, deadlines, and stakes were great for motivation (with a side of self-loathing, which is not recommended.)
Not surprisingly, this method works wonders for me too when I hit a writing slump (is that why I keep signing up for writing classes and workshops???)
For example, earlier this year I hit one of my dry spells, which is usually triggered by my lifelong chronic depression. It was hard enough to pump out content for my blog and impossible to do any type of creative writing.
So, I signed up for a flash creative nonfiction class on Catapult. The weekly assignments were great and the class did what it was supposed to do - got me back into writing. In fact, a story I wrote for one of my assignments got published in Porter House Review last month.
In short: If you’re unable to write especially because you’re struggling to come up with ideas, consider what type of thing you wish to write, and then take a relevant writing class. Opt for a live class or workshop where you meet with your peers and instructor (even if it’s over Zoom) and where you’re expected to work on timely assignments, rather than signing up for a self-paced course.
And if classes are not your thing, then give that Twitter thread a read. People have shared plenty of tips and you’re bound to find one or two of them useful.
FYI: I teach a blog writing workshop every few months; feel free to join the next session 😉
2. You don’t have all the necessary information
This is by far the most common writer’s block I experience where I feel stuck because my writing feels flat and lacks that “it” factor. When this happens, I crash.
Or I used to. I’ve found a better alternative these days —doing more research. Typically, when I have more information, I can write a richer piece.
The journalist Clive Thompson has written about this phenomenon in a Medium story: You don’t have “writer’s block.” You have reporter’s block. It’s a fascinating piece and I encourage you all to read it.
For example, when I wrote this piece about Pasolini and his movies, I knew what I wanted to write about —his penchant for sadomasochism —and not what a brilliant director and writer he was, which, by the way, has been done too much already. But even after I wrote it, something didn’t feel right. My argument didn’t feel complete or very convincing. I remember just staring at the damn thing every day, trying to figure out why the piece felt so weak.
So, I started reading more about him including one of his rare interviews that I hadn’t come across before. Turns out, what I needed was a single quote from the man himself to land my argument.
If you feel stuck, I recommend delving into your topic and researching further, even if you think you have everything you need. You never know what new information could come up and get you out of your funk.
3. You let your ego get the best of you
I used to, until recently, get super depressed every time I thought about this: Who does my writing benefit?
Sure, I have readers who say they love my “style” and my “voice,” whatever that means. I’m grateful they think this way because that style or voice is what makes people buy from me which then pays my bills. But at the end of the day, the information I share isn’t unique. Teaching folks how to market and sell with content has been done and done! I’m not irreplaceable. I’m not a journalist. I don’t break news. I don’t travel to war-torn countries for my stories. Would it even matter to anyone if I stopped writing tomorrow?
Thinking about all this, I kept losing focus and motivation to write.
Then I understood something; that it doesn’t matter. Journalism may not be for me. I may not be good enough to write novels. But in all this doubt and uncertainty and self-pity, which is really nothing but my ego, I had forgotten to be grateful for what I have.
And it’s not just my readers’ respect, trust, or validation of my work, but it’s more than that. It’s the fact— that I can do something I like and make a living doing it — that I ignore when I worry about creating “meaningful” content that will one day save the world.
I don’t have to save the world with my writing. And neither do you. If you are a war reporter, or if you expose corrupt politicians, good on you! But if you’re not that, that’s OK too. There are ways to do good in the world, you just have to find a method that suits you. But if your expertise lies in writing content and not the next Pulitzer-winning work, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
And if you can’t count on my words alone, here’s what Ray Bradbury said on the topic:
You’re being political, or you’re being socially aware. You’re writing things that will benefit the world. To hell with that! I don’t write things to benefit the world. If it happens that they do, swell. I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to have a hell of a lot of fun.
Now that’s what I’m talking about!!!
Feel free to listen to the entire talk; it’s quite enthralling.
4. You fear a nonexistent box
I get this concern often from readers and students: “I don’t want to box myself in.”
Because I teach blog writing, these comments are often about choosing a blogging niche. People get scared that they’d box themselves in and they won’t be able to write that crime novel or blog about DIY crafts if they choose the wrong niche. But this sentiment can easily include different genres too.
Can a poet be a novelist? Can a novelist write researched essays? Can a content creator go into literary journalism?
Sometimes this fear of some type of nonexistent box is so strong that some people stop writing altogether.
Recently I came across an interview with Christian Bale where he was talking about his role as Batman. He shared how people close to him said that if he played Batman, that’d be it; he’d never play anything else again. His response to that sentiment is what I wish to live by when it comes to my writing.
Look, if I don’t have the skill to be able to rise above that, then I don’t deserve to either. — Christian Bale (GQ)
Back in 2018, I started a content marketing blog—this blog. I’ve had my fear of this box some people speak of. But it didn’t take long to realize how wrong I had been. Truth is, you can write whatever you want to. Sure, I don’t veer off topic on my blog, but this blog isn’t my only writing outlet.
I’ve written about relationships on Medium, I’ve published cultural critiques in Splice Today, my creative nonfiction has appeared in Porter House Review, I have interviewed artists for print magazines, and yes, I have my very niche blog too. My readers don’t care that I write all these different types of things. So now I don’t either, and neither should you.
5. You fear rejection
Not me, definitely not me!
OK, totally me, and it doesn’t matter.
Honestly, fear of rejection is the dumbest thing ever!
But first, here’s what fear of rejection looks like:
- You’re afraid people won’t read your work.
- And even if they do, they won’t like it.
- You fear not appealing to agents or editors.
- You wonder if people will ever take you seriously.
All of this is closely connected to one other point I’ve touched on: your ego.
And also, the current culture where we have the attention span of a mouse.
Writing success was never overnight, so don’t expect it to be. In fact, let me just say this right away: if you’re a writer, you’ll be rejected, over and over again, without exception. Even my favorite author—the wildly and internationally famous Haruki Murakami—has haters!
Closer to home, I can tell you that even though I’ve made a living with my writing, only a small fraction of people actually like what I write. I have received emails and comments saying how much my content is oh so useless!
What can I say? That’s life.
If you enjoy writing, keep pushing yourself until something comes of it. Learn to write better (which comes with reading, learning, writing, and more writing, lots and lots of writing) and keep putting words on paper or screen.
As a blogger, it took me a whole year to see any real traction.
As a creative writer, it took longer, way longer!
Here I want to leave you with another tweet; this time from a writer, editor, and librarian from Cape Cod — Corey Farrenkopf:
After 6 years and 35 rejections, I finally placed a story with @SmokeLong and I am ecstatic!!! — Corey Farrenkopf
Six years and 35 rejections. Let that sink in!
How to Overcome Writer’s Block
I have alluded to some tactics for overcoming writer’s block already, but allow me to review them here, along with a few other tips I’ve found during my research as well as personal experiments:
Find a time of day when you have an easier time writing
Are you more productive at a specific time of day? It doesn’t hurt to keep track of when you’re feeling your most creative/productive when it comes to writing. I find that I write better in the morning. Pre-pandemic, I’d often wake up at 5 in the morning, walk to the neighborhood Starbucks, and write for a couple of hours before getting into the swing of the day. These days, late afternoons seem to work better.
Get rid of distractions
Better said than done for some of you, I know. But still, try. If you have family or kids at home, ask them to respect your writing time. If possible, designate an “office” space where distraction isn’t allowed. Again, I know this isn’t as simple or straightforward, but do the best you can.
Speaking of distractions, consider leaving your phone in a different room while you’re writing.
Change the surroundings
It’s not for everyone, but I find that a change of scenery does wonders for my creative output. Some days I write at home, some days I walk to Starbucks, some days I walk to a different coffee shop, some days I bike to a nearby park… you get the picture.
A fitter body makes a fitter mind. Try some exercise if you’re struggling with writing. When I read What I Talk About When I Talk about Running by my favorite author Haruki Murakami, I took up running too. I’m no marathoner and mostly jog for about a mile or two a couple of times a week at most. Still, since I took up running, I’ve felt better than I ever have! Which seems to have a positive effect on my writing as well.
Obvious, but I’ll say this anyway. Nothing jogs your writer’s brain more than reading. If you’ve decided to live as a writer, full-time or part-time, make reading a daily habit, even if you’re only reading a page of a book a day. Also, I recommend diversifying what you’re reading. Read fiction, read nonfiction, read essays and short stories, read magazines, read poems. Allow reading to expand your mind, and the writing will follow.
I’ve mentioned before that I like to write different types of things. Mostly because I enjoy it, but there’s a surprising side-effect too! Variety in writing keeps the boredom away, and therefore writer’s block. Try it! If you’re mostly a nonfiction writer, challenge yourself to write a short story or a haiku or a prose poem or, I don’t know… something different.
Let your stream of consciousness flow on paper (or screen.) Don’t think about it, don’t try to form a story or a blog post; just write.
Keep a diary
Even on days when you can’t write anything useful, you should be able to write in your diary. It’s much like freewriting, with the exception that freewriting can be anything—the beginning or middle of a short story, a list, or an outline of some sort… basically, anything. A diary, on the other hand, is about your life, your thoughts, and your opinions of the day. Or at least, that’s how I perceive writing in a diary. Also, documenting your life on a regular basis is mighty helpful. These anecdotes make for great writing material!
Take a writing class
This one’s my favorite, but unfortunately, not the cheapest. I personally prefer (virtual or not) in-person classes that involve assignments, deadlines, workshops, etc. They force me to write, kicking writer’s block in the process.
Take a break
One reason for writer’s block that I hadn’t mentioned earlier (because this seems to be the least common among writers, albeit not entirely impossible,) is burnout. If you’re forcing yourself to write more than your capacity, you may find yourself starting to hate the process. If that happens, take a break and reassess your priorities and boundaries.
What I’ve come to understand is that there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’ve suddenly lost your drive or motivation to write. Going back to Aaron Sorkin, if he can suffer from writer’s block, most of us shouldn’t be complaining. It’s natural to feel down when you’re struggling, but there’s a way out. As long as you love writing, you’ll find that way. Be patient, go easy on yourself, and try to figure out what’s causing the block. And then take necessary action.
And that’s all I’ve got for now. Do you have any routine or ritual for those pesky writer’s blocks? What has worked for you? Do you resonate with any of the underlying reasons I mentioned in this post behind writer’s block? Share in the comments, please, and thank you for reading 🙂
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