How do we Demystify Writer’s Block

Every now and then, I’m reminded that some writers push the “there’s no such thing as writer’s block” onto other, struggling folks. I’ve heard “You only have writer’s block if you’re boring” by writing instructors, which only serves to make people feel bad about their struggles. I’ve also heard “There’s no such thing as writer’s block,” which is a bunch of dismissive claptrap.

I’ve even heard this compared to dentistry a number of times in the past two years — I wish I could find the writer that started that meme and verbally knock some sense into that person, because that’s a load of bullshit. Writing isn’t a job purely involving diagnosis, rote tasks, and reactions. (No belittling to dentists here; I certainly couldn’t do your job, either, but it’s not the same damn thing.)

Point is, it’s better the demystify the writing process by accepting that people have problems at times rather than shame them for having those problems. So, if you want to learn how to get around writer’s block, that’s a long road and different folks had different tactics, but there are some common threads.

I, for one, used to deal with that when I was younger, in a way I now recognize as fear-based paralysis. I saw the blank page, and nothing I would write would feel as good as was in my head. The trick there is to become comfortable with acceptance — the first draft won’t be good, and that’s okay. A lesson I learned recently from Kit La Touche is that writer’s block is often about being unwilling to make a decision: “The beautiful thing about making decisions is that, once you’ve made them, you can evaluate them, and change them if need be. if you never make them, then you can’t do that.”

A couple years back, writer’s block came from neurochemical imbalance — my untreated anxiety would lock my mind up and attempting to write when I didn’t have a clear idea what to write would give me a massive headache. Once I started getting treatment, I was able to do my job again. But man, while I was in that state, being told that writer’s block didn’t exist, or that I was boring, all that shit, that just gave me cause to beat myself up. Which is why I’m keen to tell people who throw that at other writers to keep that crap to themselves. It might give you some confidence in your work, but that’s no reason to erode someone else’s.

So, friends, how do you deal with writer’s block? How do you demystify it?

– Ryan



12 Responses to How do we Demystify Writer’s Block

  1. Brian Engard says:

    A long time ago someone (I don’t remember who) told me that writer’s block meant your standards were too high, and that you should lower them. In retrospect I think that person was getting at one of the points you made in your post from a slightly different perspective; namely that writer’s block is the inability to make a decision. Sometimes that decision is just the one to write what’s in your head, consequences be damned, and worry about whether or not it’s good later.

    Whenever I encounter writer’s block I find that the best medicine for me is to walk away from the project, change gears, do something different, and come back to it tomorrow. That last part is really the key; if you don’t come back to it you’re putting off making the decision to write again. Luckily that hasn’t been a huge problem for me. When I use this trick, I often come up with an idea that energizes me a few hours after I’ve walked away and then I’m champing at the bit to sit down and write again.

  2. Lenny Balsera says:

    I have a handful of techniques.

    One of them is preemptive – I tend to outline a lot and find ways to break the project I’m working on into non-sequential pieces. Sequence is a big issue for me with writer’s block. Often it’s not that I can’t work on a thing, it’s that I can’t work on the part that’s immediately next. If I can find a piece in the middle to start working on and get some momentum going, the floodgates open.

    Changing the space I’m writing in also helps me out a lot. It’s a big deal. Getting out of my familiar writing spots every once in a while shakes up my brain.

    Getting the blood going helps me think. Situps, pushups, walking, jogging. Something abashedly physical.

    This one tends to make me seem like a crazy person, but sometimes I’ll attempt to say the thing I want to write before writing it. Like, aloud. If I can speak it, the process of writing it seems easier suddenly.

  3. This is a small sliver of writer’s block, but still….

    The opening sentence is the hardest one to write. I often find myself knowing what I intend on saying in general but not knowing how to craft the first amazing sentence. Or maybe that intro paragraph. Same concept.

    What I’ll do is just skip it. I’ll put “” or something in the document and then move on to writing the part that I actually know how to write. At some point in the future, when the beginning has shaken out a bit in my head, I go back and actually write my intro.

  4. Colin says:

    Seth’s and Lenny’s points about sequence are good. I tend to write ‘xxx explanation goes here’ and move on to a new section.

    The other thing I like to do is employ a commitment device, like a constraint or an oracle. I like Oblique Strategies as an oracle; constraints can come from many places, like the Oulipo (“this paragraph will be a pangram” or “no Latin-root words in this section”) or poetry (“all iambs for a sentence” or “no repeated feet”).

  5. Ed Turner says:

    Get rid of the blank white space. It’s a terrible, soul-sucking void; even if I know what I’m trying to say, looking at the blank document or page is disarming. It forces me to start writing while on the defensive, which is no mood to be in at the best of times.

    Try starting at the end of a different document, then cut-and-paste over when its time, or filling half a page with lorum ipsum, just so the dang thing doesn’t look so aggressive. Heck, one of my most useful bits of writing technology is a word processor with a changeable background color, just so I don’t start the process looking at a blinding sea of whitespace.

  6. Rasmus says:

    I commented on FB, but I’ll throw my two cents in here as well.

    I do not believe in writer’s block.

    I do believe that you can have anxiety and mental fatigue, or even stress, keeping you from writing, but that’s not really writer’s block – it’s anxiety, fatigue and stress. You deal with the cause, you get rid of the symptoms.

    In MOST cases “writer’s block” is more of a creative block really, because it’s not at all limited to writers. Composers, visual artists and so on all have blockages from time to time. It usually comes from being overly self-analytical and critical, second guessing yourself to the point where you can’t get anything done at all. The cure for that is simply to work anyway. You’ll think you’re producing crap, but eventually you’ll come out on the other side. In my experience, the “crap” produced while supposedly blocked isn’t really that bad after all.

    When I hear any artist complain about being blocked, I want to kick them in the teeth and say: get your ass in gear and go make something. But again – if you’re suffering from actual health issues that impact your work, that’s a different story. It’s just that in 90% of all cases of writer’s block, there is nothing wrong with the writer, other than being low on inspiration and high on self doubt.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Part of what you’re talking about is a semantic argument that isn’t worth me engaging in too much — especially when I’m trying to address people who know of this thing as “writer’s block.” (Also, it’s better for SEO. Really.)

      That said, you say it’s not just limited to writers, and I’m with you there — I also occasionally do graphic design and audio producing. Anything where you’re forging something from just your head can get all weird ‘n shit. Would it be helpful if the term “writer’s block” were stricken for something more apt? Totally. But, since that’s not the case, I work with what I got. :)

      I disagree about your 90% assessment. Certainly, yeah, self-doubt’s a thing. Also a thing is decision paralysis, which is where “Go make a decision” is useful. I wouldn’t count stress as low as 10%, but it’s not like there’s hard evidence to back either way. In any case, I’m more about understanding a given moment than just giving general advice to a specific person. And I’m sure there’s a difference between the dabbler, the serious amateur, and various professionals — at least when it comes to how blocks happen and what’s done about them.

      On Twitter yesterday, there was discussion about porting athletics analogies here, where there’s good pain & bad pain. It’s not entirely accurate, but the notion was “sometimes you need to push through the block, and sometimes what you need is to rest and not engage for the moment.” But it’s easier to relate that to physical body than it is to the intangible mind.

      – Ryan

  7. Rasmus says:

    My reply to your reply:

    The 90% is by no means a scientifically proven number. It’s a rough estimate based on the number of artists I’ve known, and with whom I have discussed creative blockage of one type of another. And yes, many more creatives have stress in their lives, but not all stress is bad for productivity. I know many people who work best under deadline for instance – it’s a question of balance. I completely agree that general advice rarely works directly on individual cases, but I’m not talking about a specific person here.

    I do think you can draw parallels between athletics and creativity. One pushes the physical, the other pushes the mental. Both require practice and hard work, and both can lead to injury if you push too hard. I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say that a creative block can come from working too intensely – in which case the answer may well be to rest, go play Mass Effect for a while, get laid or whatever chills you out.

    But again – in my personal experience – those who work the hardest are rarely hit with blockage, and when it happens it’s usually attached to a legitimate reason. I can’t count, however, the number of “blocked” creatives I have known and talked to, who hid behind it as an excuse for not facing the work — aka procrastination. That why I say, that in most cases, the answer is to “run it off”, so to speak.

  8. T.S. says:

    I think of writer’s block as a direct result of many of us writer types having “conflicted programing”. A lot of educational models stress “getting it right the first time” which is close to the polar opposite of what most writers I know swear by, e.g. wright, re-wright, and re-wright again!

    That “blank sheet” fear is a manifestation of that (partially) built in need to write the “correct” thing the first time… only I don’t believe there actually is any “correct” thing, it’s just a pernicious mental meme.

    Strictly traditional writers break through their inner blocks with copious alcohol consumption. I generally recommend free writing about the strange objects I’ve gathered in my study (the Bradbury method). I also collect snippets of ideas I’ve had, phrases that occurred to me, character bits and so forth, which I keep in a pile. My “fragments” can often help out when the words aren’t flowing as I would like.

  9. One method that has worked for me in the past is what I call the “5 things method”

    I’ll email myself with an email that says “Tell me 5 things about X”
    X being a section,character, scene or element of something I’m trying to write about.

    Next time I check my email, I’ll reply to that email

    After I’ve replied to that email, I’ll give the same treatment to some other character, scene or element. “Tell me 5 things about Y”

    And so on. In this way, I make it into a conversation rather than just a monologue. For whatever reason, that flows more easily for me.

    I can go back later and mine the email thread for the content I need.

  10. There indeed really is no such thing as writer’s block in this sense: No man with a gun rushes through the door and threatens to blow your brains out if you write; nor do the muscles of your fingers lock up preventing you from typing on a keyboard or grasping a pencil when you sit down to write.

    There is very much such a thing in the sense that wish to write, want to write, try to write, but can’t.

    I’ve been breaking writer’s block for more than 25 years in a one-time consultation for people ranging from full-time professional writers, including one who’s had ten books in a row on the New York Times bestseller list, and another who is a Pulitzer prize winner, to part-time writers, graduate students, and aspirant writers.

    I identify six major forms of block (these also apply to other creative artists as well as writers, such as composers, photographers, and painters — but not to actors — and, actually, can apply to great numbers of people for great numbers of projects or undertakings). They are:

    1. Paralysis

    2. Avoidance behavior

    3. Last-minute crisis writing

    4. Inability to finish

    5. Inability to select from among projectsfinish

    6. Block specific (able to work on other material).

    I can’t summarize a four-hour session filled with concept and technique here, but here, without going into detail about them or discussing the many subtle ways they can play out, are what I call “The Three Big Killers” in block:

    1. Perfectionism — which is a form of all-or-nothing thinking, triumph or catastrophe, with nothing possible in between.

    2. Fear — which is a product of the first and second Big Killers, but which can be identified as a separate entity. All fear in writer’s block, regardless of where it starts, can be boiled down to the simple statement: “That I can’t do it.” And what is the “it” that I can’t do? The simple act of putting words on paper. Period. Nothing more. Nothing less. The simple act of putting words on paper. No more magical an act than painting a board or throwing a board. (Find an equivalent analog for whatever task or project *you* have in mind or are facing.

    3. The Baggage Train — these are all the things we wish to *accomplish* with our writing, such as I want to be rich, I want to be admired, I want to make them laugh and cry, I want to save the whales, I want to bring peace to the middle-east, etc., but which are not the *act* of writing itself. The problem arises because, while it looks like I’m trying to write, and I *think* I’m trying to write, I’m not: I’m trying to get rich, save the whales, get my ex-wife and all my ex-lovers to say ‘Boy, I really should have stayed with him. Look how sensitive and insightful he is,’ etc. The key is to disconnect the baggage train from the locomotive, which is writing, which is the simple act of putting words on paper, so that thing get out of the station.

    Any single one of these Killers operating in you with sufficient strength, and you’ll be blocked ; any two present at the same time, and you don’t have a chance.

    I hope that is of some help. I wish you the best with this problem. (Incidentally, I am not invulnerable to block myself. In fact, I have a *huge* potential case of it. The difference is, I know what to do about it. Actually, I break writer’s block several times a day for myself. If I didn’t, I would be paralyzed.)

    Be well,
    Jerrold Mundis


  11. JDCorley says:

    Change the font to a new font. Now everything is different, look, you’re working on something completely new!

    If you’re out of fonts, go browse some fonts, get a new one, and change to that font.

    If writing, change pens and/or paper. Not just to a new sheet, the paper should be a new color, different pad, different tactile feeling, different color/type of pen. That old boring stuck writing is in that boring old blue rollerball ink. This awesome new writing is in this great black ballpoint ink. Look how great it feels when you touch it on this super-thin paper.