“Writer’s block is an emotional or logical incoherence in a future work slowly working its way through our unconscious.” Alain de Botton
Writer’s block has been around as long as there have been writers writing. It can be a very subjective concept though meaning different things to different people. Nowadays it’s probably become a catchall for anything that keeps a blank page wordless.
It has a short definition empowering the catchall.
Writer’s Block: “The condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.”
Many writers will recognise this at some point and give it a literal diagnosis based on the definition. That said, many authors also suggest it’s a mythical concept having no bearing on anything.
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.” Terry Pratchett
“I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.” Barbara Kingsolver
Here I’m merely musing on the possibilities that might skip the obvious conclusion that a block is real as opposed to a more internal thinking process that has concluded it is.
It is entirely possible certain life events create stress that alters neurological processes in the brain. Shifting them to areas that are more concerned with dealing with the stress point(s) and reducing the creativity processing required to be more artistic.
Stress points can arise from virtually anything. Family, finances, children, illness, work, bereavement, mental health and so on. Some just require time to overcome. These are what I’d term more physical and temporary issues that could not actually be anything to do with a creative block as such.
Things like illness or bereavement can impact mental health if the former is long-term and the latter goes on too long without turning to counselling. These need addressing, not ignoring.
A loose title, but includes things directly concerning writing or, as the case may be, not writing.
Many people can think themselves into a problem that, in reality, only exists in their own minds. People with mental health issues may be more familiar with this concept. Over thinking, procrastinating, expecting negative outcomes, low self-esteem and confidence. Often this requires a professional to point out and therapy to recreate a more level thinking mechanism.
I’m in no way suggesting writer’s block is a mental health condition because in the majority of cases it’s far from it. However, we can use a therapy mechanism to explore why the creativity might have resigned.
New or unpublished authors might be more prone to this type of thinking.
A break in creativity might be nothing more than that. I can direct you here to an earlier post I did concerning a good friend and blogger that started a manuscript and finally completed her first draft some eighteen years later. Life events, children and school teaching all contributed to the interruption and yet she never lost sight of the ultimate goal. If you need some real encouragement on time slip then I strongly suggest you consider reading her interview for some real motivation.
Ritu Bhathal, 18 Years to Write A Novel #Inspiration
If you find page staring a big problem though try to step back. Don’t assume that writer’s block has struck. Writing can be easy and it can be incredibly hard. Part of that is down to habit. Last time I spoke about writing regularly. Best sellers are that because they write frequently, read widely and fit writing into each day. They do not find reasons not to write or invent excuses to avoid it. They sit, they write and most will want to turn over at least 1000 words a day.
That sounds easy if you say it fast. For most of us just starting, that kind of writing habit is hard to establish. Again I’ve spoken about this area before.
Writing Habits and Successful Authors
For the sake of this post let’s follow a hypothetical scenario.
A writer is half way through a novel and grinds to a halt. After two days this author is no further ahead and getting agitated. A week later and they are sunk in the knowledge that writer’s block has struck.
What should they do?
I’ll leave that question open because many people might like to comment on how they overcame it and contribute to a post addenda.
Back to our writer.
In order to ascertain why creativity has bled out, they must start being mindful.
To enhance the scenario, our budding author is not published yet and has no idea if their creation is any good. Thoughts dip between yes and no. They over think and have no real idea of how good or bad it is because nobody else has read it.
This leaves a mind without any evidence thread beyond their own ruminations. Immediately there lies a connection with therapy for cognitive behaviour issues. Self evidencing is not a good way to assess how you feel. That requires input from other sources to question your thoughts and then decide on the outcome. Not too disparate to debating sensibly. If an argument is better than yours maybe that’s because your own opinion is not solid enough to counter. This leaves scope to accept your opinion should be changeable if newer material proves better than the one currently held. It’s an evolution of thought and should never cease to absorb new ideas or discard old ones.
A first step then is to find an alpha reader. These can be trusted friends and writing buddies. Friends are often too polite to be critical. Always keep that in mind. Writing buddies, on the other hand, also write and appreciate critical feedback to improve their work. Where do you find them? If you’re reading this the chances are you blog too. Reach out and someone might well offer. I’ve also seen people asking on Twitter’s #writingcommunity.
Our author isn’t ready for that though.
What else to try before concluding its writer’s block?
Being mindful they search for current life issues. These can be anything that drifts from normality. An ill child, pet or relative. A parent diagnosed with a terminal condition. A job in jeopardy, a sudden fiscal change that’s gnawing at the conscience. I’ve already said this list can be extensive. The point being, the brain reacts to stress to overcome adversity. That can wipe out creativity and turn it over to problem solving on the issue causing the stress.
Being mindful our writer explores this and concludes stress is no more or less than normal. Writer’s Block then?
Not necessarily. The Gunslinger sat in a drawer before King drew it out again to produce The Dark Tower. The Stand stalled because he needed an epiphany to find an ending. What did King do then? He wrote other books. Sure he probably mused and pondered the pages not filling, but he moved on. Kept writing and then went back later.
If a novel sticks then first we must find out if it’s just that work or all work.
Our author turns to short stories, flash fiction and writing prompts to find out. Anything that isn’t the novel that simply glares back laughing the esteem into bits. Or does it? Any writing at this point is proving the stumbling block is the novel and not some greater fiasco. Once we realise that pressure eases, the mind can relax and sooner or later the words will flow again.
The important thing is not to down tools and wait for the creativity to crawl out. For procrastinating minds this is probably the worst thing to do. Not only will it churn over the issue of a block until it really is one, but put distance between the writing habit and doing it regularly. The further away the habit goes, the harder it becomes to get back. It’s the bane of people susceptible to low mood too. Bad habits are easy, good ones take a great deal of effort once lost.
Being mindful of a situation as it starts is potentially the greatest way to prevent it germinating into a longer term problem.
Approaching writer’s block with the same mechanism of mindful thinking might actually prevent it spiralling out of control.
As for our hypothetical writer, that could actually be me. Laughing and cajoling as words failed to show and cohere. It’s late, but not left unfinished. The first stage of habit correction if you like, the next is time management.
All writers need to consider that. We are a diverse bunch with different life priorities. Many already have good habits and this post is not for them. At least until a block drops by. New writers and those feeling isolated might find it helpful to know they are not alone and can draw conclusions based on external sources of advice rather than internal ones that might not be correct.
Of course writer’s block means different things to each writer. But is the underlying cause something controllable?
I feel being aware of why a feeling exists is half way to resolving it. The rest takes determination and being mindful of why decisions are occurring rather than just being a pebble rolling down a slope gathering other stones into a cascade that becomes a free fall.
If you have had writer’s block then it would be nice to hear how you managed to resolve it. Feel free to tell us how you coped and what strategies worked for you.
Great post. It’s actually a topic I’ve been thinking quite a bit about, on and off. Yes, there are times when I sit down, look at a few prompts I found and nothing riveting comes to mind in the first 20-30 seconds. Sounds like a case of writer’s block. Or, maybe not.
I find that when I don’t write it’s because I’m physically and/or mentally exhausted and/or preoccupied with other things, as you mentioned. It’s not an excuse, but it is a sort of an explanation. You decide to pick up a routine, you’re quite good at it, then, you get tired and take a small break, only to run into unrelated issues with life and … off you go, doing things that keep you from writing. Time is also part of the story.
Keeping things interesting is key. Having 2 WIPs at the same is something I’d recommend. I prefer to have 1 longer one (novel) and one shorter (flash). It allows me to rejuvenate my brain without really taking a break. There’s ALWAYS something to write about. It might not fit with the goal we’ve assigned months ago, but it might lead us to some other great destination.
What do I do to “beat” it? I go for a walk, binge-watch a show, sleep, or write non-fiction.
Thanks Sam. How on earth did you find this one haha!
I used to write quite a few posts like this to support people doing NaNoWriMo. Mind you I blogged much more then too. I’ve stalled a fair bit since the pandemic hit, which is odd given there’s more lockdown time to actually write! I’d shy away from calling, or even thinking, writers block after 20 or 30 seconds though!!! Good grief is that a cliff waiting to fall down 😂
I often liken things like this to ruminating for hours on a ponderous crossword clue, to come back later and get it right off the bat. I’ve got several WIPS at various stages. Not sure if it’s procrastination or something else that runs interference though. Might be too many BB pieces and shirking the novels in some mystic avoidance ritual. Today, for example, I started setting up the BB writing group on NaNoWriMo. I’m sure I could have churned 2000 words if I’d stayed on track.
I agree too, give something to tinker with outside the WIP gives mental space while things are digested ready for the next stage of writing. I think it’s essential sometimes to keep reality present too. There have been times I’ve written at NaNo main event speed and suffered coming back to the real. I’m not sure if that, looking back, has created a bit of resistance to focus. I know I’ve not got writers block. There’s too many thoughts and ideas flying round.
Many thanks for your insightful comment!
I saw your categories up on top and figured I’d see what they’re about. There’s so much to learn out there.
Yes, my novel definitely takes a back seat nowadays, and I focus on BB and CarrotRanch, instead. However, I am trying to change that and tackle it all. With my novel, I just am not motivated enough. I know that once it’s written (check) and edited (1st edit in progress), then I have to figure out the whole publishing process, query, etc, which, for me, takes a lot of fun out of it all.
What do you mean by: :suffered coming back to reality?” After my NaNo, I felt good for keeping up the speed for 30 days, and was motivated, but decided to take a break to make sure I don’t burn out…
Doh! Of course…I am in mid theme change, well sorting it out. Most posts are still waiting for proper placement. It’s mixed into the procrastination zone I hit last year…or was it the year before haha.
Same here. My novels are biding their time. I have one immense project that’s achieved 100k in backstory just from writing prompts. Some of that is under the Dragon Stone link. I’m not sure if it’s motivation lapse or avoidance on a more deliberate intention. That said last year was poor writing wise so it’s probably habit distance. Hence the aim to commit to the NaNo thing in April and June. Publishing is something I’ve thought to the extreme whereby I’m now entirely uncertain what to do. I’m contemplating handing one over to Rachael. She does indie publishing so has a better angle on it. I think once it’s done first time then the way forward will be less onerous.
The reality thing is more a personality trait. With me if I enter writing I zone into the world. That shuts out everything outside entirely. I become more a biographer than a writer. Half the time I’m not aware I’m actually writing. If it’s intense for a period of time the adjusting back takes time. Mood altering type of thing, very hard to explain without dipping into the root cause. It’s why I can talk knowledgeably about mindfulness and MH. My head takes a while to actually come back from the writing default mind. Imagine staring at a book and later thinking you never read a word. That’s a type of zoning out. Many get it while doing mundane tasks as the higher brain drops out letting the default one take over. It’s a “sort” of reverse process with me as the higher brain takes a while to step back in. Not sure that makes sense outside of a bigger discussion 🥺
I think I remember you mentioning the theme change before, which tells you how long you’ve been at it. But look who’s talking – I still have the original theme I started with almost 4 years ago. It does what I want. It’s hard to get everything your way with these new themes.
It makes a bit more sense now that you’ve explained it in more detail. It sounds to me like it’s a good thing. SOmething to work towards to. Hmmm…
I did and it’s still under construction! The main reason I decided to change was problems with image transfer to Twitter. Their validation told me they couldn’t actually load blog images so they appeared greyed out. Then I found my original theme (which I’d stuck with since I started) was no longer supported. Changing themes sorted that out straight away so I figured the theme was the reason graphics weren’t appearing. The problem now is back tracking posts and recategorising them to fit in with the new look. It’s a bit like finding a brand new version of word, knowing it can do what the old one did, but no flipping clue how to ha ha.
It is a good thing in terms of seeing the story like a film in the mind and writing without really knowing. I think it’s actual name is a mind palace. Something like that.
Oh, the NaNo group for BB is now set up too. Only allows 20 members though 🥺
“The main reason I decided to change was problems with image transfer to Twitter.” I thought technology worked for us and not we for it. Kudos to you for trying, though.
Funnily enough, I started reading “The listening path” by Julia Cameron last night. She talks about writing about what you “hear” right as you get up. It’s to share your thought, feelings, etc. Descriptions of where this exercise led some of the people reminded me of your explanation of writing. You’re so in-tune with yourself that the words just pour out, tuning the outside out.
I’m not sure if I can commit, but I’d love to track its progress!
I think it’s a case of the technology can, it’s just those writing the software that think their ideas are great. Might even be a case of the urge to change something just for the sake of it too…leaving their “mark” as it were. Hopefully I’ll get this theme sorted this year haha.
That’s pretty much it. I’ve not read that book yet, but it sounds very similar to my “system.” I also found Stephen Kings book “On Writing” valuable too. It validated my method of approaching writing in a way classic teaching on the subject doesn’t.
The NaNo group size maxes out at 20. Currently that’s not going to get oversubscribed. If you’re on there then let me know your NANo name and I can invite you in. Just tracking others might inspire you to try it in June. Also, when you say commit…keep in mind you set your own goal. 5000 words in a month or less if you want. It’s nothing like the main event haha
You’ve got a point with programers always needing to do something more, not always something that’s aligned with customer needs and wants.
Currently, I’m having a hard time navigating different platforms (due to limited time), so I stick to what I can handle before I put more on my plate.
I think it’s in all walks of life. Making a stamp on being in a place of decision making… if it works well just flipping leave it alone says I. So far my mail app has update twice this year and the interface has gone from easy to use to WTF. Very frustrating. I had the same here moving to the block editor. Bits I like suddenly moving to a new home and going incognito. They’re there, just where!!
I’m trying to curb platforms a bit too. I’m on several, but I’m concentrating now on three. Facebook however I’m growing to dislike a lot. Another example of updates that are really making the user interface rubbish and over complicated with stuff I’m not there to even think about using!
I sense a scientific basis for your wisdom 🙂 And please excuse a typo (via SwiftKey) in my comment. Again.
You found me out 😂 in a previous life I was indeed working in the world of science!
No problem re typos either. It’s too easy in comments with assorted devices using auto incorrect or unpredictive predictive text.
I do like your approach to writer’s pause. Most people just want a pill to make it stop. However it’s not a single sides like measles but a personal experience that bears investigation and awareness. It may be necessary. It may be healthy. It may even be creative…
Very true Rachel. I pondered that quite a bit after talking to a few writers that locked on block and seemed to be over dwelling rather than stepping away from what they were stuck on. Not too dissimilar from a crossword clue you glare at for hours, walk away to come back and see the answer straight away!
In mindfulness circles negative reinforcement of an issue is known to be a trigger blocking an outcome too. If you can see that happening then that awareness can lead to a change of thinking too. Shifting to another project or prompt might help. Anything to stop the brain recycling the pause until it really knocks you back!
Really appreciate your comment too!
Great post! I’m a psychology PhD student and definitely think mindfulness can have a positive impact on writer’s block. I made a post on it a few months back. It delves a little bit more in the mechanisms of how I think it may may help as a psychological tool. If you get the chance, check it out. I would love to hear what you think!
Kudos to you Rob, a PhD is a proper commitment and very worthwhile. I did mine in biochemistry many moons ago! I’ve delved into mindfulness quite a bit too. That said for the readership here too much depth might have distracted from the message to writers about the intent to pause and take stock of the situation.
I’ll definitely pop over and have a read this week. Struggling for time at the moment and need some of that mindfulness to create a bit of temporal management!!!
Good post Gary. I think sometimes I suffer procrastination rather then writers block.. My main work in progress.. I’m definately procrastinating. I’m now currently writing 10000 words for March at chapter buzz.. I’m 4000 words in.. still going, story is growing.. and I guess I will see where it leads.. very few blog posts at the moment as I’m working on telling the Secret time warp.. its all an experience and all practice… but involves so much dedication… don’t think I will be tackling nano this year.. 50 000 words in one month is so much, the ideas really need to flow for that. I was looking at your ISWG.. just thinking at the moment.. Trying to keep lifes balance right, if that makes any sense at all…
Crumbs, chapter buzz? I don’t know that one…mind you there seems to be growing numbers of sites I haven’t heard of yet! Tell me about procrastinating though! If I took my own advice I’d be on several books a year by now. NaNo I can hit normally. My own natural rhythm is 1-2k words a day when in the zone. Trouble I really have is interruptions. Family and such like so it splits priorities. I guess that falls into time management on my behalf. Have you ever tried NaNo Camps? Same principle, but the writer sets their own target. You can therefore fit word count to your own lifestyle and link up in cabins with people you know.
I hadn’t heard of Nano camps, might have a look, thanks. Yes hard fitting writing in around demands of family. I often write in front of the television. right now its 8.36pm and my 5 year old still wants mummy.. yes split priorities.
I keep meaning to write a post about the camps. You’re not alone in being unaware of them. Most just assume it’s a one off marathon in November. They run three camps a year outside that.
It is hard fitting writing around family too. I was hoping it would ease as mine got older. Alas it’s becoming more time consuming lol. Well, in different ways that is. Can’t knock it though, just need that time management thing to be better!!!
I have googled nano camps, looks good! haven’t signed up yet though!
I’m sat here writing, neglecting two kids who are happily right now playing with the Lego. I need to get off my lap top and start to help with homework, plus ironing and vacuuming. The balance is hard, we want to write but life goes on around us and we have to see to that too!
Camps might suit you better at the moment then. Get a feel for NaNo proper whilst setting realistic goals for you. With writing it’s hard to balance time and reality in some respects. It absorbs me for sure. I refer to it as a reality zone out. I can have background noise totally erased from hearing when I’m fully into the story. As you say, life and reality don’t stop. No easy task that balancing act is it!
I will look at the nano camps. No it is not an easy balancing act.
Good show! In fact I shall attempt to put up a post about Camps this week and rally the cause!
I look forward to reading your post.
Love the California quote! Not sure if I believe in Writer’s Block either. I was an advertising copywriter for 40 years and had my fill of deadlines. Usually a walk around the block did the trick — or a big fat bill to pay.
It’s a funny one, so far it’s not happened to me and my issues have been caused by factors I’m aware of. That said, I have wondered if it’s a case of not believing until it happens to us? I guess that’s when mindfulness really comes in lol.
Then again, a big fat bill might be one heck of an incentive too!!!
Thanks Alice, been missing the BUYB folk. I’m in need of resurrecting something like it just for Sunday’s!!
How brave to say you are brave tackling this somewhat shady subject. Have a great Valentines week Gary
One tries to shed light on the shade Ellen! And this is aimed at the ISWG audience of people that might need advice or something to read!
Same to you too Ellen, and I must start back on the sharing group!! My bad!
I love your article more because writer’s block is what we all have to deal with as writers. But I have learned to deal with in many different ways. I try to be productive each day by taking regular breaks. It helps me keep my head sane since each break helps me rejuvenate and come back refreshed. I also try to write only on topics that interest me the most. It enables me to write seamlessly without hinderance.
Many thanks for the great comment and feedback. Writers Block or a perceived one can hit at any time due to circumstances we might not even be aware of. Your method sound like you’ve worked through it yourself. Regular breaks if things aren’t going right is a good one. Not too dissimilar to a crossword clue that defies continuous staring and pops an answer straight away after a distraction doing something else. Sanity is easy to lose in writing too. Especially if you immerse for long periods. I call that a writing hangover. Moving from fictional worlds back into reality.
When struggling for continuity I think stepping away and then coming back is a good way to check if it’s a case of block or just mental tiredness. So many triggers when you start looking. That’s why I referred to being mindful of what’s going on to ensure nothing else is affecting creativity.
Writing what you know and around interests is definitely something top authors advocate too. That said material research in new areas is also fascinating to me so that helps too!
Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment.
Hi! I use to write all the time growing up, but never felt it was good enough to share or thought people would say I wasn’t good at it. On my 50th birthday I walked in to a publishing company and paid to have what ever needed to be done for me to pick up a book 3 months later. When I received the 200 books that I had published I was excited and over joyed. I started hustling and selling then for 20 a book out of my trunk. On the airplane, airports and whatever city I visited. After I sold entire stock, I sat down and started to read all the excellent feed back through the emails that where pouring in for wanting ton read a part 2 and that’s when I froze. My mind went totally blank, I couldn’t stay focused. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write but was scared because of the pressure to be as good as the first. 1 year later and I just decided to push my self to understand that this block is stalling me from the platform I created. I really found your blog to help me in so many ways. I understand that only pushing through that block with bring better creativity because I have found that when I am stressed instead of worrying about something that can’t be fixed at the moment, I start writing a comedy story or taking my issue and created a story out it and a simple short story seems to pull me back up. I thank you for the insights.
Kudos with that first book and having the get go to sell them yourself. It’s a tough world to break into these days. Well, it probably always has been now I think about it! I can see how a successful first book can set a huge hurdle on a second. It becomes a benchmark that minds tend to overthink. More so if it’s a follow up because the readers now expect a high level. It does sound like your block was more a fear of not producing something as good rather than a vacuum of ideas. That’s what I call a mental block set up by overthinking. I also know that one which was the inspiration to write this post so others might step back and analyse why the perceived block is there. I really advocate stepping away from the source too and trying different projects. It keeps the writing habit going and that can inspire a return to the project that was stuck. Many people tend to hit this area with procrastination and that’s an asset if you’re mind is chasing avoidance rather than dealing with a problem. One reason I mentioned similarities in MH abd therapy mechanisms to combat that.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experience too. That and taking the time and, hopefully, some useful ideas to inspire a different approach if things stick. 😊
Great post, Gary. I sometimes feel too drained to write or have too many other things going on to focus. In these situations, I sometimes do a little test with myself. If I’m unable to complete a simple game on my phone on the first one or two tries, I tend to conclude that my gut is right, and it’s a bad day for me to write, or write anything that I’ll think is good tomorrow.
Thanks Raimey. I also find writing with intensity leaves me drained. NaNo has that effect. If I had a better writing routine I could probably adjust that aspect. Really good idea about simple games though. If one can’t even do them then writing gibberish won’t help much! Thank you for taking the time to read it too 😊