Writer’s block is as old as time. In fact, it seems cliché to write about it. I don’t have any sure-fire cures, and there’s nothing I can add that you couldn’t find with a simple search. But what I can talk about is that for all we hear and talk about writer’s block, we don’t talk about how the act of writer’s block makes us feel as writers. Or I should say, how it makes me feel as a writer. I get so frustrated! So many times I feel like the story is there, the words are there, but I can’t visualize them. I can’t get the words to flow from my brain to my fingers. Or sometimes it just seems like the story won’t come. Like ideas for this blog. At the start, they came fast and furious. But it seems like the second I decided to go to once a week, the ideas all dried up. Or the ones I had just didn’t seem to fill out.
One of the things so many people and advice columns say is “Don’t be so hard on yourself, everyone gets writer’s block.” And its true. We all are affected like this. So yes, I shouldn’t be hard on myself. But to me, saying “everyone gets writer’s block” is the same as telling me when I’m in a panic attack “There’s no reason to be anxious, just calm down”. Yes, I would love to just calm down. But by the time I’m in the attack, my body is on its own rollercoaster that only stops when it wants to. So telling me to “just calm down”, as helpful as people mean it to be, just adds shame on top of the attack because I can’t calm down. And anger. And frustration. And a lot of other emotions. And while having writer’s block is nowhere as serious as having a panic attack (at least not for me), sometimes the saying “everyone gets it” just adds to the frustration and shame. If everyone in the entirety of time since man developed writing gets it, don’t you think we’d have a cure for it by now?
Yes, I know there are tips and techniques like I said earlier (Google is your friend). And a lot of them work. But it still doesn’t stop the cascade of emotions that come when you’re faced with a blank white screen and idle fingers.
A lot of it reminds me of when I was going back to school and would hit finals week. The entire semester I would be “I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m ok”, and then suddenly the last two weeks everything would seem to come crashing down. And no matter how much I prepared, no matter how much I thought I was ready for the crash, it was always somehow worse than what I expected. And of course, I survived. And of course, millions of other people have experienced finals and survived. But it doesn’t mean that it still didn’t suck going through it every time. Which is the same way I feel with writer’s block. I’ve been through it before. I know I’ll get through it. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t bite trying to get past it.
And so, I’ve adapted my “5 steps of finals” (based on the five steps of dealing with grief) again to be the “5 steps of writer’s block”.
We’ve all been there. You set your time to write. Maybe you have a procedure. For me, I like putting on some good music. A glass of wine. Set the mood for whatever I’m writing: music, lighting, atmosphere. So, it can be incredibly frustrating when you’ve gone through all the effort and you’re ready to work and normally things flow out of your mind, to have an absolutely blank slate. What’s more, it can be difficult to understand what exactly is going on. The sooner I can recognize the writer’s block, the faster I can try things. I can change the project I’m working on. I can go for a walk around the block. I can start any number of things to jumpstart my brain, from brainstorming to art visualizing to just meditating. But if I don’t catch it fast, I can find I’ve spent an hour or more doing nothing but staring at my computer. Sometimes the writing will not come, and I might as well spend that time doing something else. And sometimes, after moving on to something else, the ideas get jarred lose and want to start flowing again.
Ever been working on a project and you think you’re almost to the end but you can’t think up the final scene? You could probably label this frustration as much as anger, as I think one leads into the other. But there have been times when my writer’s block has been so bad I hated my laptop. Or when I was editing my book and I had read through it so many times, I felt I was going to scream if I had to read through it one more time. There were times I hated it. Even this blog. I am really enjoying it as an outlet for my thoughts and love of researching new topics. But there are times when I feel myself resenting the deadlines, even if they are self-imposed. But the truth is, when I breath and get past the moment of anger, I realize that it was just that. Momentary. The second I published my book, I felt such a high and couldn’t wait to start on the next one. I love seeing my blogs published and the personal satisfaction of making the project happen. The trick is to remember all of that when I’m in the midst of being frustrated, so that it doesn’t develop into anger. I’m still learning tricks to diffuse myself. I go for a walk. I go put a puzzle together with my boyfriend. Anything to pull myself away from the frustration. True, the writer’s block may still be there when I return. But hopefully I’ll be in a much better frame of mind.
You can also call this burn out, being overwhelmed, whatever pushes you to the edge. If Denial and Anger turn chronic, they can lead to crying. In finals, this was usually the point where I had been up studying for too many days with too little sleep and a mountain left to climb. You could also call this exhaustion. I remember trying to climb a huge sand dune once, all the way from the bottom (I had to climb back up because it was the only way back to the parking lot). Every step forward seemed to be two steps backward. At first, it wasn’t bad. Just keep climbing, I told myself. But about halfway through it seemed impossible. All of the doubt started creeping in. There was no way I was going to do this. I was never going to make it back up. I was a loser. And so on. But you know what? I kept climbing. And I eventually made it. While I’ve never hit anything as bad as finals burnout, I have hit the exhausted part of writing. Especially with editing. Draft after draft after version. Sending it to the beta readers. Sending it to the editors. Grammar. Punctuation. I just wanted it published. I thought who am I to publish a book? If I just stopped, no one would know. No one would care. No ones going to read it anyway, right? Why would they? I’m a nobody. But you know what? I finally finished the book. I got published. And some people bought it. And now I’m having a blast with it. So, the moral of the story? It may feel overwhelming. You may feel like you’ll never finish. But keep pushing through and you will. And while editing may not fall in the definition of writer’s block for some people, it is the same thing when you are writing. You start our really fired up. Then it seems impossible that you can write an entire book. You start to doubt the story, the characters, yourself. But if you keep going and you keep trying, you’ll get past the writer’s block. You’ll find the story you want to tell, the way you want to tell it. And you’ll finish the project. You just have to keep going.
You can also call this boredom. Boredom born out of frustration (sense a theme here?). You can also call it self-fulfilling prophecy: my book’s going to suck, so why waste the time writing it. But even on its lowest setting, procrastination can be really destructive. Procrastination can come from anything, but when it’s paired with writer’s block it can be even easier to enter into and even harder to stop. Like this blog post. I’ve had “write blog post” on my to do list for days. Why did I procrastinate? Because I couldn’t come up with an idea. So it was easier to make up excuses. I need to do this project. I need to do this chore. I need to work on a short story. I need to do (insert anything here other than what I’m supposed to be doing). Then I find myself on deadline, I start scrambling, and the whole process (denial, anger, etc.) starts over again. But the deadliest part of this is that when you live in a world of self-imposed deadlines, it is way too easy to drop the deadlines. To drop the project. The next thing you know, its been months. Years. And you’ve lost all your mojo. Making it even harder to get back on the horse and get going again. So, stop procrastinating. I know, easier said than done. But it can be dealt with. The biggest thing to remember is: any writing is good writing. I once heard someone say that procrastination in some part comes from our inner critic: I’m going to suck at this, so why do it? So, start talking to yourself better. Write to write. Even if you are writing complete gibberish. You always have the right to go back and change it, even scrap it entirely. But make yourself do it, because the more you do it the more it helps change your brain and making it an enjoyable experience. Pretty soon, you won’t look at it as a chore, or a waste of time, but a passion. The more you find the positive reward, the less your brain wants to let you weasel out of it.
Acceptance might be a more positive aspect of this one, but this step seems to depend on whether you are making it negative or positive. There was a moment in my life that I resigned myself to the writer’s block. I was never going to be a writer. My stories sucked. I couldn’t come up with anything good. So, I stopped writing. I stopped dreaming. And that part of my passion died for a long time. In truth, a part of me died. A part that I rediscovered going back to school and writing again. And as I woke up, I realized how much the negativity, the frustration, the anger, the procrastination had stolen from me. So, I sought to start fighting them. Learning how to negate them. To work through the emotions of the writer’s block and move forward in a positive manner. And I learned how to deal with the fact that writer’s block occurs, and comes back. Again. And again. That’s when I finally started learning a more positive form in acceptance: I can accept that writer’s block will happen, but I don’t have to accept that I have to go through all the destructive emotions every time. I can just move on. Work on something else. Try something else. But keep writing. And keep making things happen. And accept that writer’s block is going to happen. But you can move past it. And do better.
Writer’s block is personal to each of us. It manifests in different ways. It has different cures. But the point is that it does happen, and it does affect you. I’ve had to learn how it affects me, and how to recognize the signs before any of the steps gets too far into a bad place. Because writing is my passion. And just like I don’t let my panic attacks stop me from speaking in front of people or reaching for my dreams, I’m not letting writer’s block and all the negative emotions that come with it stop me from realizing my writing goals and dreams. If writing is your passion, don’t let it stop you. Understand your steps, and how it affects you. Learn how to accept it and keep writing so you can keep enjoying your passion.