Not long ago, the concept of writer’s block didn’t even exist. But once the term was created in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, those of us who write glommed on to it like nobody’s business.
Before I go any further, I want to be clear: Serious psychological issues can make it very difficult to write, and I don’t mean to trivialize these (nor am I qualified to address them). Sadness, fatigue, physical pain, and substance abuse can get in the way of being able to write, and this post won’t address these either. Finally, when parts of a writer’s life are in deep disarray, it can be hard to compartmentalize writing and get down to business as an author, and I certainly don’t have a complete solution for this, either. But if your blockage problem is less deep-seated, this advice might help you kick your writer’s block out of the way.
Let me put it this way.
You don’t get “eater’s block.” You’re either hungry enough to eat or you’re not.
You don’t get “pushups block.” You’re either motivated to drop and give yourself twenty or you’re not.
You don’t get “mopper’s block.” Either mopping the kitchen is worth doing now or it’s not, and if it’s not, you’re consciously choosing to do something else with your time.
Which brings me to the thing about writer’s block. To the extent that the phenomenon even exists, it’s a highly unhelpful concept for those of us who are authors.
Not too many years ago, the concept of writer’s block didn’t even exist, at least not exactly. But once the term was created in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, and the concept popularized, those of us who write – or need a reason not to – glommed on to it like nobody’s business.
No longer were we lazy, unmotivated, fearful, etc. We were “blocked.”
I think the secret to overcoming writer’s block is to look at what the blockage really means, in plain, unromantic language. And what it really means is probably one of the following:
“I don’t have a deadline for this particular writing project so I am not going to work on it right now.”
“I’m scared of writing so I’m not going to write right now.”
“I’m feeling lazy, so I’m not going to write right now.”
“That marble pound cake in the pantry is calling to me, so I’m not going to write right now.”
And so forth.
All of which are sort of valid excuses. But you should call them what they are.
Sometimes writing is a glorious, effortless gift from the muse. Sometimes it’s like doing squats, something you have to get through if you want some sort of result. You don’t get to choose which form writing is going to take at which time. You do, however, get to choose how to react when the writing feels like a painful physical workout. You can say “oh, I’ve got writer’s block” and give up. Or you can realize that nobody enjoys doing squats, or writing that feels like squats, and most of all, nobody enjoys starting to do squats. Since that’s the case, and since you won’t be able to get to the next glorious session with the muse without getting through this, you might as well get down to it.
Spotlight on the “no deadline” problem
For me, one big source of what masquerades as writer’s block is the problem of not having a deadline. This often preys on me on weekends and other days when there are no looming due dates on my schedule. On such days, I know, on the one hand, that I need to write because it’s good for my psyche – true – and because, ultimately, I will need the fruits of my writing labor for upcoming projects. On the other hand, there’s nothing due on Monday and there are conflicting priorities to attend to: pointless ones, like checking Facebook, and meaningful ones, like hanging out with the family, or getting the bills paid.
The hour-a-day solution
The solution for the no deadline version of writer’s block is simple, and is far too infrequently practiced. It’s the one I learned from the great Ann Patchett: stare at a blank screen with no Internet connection for a solid hour. I can all but promise you that the muse will visit you, probably within that hour. If not, then certainly tomorrow, within the second of your dedicated hours. And if you can’t devote an hour a day to your writing, then, well, take a good look at why that is. It may be a problem, but it’s assuredly not writer’s block.
When fear causes the blockage
Fear, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article is one of the most common reasons for not writing. Here are some of the shades of fear that writers encounter, and some solutions.
- Fear of the project being too big, beyond your abilities, or another similar concern. This is a very common issue. And the solution to this is Annie Lamott’s great Bird by Bird approach. Don’t try to write the whole thing, and certainly don’t try to write the whole thing perfectly. Instead, you give yourself permission to write a small part – a page, a paragraph, a chapter – and to do so poorly at first (Lamott is famous for advocating “shitty first drafts” as a liberating technique).
- Fear of completion. Again, quite common. Some writers fear completing their book/story/article because once they do, they will no longer have their constant companion (the writing project), and, probably even scarier, their work will be out there to be judged. One solution for this, at least a partial one, is to tell yourself that as soon as this project is done, you will, Trollope-style, immediately start on the next one. There are other flavors of completion fear as well: for example, maybe if you finish the piece you’re working on, you’ll need to figure out how to shop it, or how to use WordPress so you can post it, or find a designer for the book cover. All of which can masquerade as writer’s block until you call yourself on it. The solution for most of these mini-fears is to recognize them and thus end the masquerade.
- Fear of falling short. One concept understood by seasoned writers is that great writers don’t publish only great work. I’m not saying you should intentionally publish bad work, and, as anyone who knows me knows, I myself write, rewrite, re-re-write and so forth before I put anything out there. But it is helpful to understand that even if you publish something that is a “failure,” so to speak, it’s not you who failed, it’s that one piece that failed. Great writers publish great work, good work, and poor work; legends in their own minds don’t publish anything. Because as long as they don’t publish, they can’t be judged.
You don’t learn to write by not writing
The biggest problem with writer’s block is this: You can’t learn to write by not writing, you only learn how to not write. Like most things, writing is something that is learned best by trying. Yet, tradition looks at writing as something that is improved by waiting for the muse to visit, during which waiting time you’re not doing a damn thing to move your writing forward.
Now, there is certainly such a thing as not being inspired. Or not having the right plot twist or ending yet. And sometimes, there is no question, this benefits from a break. “Sleep on it” is a very valid creative technique, and “walk on it” may be an even better one. But just just because you don’t have the right Hollywood ending, or are at a loss for the perfect word or phrase, or haven’t come up with your “I’ll have what she’s having” showstopper, it doesn’t give you a pass to wallow in so-called writer’s block. There’s still plenty of pushup-type work to do: Working on your plot. Refining your existing sentences. Organizing your existing paragraphs on the page. And, no, checking your Facebook status updates isn’t part of this any more than it is for an athlete who temporarily can’t work one part of his body due to a muscle strain.
Get to it.
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