I believe there are three strains of writer’s block, and each calls for a different solution. But they all demand the same resolve: you must never give up.
Those who practice the craft of writing are split on a fundamental question that plagues many writers: Is there really such a thing as writer’s block? Some believe the term is too simplistic, that “writer’s block” is really a mixture of issues lumped by despairing creatives into one broad diagnosis, mostly to make it easier to define a cure in the same way an uninspired doctor might treat a broad range of ailments with, “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”
Others, including prolific writer Erica Jong, believe writing blocks stem from the fear of being judged. “If you imagine the world listening,” she writes in The New Writer’s Handbook: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft & Career, “you’ll never write a line.”
I’ve been writing my whole life. I started as a newspaper reporter, continuously prodded and encouraged by hard-and-fast deadlines, and more recently have written books that speak to my experience over the years as president of BookBaby. And I’ll admit, I’ve suffered from different strains of writer’s block at various times. So I fit into the camp that believes there is such a thing as writer’s block and, broadly speaking, I’ll go as far as to say there are three primary flavors of writer’s block.
#1: Where to begin?
This is probably the kind of writer’s block most writers are familiar with. It’s the anxiety that eats at you when you’re staring at a blank page, unable to commit to starting because every idea strikes you as terrible. You delete or erase every first sentence. Good ideas feel elusive, impossible to grasp.
At its worst, this kind of writer’s block compels you to quit before you’ve really even started.
The good news is, for this type of block, there’s a tried-and-true cure: find something — anything — to write about. Whether you ease yourself into writing by submitting to some sort of exercise or writing prompt, jump ahead to a scene you’re ready to write that takes place later on in your story, or spend time describing the setting in which your book begins, the key is to get words flowing and forge ahead.
To force yourself to keep writing is like giving your work-in-progress CPR, pounding at your empty page with a defibrillator, shocking a heartbeat back into your seemingly lifeless piece. It’s hard, yes, and not always pleasant. But, it will get you writing and, often, these difficult sessions produce excellent work.
#2: The road to nowhere
The second strain of writer’s block is much different in nature but equally terrifying. It’s the block that you run into when you’ve reached a point in your story where you have no idea what happens next. You’ve gotten a lot of words down — you can be at 10,000 words or more — but you’ve arrived at a creative impasse. Suddenly, the outline you were so excited about reveals itself as nonsensical. You can’t get words down because they lead to a flawed point of logic or they are untethered from what you’ve written to this point.
Here, in contrast to what you should do with the previous version, you should pause, back up, and rethink things.
What I mean by that is, review what you’ve already written. Go back, re-read, and find the kernel of inspiration that’s driven you this far: the theme or motif that had gotten you so excited or the plot development you were preparing for. Most of the time, it’s in there somewhere and you’ll find it and then identify where you went astray. If you can identify that fork in the road where you made the fateful departure, you can correct it. Or perhaps you can figure out how to get your story back on track from where you are now.
Mark Twain famously became stuck during a key moment in his classic book, Huckleberry Finn. Eventually, he decided to have Huck and Jim take a wrong turn on the river and end up lost. That twist helped him to complete the story.
This might be the most vicious version of writer’s block: the kind that descends upon you after the work is complete.
This is the kind I struggle with most today. When I finish a long project, I can’t keep myself from imagining all the different reasons people might think it’s lacking. I lend outsized credence, in other words, to potential critics. The proverbial online reviewers waiting in the shadows to pick my piece apart.
The truth is, those critics don’t exist and the sooner you realize it, the better. While being able to objectively assess your work is important, you’ll never complete and publish anything unless you find a way to silence that voice inside your head trying to convince you not to. If you can’t, these invisible critics will convince you to do something stupid — like tuck your work under a mattress.
Self-doubt is an inherent part of the writing process, but you can’t let it derail the process. It’s just as Ms. Jong said: “If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line.”
At the end of the day, to combat writer’s block is to engage in the sometimes not-so-fun-work of being a writer.
The only cure, ultimately, is to not let yourself lose the battle — at whichever point in your drafting process you end up confronting it. Plow through self-doubt. Get words down on the page. Revise when necessary.
Each strain of writer’s block calls for a different solution. But each demands the same resolve: you must never give up.
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