Until recently, I believed in the concept of writer’s block. Since I was young, I had heard people mention the artistic frustration writers get when they cannot find inspiration for their work and are subsequently unable to write. Writer’s block is represented in a scene in Big Fish where Steve Buscemi’s character, the poet Norther Winslow, works on a poem for a whole ten years as he squanders his time in the magical town of Spectre. Showing his poem to Edward Bloom, we see it in its entirety: “Grass so green / Skies so blue / Spectre is really great!” When Edward is understandably surprised by its brevity, Norther snatches his poem back, defensively replying, “This is why you should never show a work in progress.”
I used to think that I had writer’s block all the time, and much like Norther, I was defensive in my lack of progress. I would sit at my desk and try to write, but it was like my mind hit a brick wall. An uncomfortable silence filled my brain, yet I felt reassured. I simply had Writer’s Block, which meant there was nothing I could do. I was struck with an ailment that anyone who was fool enough to try to put words to paper experienced.
Over the past year as I have been submerging myself in the writing world, I have heard various writers scoff at the idea of writer’s block. Some argue that it does not exist, and that instead, it is only the situation of a writer facing an external issue which is unrelated to writing. This idea seems to go against everything that writers are known to be, or at least, how I had been conditioned to envision them. We are supposed to be distraught, frantic, constantly searching for the right story, the right word. We are supposed to stew around the house in a frenzy when we can’t find it.
However, once I began surrounding myself with actual other writers, I realized, in fact, that none of them were suffering in anguish. No, on the contrary, most writers I have met have seemed quite happy. But what explains those bouts of mindlessness, those hours of staring at a blinking cursor on the computer screen, typing nothing but a sentence or two, sentences which are invariably erased upon rereading?
I can only speak for myself, but I, too, came to believe that my writing block was fairly unrelated to my actual writing abilities. Once I began examining the inner reasons for why I struggled to get words down, I realized that I had used the concept of writer’s block as a way to shift the responsibility for carrying out the hard work of writing away from myself. If I saw myself as divinely struck by a period of writer’s block, then that gave me an easy out from completing my writing that day. It isn’t my fault I’m not writing. It’s the Universe’s fault; it isn’t giving me any inspiration.
I began to attribute what I had formerly called writer’s block to two things:
1) Lack of self-discipline. This revelation was a hard one for me to admit. I was lazy when it came to writing. Why? Because writing is hard. If I am writing non-fiction, it is tough subject matter sometimes, especially if the piece is about something deeply personal to me. Likewise, if I am writing fiction, it is difficult for me to craft dialogue the way I feel it should appear or to shape characters believably. Writing is a skill, and I hear it over and over in the writing workshops I’ve attended and writing books, articles, tips, etc. that I’ve read: you have to practice. Even when you don’t feel like it, when you’re in a bad mood, or tired after work. The worst story ever written is still better than the story that was never written.
I have made strides in improving my self-discipline, although it is always an on-going process for me. Some things that have been helpful for me are:
- Using a planner – I have a planner that I use for planning out my personal life. I use it for reminding myself of bill due dates, shopping items, birthdays, and so on. When I also began using my planner for structuring my writing, it helped me to keep on task with my writing. For example, if I have a goal of submitting a short story for publication in the month of December, I can use my planner to break the goal into manageable pieces:
Week 1: Write the story
Week 2: Edit the story
Week 3: Research publications and submission guidelines
Week 4: Submit the story
- Tracking my writing time – Each day, I keep track of how many minutes I spend writing, and I put the information into a bar graph. That sounds incredibly meticulous, but it only takes a few seconds to do each day. For someone like myself, seeing a visual representation of how much time I have been devoting to writing helps keep me on track. I can see which days of the week I am most prolific with writing. It also helps to keep me going; if I know that I have written five days in a row, I am more likely to keep that pattern going.
2) Anxiety. The second realization I had for why I was struggling with putting words to paper is that I was, and still am, anxious about my writing. I worry that my writing sounds terrible. I worry I won’t write enough of a certain story, or I will write too much and drag it out, or that my stories will be too boring for anyone to read. What if someone that knows me reads one of my stories and thinks, This is it? This is all she wrote? I realized that the worries plagued me when I sat there at my keyboard, and I had let them all build up inside my head so much that they formed a barrier between me and my writing.
I learned there were ways to combat this anxiety that interfered with not only my writing but other aspects of my life.
- Meditating – Clearing my mind for a few minutes a day helps me to regain perspective. Meditation allows me to focus on my breathing and control my stress when I have those moments of feeling inadequate as a writer.
- Yoga – I fought trying yoga for the longest time. Friends have been recommending it to me for the past decade, and I had somewhere along the line convinced myself that it would never work for me, even though I had never actually tried it. When I moved to a small town and was looking for things to do, I reluctantly signed up for a yoga class and discovered that I am not only capable of doing it, but that I also love it. Not just for the exercise aspect but for the anxiety-reducing effects of yoga as well. Yoga focuses on breathing and relaxing. I find that my mind doesn’t race so much, and I am in a peaceful state of being that lets me approach writing without feeling built up with anxiety. It sounds counterintuitive, but spending time away from writing to do yoga has actually helped me to produce more writing.
- Journaling – This method for overcoming writer’s block might be cheating a bit as technically, journaling is writing. But I realized that the more I journal, the less I encounter “writer’s block.” For me, journaling is a way to get words flowing even if the words aren’t part of the piece you are working on. Even if I am working on a science fiction story, if I take a break from it and turn to journaling about my day for a bit, I am comforted by the fact that no, I have not completely lost the ability to string two words together. Journaling helps keep me feeling like a writer and in the end, you never know whether some of that journaling might turn into an idea or help you work through a tricky section in your story.
Do you have more tips for overcoming writer’s block? Please leave them in the comment section.