Writer’s block is legendary. If there’s one thing in common among all the writers that are and have been on this planet, it’s writer’s block. That uncanny episode where all your creative juices dry out, your ideas fly out the window, and suddenly you can’t write a damn good thing anymore.
Everyone, from the greats to the content farm writer struggling to get a break, has their own technique for dealing with writer’s block. Mark Twain said the secret to getting started is to break your complex tasks into small, manageable chunks. Jeff Goins said taking a walk may open up room in your mind for ideas to flow. And Maya Angelou said to just write.
I’m not discounting these pieces of advice. Many writers have benefitted from them. Yet many writers who once came unstuck courtesy of taking a walk, or just writing, or breaking their tasks into manageable chunks find themselves stuck once more. Why?
The thing is much of the advice on dealing with writer’s block is focused on surface issues. Instead of helping writers get to the root of their writer’s block, the advice teaches them how to blast through its symptoms. It’s like doctors giving their patients a painkiller to numb out the pain. They do that instead of going to the root of the problem and getting rid of it.
This is why, writers who once thought they got rid of writer’s block find themselves sitting face to face with it again. If we can learn how to get to the real issue instead of dilly-dallying around with symptoms, we may get ourselves unstuck sooner and never have to get stuck again.
The Different Kinds of Writer’s Block
There are a few kinds of writer’s block, with subtle differences among them. The easiest one to deal with is the kind that’s caused by fatigue. It can be physical, mental, or emotional fatigue. It doesn’t matter what makes you feel fatigued. If you do, then the solution is easy. Take a rest. Go for a walk. Get rid of anything that tires you. Exercise. Do something that energizes you. This is the kind of advice that works for writer’s block that happens for a day or two or even a few weeks or months. Once your brain gets back in the groove, you have no problems getting the words out at all.
But what about the kind of writer’s block that keeps you from writing for months on end? Or even years? You’ll know if you’re suffering from this kind of writer’s block. It’s when no matter how much play you do to stimulate your mind, nothing good ever comes out. it doesn’t matter how many writing retreats you take, how many miles you walk, or how many Lego castles you build. You’re still stuck and you know it.
And if you’re not yet sure you have writer’s block of the severe type, here are other symptoms:
- You talk more about your writing than you actually write.
- You start a project you’re excited about only to abandon it a few weeks later because you’re moving on to the next shiny object.
- You spread yourself too thin over several projects and complain you have no time or energy to write.
- You give in to distractions the moment they arise.
- You think your work isn’t good enough, so you keep deleting every paragraph you write.
Do any of these sound familiar to you? If it does, you very likely have a serious bout of writer’s block. Some people tell you writer’s block isn’t real. They say there’s no such thing as a plumber’s block or a physician’s block. They keep going through their day doing what plumbers and physicians do. They don’t use “getting stuck” as an excuse to not do their jobs. But writing isn’t the same as plumbing or healing people. It’s not any harder or easier, that’s for sure. But plumbers or physicians don’t often have to deal with the fear of being rejected, criticized, or not knowing what will happen if they do their jobs.
However hard others may deny the existence of writer’s block, it’s real. Because the cause of writer’s block is real. And this is a cause each one of us will have to face someday or another if we want to live productive, fulfilling lives as writers.
What’s the Real Cause of Writer’s Block?
Fear. That’s the real cause of writer’s block. It’s not the stressful political situation or the garage band practicing next door. Those are just excuses to keep you from getting to the root of it all.
And if you really look at it, most of the techniques promoted to cure writer’s block don’t really address fear at all. They may help you organize your tasks and choose one to work on. They may even help you force yourself to get a page down or two. But sometimes, people don’t understand that good writing isn’t done by force. Willpower alone can’t save you. Good writing, in fact the best writing, is done in a state of flow—where one doesn’t have any barriers to the tremendous trove of insights and ideas that are spilling themselves down onto paper.
For us to allow that state of flow to happen, and thus get rid of writer’s block, it’s imperative that we look at what fears may be keeping us from doing so.
Ask yourself. What are you afraid of?
Is it being criticized/shamed/rejected?
What aspiring writer hasn’t cowered in the fear of having your work slashed to pieces by people who may or may not know better? This fear is common among writers, but it still doesn’t make taking criticism easier. Getting criticized, as they say, comes with the package. No well-acclaimed writer has not received their unfair share of criticism. The trick is in knowing what to listen to and what to ignore. Hint: the people worth listening to are the ones who want you to succeed. And if you’re looking for a great technique to overcome this fear, look to John Steinbeck. He said to write to write to one person. Don’t think of writing to a mob of readers. A mob is far more likely to attack you than one person, even in your imagination. Find just one person, real or imaginary, and write to her alone. Hopefully, this will help you get more intimate with your reader and shed the fear that she might hurl invectives at you for bad writing.
Is it fear of not being good enough?
There’s a million, billion, trillion pages of content on the Internet. And that’s just what you can find online. For millennia, writers, poets, and artists have been dishing out libraries of insightful content that we know for sure haven’t been explored yet. Just how in the world are you going to stand out against such overwhelming competition? And how will you be able to come up with content that other people will choose to read over everything else that’s out there. This is a very valid fear. But just because it’s valid doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable. Here’s what I propose you do. Instead of thinking about how you can possibly crush your competition and get people to choose you, think about how you can enjoy your own writing. If you’re scared you won’t ever be good enough, then don’t even try to entertain the possibility of becoming a world-famous writer. Ditch it. Don’t try to be good enough. Sit down and write because you enjoy doing so. Make the experience good enough for you. Because you already are good enough, even if you don’t know it yet. The fame, the power, the riches—whatever it is you think you want—all of that will follow on their own.
Is it being controversial?
This one’s for the women writers. How many of you who, as children and teenagers and even adults, have been told to sit down and shut up? I certainly am one of the many women out there who were told in no uncertain terms that my opinions didn’t matter, my perception of reality is incorrect, and my emotions were nothing more than me being a drama queen. And when I felt the call to break out of my shell, I took years before I found the courage to write what I wanted. I’m, in fact, a work in progress and still have to work up the courage every day. That no woman ever made history without causing a stir is always a good daily reminder. If some people’s feathers get ruffled by a writer shining her light, then you’ll just have to leave them ruffled. It’s not your duty to smooth other people’s feathers down. Whatever you do, no matter how much love you infuse into your work, you won’t ever please all 7 billion people on the planet. That’s not what you came here for.
Is it failure?
The F word has gotten too much of a bad rap. People are afraid to fail because, to them, it means they’re not good enough. Or they didn’t give their best. Or they wasted too much time, effort, or money on something that didn’t turn out well. It’s practically humiliating to fail, and to do so in public—as it can happen for a writer—is even worse. But maybe failure isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe we’ve done failure a disservice for dissing the service it gives us. If we shift our perceptive a little, we might realize that there really are no good and bad experiences at all. Can you open yourself to the possibility that any experience, however other people may look at it, always serves you well? Whether you fail or succeed, there is always something good to be received from it. Failure isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s an experience to learn from. It’s a different kind of success to cherish. It’s a memory to be proud of about how you overcame the social stigma of failure and tried again. See? There are so many other better ways to look at failure. Take your pick, or create your own perspective. Whatever you do, know that there are many ways to look at failure. You don’t have to take one that doesn’t feel good to you.
Is it success?
More than fear of failure, fear of success can be all the more paralyzing. When you fail, nothing changes. You go back into the same comfort zone you were in. But when you succeed, everything changes. It’s like God has come in and turned your world upside down overnight. Suddenly, you have all these meetings to go to, these people to have dinner with, these responsibilities to take care of. It’s scary just thinking of all the expectations you have to live up to. But hear this. The only expectations you have to live up to are your own. Deep inside, you know you have the highest expectations of yourself—and that’s cool because your Inner Self knows you can meet those expectations. Once you truly get that, there will be no fear of stepping out into the light. You won’t be scared of people seeing you for who you truly are as portrayed by your own creative work. Once you own your success, you’ll be able to inspire others to own their own light as well. Remember what Marianne Williamson said: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
Is it the unknown?
Probably the biggest, darkest fear we all have is that of the unknown. And a lot of that often comes up when we’re so deep into what we’re writing. For all the glamour that the movies pour into the profession of writing, we know better. Writing is a solitary activity. We start out thinking that we want to write to make the world brighter, better, or more beautiful in some way. But somewhere down the line, we realize writing is a daunting journey of self-discovery, where we find pieces of ourselves we have previously ignored speaking to us through the words we put down. And that is one hell of a scary ride. It may feel like you have no control over yourself. Like you’re not the one putting those words down on paper. I honestly have no solution to this fear but to embrace it. Give in. Surrender. Allow that unknown part of you to take over. You may never know what magic it may bring if you don’t give it a try. And if you’re one helluva control freak like I used to be, it can be good to know that You, as in You with a capital Y, is still and always will be in control.
How to Get Rid of It
I can give you all the coolest, latest techniques to get rid of the fear that causes writer’s block. They definitely help. In my case, using a combination of meditation, exercise, EFT, and subliminal messaging helps me find the courage to write more and more. But they can only do so much. These techniques won’t face your fears for you. You’ll have to do that yourself. Because nothing will ever get rid of our fears. We simply have to allow them to leave. And for that to happen, we have to feel them first.
Start with what you know best. Writing! If you have writer’s block, look around inside and ask yourself what you’re scared of. Criticism? Rejection? Mediocrity? Failure? Success? Yourself? Write that down. Put in all the details. Visualize all the worse-case scenarios you’ve got brewing inside that stubbornly creative head of yours and write them down. Write about why you think that will happen. Write about how you feel about that. Write about where you feel the fear in your body. Write about where you feel the fear outside your body. And don’t forget to write about what the fear looks like to you—is it a dark cloud looming over you? A monster under the bed? A furry creature with claws to snap you in two? Have you noticed you’ve finally broken off your writer’s block and you’re already writing something helpful?
If you’re big on logic, it helps to question your fear. Take all those doomsday scenarios in your head and analyze them one by one. One of the tools I like is Byron Katie’s The Work. I know. It looks intimidating by its name alone, but The Work is not much work at all. How it works is you take a statement and run it through four simple questions.
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
Now, take your original statement and turn it around. For example, if you say, “People won’t like what I write,” your turnaround could be “I won’t like what I write” or “People will not not like what I write.” Run this through the four questions again and see what comes up. For a more detailed explanation of The Work, you can check it out here.
Once you break down your statements, you will be able to look at your fears in a more rational light. It goes without saying, though, that fear isn’t very rational. You can give all the best arguments in the world about why you shouldn’t be scared, yet you still feel scared. That’s fine. That’s natural. Fear will always crop up. It’s part of being human. But you don’t have to be a slave to fear. If you hadn’t already done so when you’ve written about your fear, then I suggest to do this now.
Simply feel the fear and let it be. It’s not going to be easy with all those thoughts running through your head, so find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed by anyone. You can close your eyes and breathe deeply to relax yourself. Once everything is settled, turn your thoughts to your fears. Bring back all the worst-case scenarios in your head. If you do this well, it won’t take long before you start feeling the fear again. It shows up differently for everyone. Some people may feel a tight gripping fist around their heart or a twisting in their stomach. Some may sense their heartbeat quickening and their breaths shortening. For others, it may be a dark veil draped over them or a straitjacket rendering their arms unusable. Others may feel none or all of these at the same time.
Allow it to be there. Don’t fight it. Don’t analyze it. Don’t judge it. Don’t even make it good or bad. Just look for where it is and feel it as it is. Give this a few minutes, and you’ll find that the fear will have shifted. You may feel relieved. Sometimes, you may feel that it has gotten worse. That’s fine. That means the fear on the surface has been cleared and your deeper fears have come up to be released. Take them through the cycle. Write about your newfound fears. Analyze them. Take them through The Work. Or just feel them as they are.
Chances are, as you acknowledge the fears and let them go, you’ll open up the space around your writer’s block and give it the room to shift and go off on its own. No fooling yourself to believe it doesn’t exist. No tricking your brain to be more creative. Just sitting down and letting it be.