SECTION ONE: Intro
To prepare for this article, I reached out to twenty different writers in different genres and stages of their writing careers. In the group of twenty writers nine identified as men, nine identified as women, and two identified as trans. The age range of the people queried ran from fourteen years of age to eighty-seven. Half of the writers were not American and six of the twenty were people of color. This article isn’t scientific so please give me a pass on my sample size. Words written here are strictly my point of view based on my experience, questions I asked my sample group, and the dizzying array of commentary found on social media. Seriously…it was dizzying.
When I asked, “What is your definition of writer’s block?” I received several different grades of response ranging from “It’s a myth” to “I experience it when I’m depressed” to “It’s something every writer goes through” to “I gave up writing for years because of it.”
I sought out several definitions from academic sources too. The best-distilled definition I came up with is this is related to certain conditions.
- Feeling unmotivated
- Unsure where to start
- Stuck in current work-in-progress (WIP)
- Reckoning with the futility of writing
All five of these conditions describe a writer stepping away from writing. I’m not sure why some do this. I’m not sure why some writers never experience writer’s block. I feel pretty strongly it is not an event that happens to all writers; rather, it is a circumstance created by some writers. I feel if you accept the condition of writer’s block, you accept the condition of not being a writer, albeit temporarily.
SECTION TWO: Conditions
“I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.” – Barbara Kingsolver
Fortune has allowed me to visit and to live in a number of countries around the world. That fortune was called into question a few times as conditions in some of these countries were abominable. Abject poverty is difficult to take in and accept as fact. And yet, writers in these countries put pen to page amid bombings, genocide, war, poverty and other atrocities.
In the 90s I was sitting next to a few people in a lowland tropical forest village in the Mexican State of Nayarit, I asked them if they had any hobbies. ‘Hobbies’ didn’t translate very well in my broken Spanish so I asked what they did for fun. One woman about twenty years old shrugged her shoulders. The man sitting next to her pointed up the mountain and, with his two fingers switching back and forth, motioned walking. I assumed he meant he liked to hike. The third woman answered in English that was better than my Spanish, “I like to write.” I immediately replied, “Yo tambien!” (Me too!) We chatted for a few moments and I asked her where she wrote. I was thinking at home with a laptop or on her phone. She pulled out a notebook and a lead pencil sharpened with a knife. She said, “Aqui, por todos partes.” (Here, everywhere.)
I was staying in their rugged, little village they called a ‘rancho’. I was climbing the mountain behind their town looking at the wild orchids and bromeliad growing there. We would come off the mountain each afternoon drenched in sweat from the humidity. We stopped each day to get bottled water at the scrawny little store in town where my friend often sat. I would stay and chat with her, as much as we could through our language barrier. We conversed about a multitude of things, including the big WB.
She looked puzzled. I imagined I must not be translating the phrase correctly so I pulled my translation app up on my phone. What came up were strict translations, nothing as nuanced as what I was trying to say. I finally dispelled with the term and asked, “¿Qué pasa cuando no puedes escribir?” (What do you do when you cannot write? – or hopefully something close to that!) She looked even more confused and asked in almost perfect English, “Why am I not able to write?”
I offered a few examples and the smile grew on her face.
“That sounds like a Gringo problem to me.” We both laughed.
She may be right. Well, not racially of course, but she was making an elegant statement about “Conditions”. Here was a woman who made less than six dollars a day, resided in a village without running water, lived in a cement brick house with no air conditioning in a climate that hosted hot and humid weather for most of the year. She lived close to drug cartel activity, and the list goes on. Yet among all of the things that could prevent her from writing, she never chose not to write.
As I sit here in my air-conditioned home, checking my direct deposit bank account on a phone whose monthly charge could buy her several weeks of basic groceries, I am reminded: not writing is a choice. We are not subjected to some outside force. Correction: some writers, it is true, live in regions where they can be imprisoned for what they write. Some writers are killed for what they write. I’m assuming though, if you have downloaded this, or are reading it on social media, those conditions do not apply to you. And also, as a full disclaimer, I’m someone who deals with anxiety and depression.
So, what is your choice: to write, or not to write?
SECTION THREE: Choosing to Write or Not to Write
Let’s forget about my premise: Accepting you have writer’s block is accepting you are temporarily not a writer. POOF. Gone. Let’s focus on the conditions writers say bring about the dreaded WB.
1. Feeling Unmotivated
“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’” — Maya Angelou
Everyone runs into this problem. The thing that every writer must develop though is the good habit of not allowing that feeling to affect your action, specifically writing. If you allow your feeling to dictate your action this is training yourself to fail.
However, before we bring out the flogs to whip you, let’s go back to the root of the problem: motivation. There are two kinds of motivation: real ones and Facebook ones. Real motivations are: inner passion, enjoyment of creativity, and the desire to create worlds. Facebook motivations are: wanting a writing table that looks perfect for selfies, looking at all the CreateSpace warriors and wanting to imitate them, or designing fifteen separate covers for your novel while posting about your intention to write a novel instead of actually writing the novel.
If you find yourself in the category of “Facebook motivations”, you have my sympathy. I will give you a piece of advice that perhaps you missed when your mother was teaching you that everything you do is perfect, or that you can do anything you set out to do. Here it is: Writing takes more than intent, it takes dogged hours of work and a level of inherent skill that some people just don’t have. We need only watch YouTube videos of people auditioning for American Idol or The Voice to know not everyone can do everything.
Now, if you are in the category of “Real Motivations”, there is hope! All you need to do is change the condition of your mind. Let’s get real for a moment. I want you to try something. Take a Post-It note. Look at it. Write the name: Helen Hill. Now say it: Helen Hill. She was a writer, among many, who truly experienced writer’s block. She experienced writer’s block because she was murdered. She wrote with a passion. She was critically acclaimed. Her works were magnificent, yet she will never be heard from again. Think about her when you need motivation. Think of reporters embedded in Syria who write for the truth. Think of the young girl, kidnapped by Boko Haram, who wrote notes on scraps of paper to keep herself sane. Write for Tupac. Write for Chris Kyle. Write for Viola Herms Drath. Find a writer who you identify with who has been killed or who has died. If you can’t find motivation within yourself, write for your Post-It writer until your own motivation returns.
Choose to write, because others don’t have the option.
2. Unsure Where to Start
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” — Mark Twain
Most folks can’t make the leap into writing because the first word, sentence or paragraph is all they can see. It’s like standing in front of a wall where your story is on the other side. The first word, sentence or paragraph is your wall. You want it to be perfect. Pro-tip: being perfect is like not moving past your first question on the SATs because you’re not sure about it. Skip the first question, go on to the second, third or fourth until you find a question you know. Go back to the first question later.
Dive in where your mind is at, not where the page should begin. Your logical brain is telling you to write the beginning, “It was a dark and stormy night,” but your writer heart is dying to write about “the striped leaves falling reminded Slicklork of the incinerator ashes of Trivona and his petulant, three-legged lover named Socks.” If you have a block, you aren’t going where the words are. Go there.
Go to Socks.
Reality Check: if you are diving into the creative process and you think an outline is for suckers, or that outlines stifle the creative process – BAM – here you are without an outline and the condition of WB! An outline doesn’t have to be an enumerated accounting of every scene, character, hiccup and hair toss of characters in your novel. I mean, it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be as simple as assigning each of your chapters a title so you have someplace to jot down your thoughts as they occur. If you do this, then you automatically have a list of things you are keen to write about divided up into sections all ready to go.
“Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: “Fool!” said my muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”
― Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella
3. Unsure How to Proceed with Current Work-in-Progress
“There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.” ― Charlie Kaufman
A. Too Many Ideas
An overflowing cranial aggregate isn’t really writer’s block. This is kid-in-the-candy-store-I-have-ADHD-get-me-the-hell-out-of-this-mess anxiety. Not being a good decision maker is not the same as WB. This is a simple matter of defining your scope, picking the logical winner and moving forward. It’s good this is happening because it is a situation you are going to be immersed in until your writer brain begins to discipline your writer heart. It’s like having multiple sex partners when they don’t know about one another. You gotta pick between the choices. It’s as simple as that. This is you 80/20 moment. Don’t get stuck with 20.
“An enormous list of creative choices in a WIP may denote lack of vision. If everything seems possible then you don’t have a plot – you have a Hydra.”
― Josh Jones, fascinating writer and overly-handsome person
B. Not Enough Ideas
“Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” – John Steinbeck
This is vexing. This is the opposite of walking down the cereal aisle in a big box store. In a big box store, you have forty-three versions of corn flakes. But instead of shopping in the big box store where there are ninety-three types of deodorant, you are in the Mom-n-Pop store where there is one box of corn flakes from 1973…and it’s half eaten.
The problem you are facing is that you are staring at the one box of corn flakes with the flour weevils and the soggy bottom from the soda spill on Aisle Four. Stop looking at the cornflakes! Close your eyes and imagine what box of cereal you want to see. Once you see it, pour some and then ask yourself — “What more do I need to be seeing?” Find the Grape Nuts. See the Lucky Charms. Imagine the oatmeal. BE THE CEREAL!
Why do you need to be the cereal? Because everything that you write is coming from that meat pie in your skull. Writing is imagination recorded. And there is — literally — nothing you cannot imagine. You’re just stuck looking at the cornflakes when you need to be toasting croissants and peeling grapes to go with your camembert.
C. Turning Point in Your WIP
The big WB will not visit you with this scenario if you have your outline. Turning points with WB only come when you don’t know which way your WIP is headed. I love you, really I do, but this is a rookie move. Perhaps you really are one of the few, the proud, the cognitively-advanced writers who can actually produce a viable first draft without an outline. But you are reading this article, so let’s put on our Big Boy writer pants now. Learn to outline. Learn to organize. Learn to write the big stuff by writing down the little stuff.
‘The Wire’ is similar to ‘The Walking Dead’ insofar as everybody pulling for everybody else to get to the turning point of the story. ― Seth Gilliam
D. Plot Holes
When I was writing my first published novel (there were several that never made it to the finish line) I found a plot hole. The novel took place over two weeks in Columbus, Ohio. In a read-through, I made the mournful discovery that I left out a day. I completely skipped a Tuesday. This meant my timeline was all screwed up and events had to be altered to accommodate reality.
I really didn’t know how to fix it. I mean it was REALLY screwed up. It’s like putting a human together and leaving out the liver. It would just die left to itself, and I’m not a surgeon.
But not knowing how to do something is different than WB. Not knowing something means you have to figure it out, it doesn’t mean it is insurmountable. It meant I had to temporarily devote the creativity I assign to writing to the less creative task of problem-solving. It might feel like WB, but it isn’t. It is a simple lack of organization and dealing with something I do not savour. It’s like loving all your classes in school except algebra and having to take algebra. It’s a component of writing that is technical, not creative. But ya gotta take algebra, and you have to fix your plot holes.
“Plot holes are … and then the chicken said, “Tequila!”― Josh Jones, subtle genius
E. Discovering You Hate Your WIP
I went through an awful divorce. Awful. It was like a combination of Kramer V. Kramer and Fatal Attraction. You look at this person you’ve been involved with for all this time and all you can think is: I hate you.
It’s a real and awful situation when it comes to your WIP.
You’ve got two choices brought to you by the makers of our sympathetic nervous system. Originating in our spinal cords the sympathetic nervous system activates a primal response producing physiological changes in our brain described as the fight-or-flight response. Are you going to bail on your project (flight), or are you going to muscle through and make it what you want it to be (fight)?
Either decision is ok, but make it an informed decision, not an emotional one. Ask yourself a few questions before you bail: 1) Have you had your material beta read? 2) Have you given yourself space and time from your WIP to let it simmer before you come back to make the decision? 3) If you made an outline – do you still believe in the outline? Meaning, is the story a good one, but your first draft just isn’t up to your expectation? 4) Are you really writing about something where you find passion?
It is perfectly acceptable to scrap a WIP. Here’s my one big piece of advice for you though: finish it anyway. Bailing on a project, for whatever reason, begins a pattern of not following through on your projects. If you leave, it becomes easier to do it the next time. You build a cycle enforcing WB. Finish the WIP, even if it is awful. You can always go back and re-write awful. If you leave, you may be missing out on a creative breakthrough that aids you for the rest of your writing career.
F. Your Characters Suck
This can be one of the hardest things for a writer to face. It kind of means you failed as a parent to your characters. You feel like that parent in the grocery store whose child is screaming through snot-laden lips about the candy they want as they throw bars of soap in the Health and Beauty aisle. Here’s the beauty of hating your characters -you can change them! You don’t have to sit in the aisle of the store feeling lost as a parent and humiliated as a person. You don’t have to put your characters through expensive therapy, or “use your words” to mollify this Cretan of a child you created.
You just have to put yourself through the creative grinder.
Why do you hate your characters?
They’re wishy-washy. Excellent! Place a switchblade in their pocket and have them draw it inside Walmart to casually clean their fingernails as they say to passers-by, “Hi. You want to change the world? Follow me.”
They’re too complicated. No problem. Have them stand still amid their emotional meltdown over their rejected homemade nuclear fission proposal to the Lesbian Vampire Dyslexia Association and say, “Ok, enough of that, I’m turning over a new leaf and becoming an asphalt watcher.”
There are too many characters in my WIP. Simple. Introduce a plague.
OK, so that last one might be a bit over-simplified, but the theory remains: you are the author, fix your characters. There are sites like Writers Write. They have character development worksheets that can help you define your characters. Look at your outline, give your characters the settings and events they need to be interesting.
“Make it so.” – Captain Jean-Luc Picard
4. Reckoning with the Futility of Writing
“The futility of writing is something I face up to every time I set pen on paper or hand to keyboard. Why am I doing this? My compulsion to write does not occlude the uselessness of filling pages with words. I know that what I do is pointless, one more message in a bottle in a moment when everyone else around me is also casting messages adrift.” – by Fernando Sdrigotti.
Sometimes, we need to sit and bask in the ennui of writing. Everyone feels the listlessness and dissatisfaction of our craft at some point or another. That’s just being human, it isn’t reserved for writers. What matters is that we take the very human step of assessing our writing craft when that mood descends upon us. (And remember this is a feeling, we don’t have to be slave to our feelings. And this comes from a guy who has medication to handle anxiety.) Writing is hard. It’s taxing. Sometimes it feels like writing is a cyclical illness whose only cure is – god dammit – more writing.
And you know what? It’s fine.
Bask in your ennuininess.
These moments when we question our ability to be a writer, are the very essence of your credentials as a writer. In this age of everyone-can-be-a-writer-look-I-have-a- book-on-CreateSpace!, it can be overwhelming. Hang on to the notion that because you are questioning yourself, this may well be the reason your content is of quality.
Most of us know the story of JK Rowling. The most commercially successful writer of our lifetime got rejected, questioned her skills, pondered suicide, and nearly gave up. So, if you are lacking the source of your inspiration, or doubting your ability – welcome to the party. Stephen King told Rolling Stone in 2013, “I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing—that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.”
Here’s the thing about questioning your self, your craft, your career, your life. It indicates you don’t know it all, that you indeed to have something to learn, or a new direction to grow. Imagine the folly of the person who has it all figured out, knows all the steps, doesn’t hesitate a moment. That person is building to a fall you never will take. You might stumble on the rocks, but you won’t fall off the cliff like someone unaware of their surroundings.
Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know. – Ernest Hemingway
Writing is, at its core, an activity. No more. No less.
When you are in a bipolar low, an elevated high, a major depression event or whatever place you find yourself, you still manage certain actions. It is up to you to make writing one of those activities. I write this not to place pressure on those experiencing real psychological events, but to put writing in perspective regarding those events. Writing is not a foe. It is an action available to you when you are ready to write. Therapists often use writing as a grounding mechanism for those experiencing depression or anxiety. So use it.
Depression and anxiety are real.
So is your ability to write.
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. —Aristotle
Aristotle was not one of the writers I spoke to about this article. His words though inform us that writing does not have to be about entertaining others. Use writing to tap the inner-workings of your depression. Use writing to harness the anxiety. Turn your illness into a character whose voice is the narrator of dark or frantic scenes (Dexter). Let your condition be the setting of a great war (Lord of the Rings). Write scenes of bleak and miserable times (Les Misérables).
Art wells from the depths. If you are someone who fights mental illness, turn the battle into your muse. This damned thing has dogged you for so long, try and grab the reins. It won’t work every time, but nothing works all the time. So make your illness your bitch.
Make the choice to write.
Also, make the choice to seek treatment for mental illness if you haven’t already. Mental illness left unattended can be lethal. Call 1-800-273-8255 if you are in danger of self-harm. Please.
SECTION FOUR: Conclusion
In Section One I wrote, “Writer’s Block is not an event that happens to all writers; rather, it is a circumstance created by individual writers. I feel if you accept the condition of writer’s block, you accept the condition of not being a writer, albeit temporarily.”
I wrote in the following sections about the conditions people cite as their reasons they feel writer’s block is a real phenomenon. It may be a matter of semantics. Perhaps it is easier to describe the condition of writer’s block to a current circumstance instead of acknowledging a choice not to write. I want to reiterate, choosing not to write is not a bad thing. Sometimes you need a break. I want to assert though that choosing not to write is just that, a choice. I think the trouble comes when people aren’t happy with their choice. Writer’s Block becomes a cause of their hiatus, not the effect of their choice.
I’m not going to call writer’s block a myth. I don’t want to condescend to anyone about their choice to take a break from writing. I’m just going to encourage those people to examine their behavior. There are no strings from a marionette master holding your arms to your side, there is but your choice not to write.
Writer’s block is the self-inflicted phenomenon of making choices that frequently lead to failure. – David H. Safford