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The Truth About Writer’s Block: Common Misconceptions, Causes, and Remedies That Actually Work

crumpled paperWhen I was 20 years old, I stopped writing, and not by choice.

It happened suddenly and without explanation (or so it seemed). I went to sleep one day full of words, ideas and creativity, and woke up the next empty.

I was stuck, paralyzed, unable to commit even a single word to the page.

I would sit at my desk, ready to tackle that paper or short story, and nothing would come. I’d freeze. I’d stare at the screen for minutes that became hours, willing my thoughts to come, my hands to move across the keyboard. Still, nothing. So I would cry, give up, and fail again the next day.

Somehow, the writer in me had tied herself into knots. I was frustrated, confused and afraid. What was wrong with me? What if I could never write another word again?

This was my writer’s block. If any of this experience sounds familiar to you – if you feel helpless and fearful in the face of your writing, if you’re unable to move forward but don’t know why – you might be suffering from the same.

The good news is, I overcame writer’s block and you can, too.

The Basic Principles of Writer’s Block

First things first: it’s important we cover a few basic principles. A solid understanding of these principles will lay the groundwork for the healing to follow.

Basic Principle #1: Not All Difficulties Cause Writer’s Block

A common misconception is that any difficulty you encounter in your writing constitutes writer’s block.

“I had a terrible writing day today,” we might say. “The words came slowly and sometimes not at all,” or “I don’t know what to write next. I’m blocked.”

While this may sound like writer’s block, it’s not. We say we’re blocked when we lack the language to identify, express or acknowledge what we’re really experiencing: the natural ebb and flow of the creative process, the unpredictable forces that makes one writing day awful and the next extraordinary.

The writing process is a challenge, after all, and we’re at its mercy in a lot of ways. Isn’t it easier to blame the block?

Takeaway: Writer’s block is not a temporary hiccup in your writing process.

Writer's block is something else entirely: a deep-seated emotional issue that keeps you from writing.Click To Tweet

Basic Principle #2: It’s Deeper Than an Inability to Write

On the day you finally squeeze out a measly sentence or two after months – or even years – of pumping a dry well, you’ll be tempted to throw your arms in the air and sing the “Hallelujah Chorus.” And celebrate you should! This will mark a crucial step forward on your journey to recovery. But don’t throw in the towel on your healing yet – there’s still work to be done.

It’s tempting to believe that once the writing begins to flow again, your block has been cured. This certainly appears to be true. You couldn’t write because you were blocked. Now you can so you must be unblocked. This thinking feels logical. But the world of creativity is not governed by logic; in that realm, emotion reigns supreme.

Every writer I have ever worked with who has stopped their healing at this phase of recovery has relapsed, usually not long after. It’s because the symptom (the inability to write) has been treated but the underlying cause (the fear that’s plaguing you) remains. It’s akin to a doctor prescribing aspirin for a brain tumor: it may make your head stop pounding, but it hasn’t done a thing to address the ticking time bomb inside.

Takeaway: The inability to write is a symptom of the block, not the cause.Click To Tweet

Basic Principle #3: Discover the Cause

So if regaining the ability to write is not the end goal, what is? This is a very important question, with a very important answer.

Simply put, the end goal is to discover the root of your block, identify  its cause, and acknowledging the negative experience or emotion that sprouted a fear that blossomed into a block that made it feel impossible for you to write.

For example, let’s take a look at Sally, a client from a few years back. She came to me in tears. With a half-finished book under her belt and a track record of consistent productivity, she was suddenly unable to write another word. She was confused, frustrated and on the verge of giving up. The emotional distress the block was causing her was just too much to bear.

Sally and I worked together in writer’s block counseling over a period of three months, pursuing a regimen of customized exercises and explorations designed to unearth the root of her block. After a few weeks of digging, we found the source: Sally’s father had been chronically disapproving and unsupportive of her creative pursuits.

She had been so damaged by this dynamic, in fact, that she had blocked the memories from her mind. Until we did our digging, she had no way of knowing what was getting in her way.

Sally’s story teaches us that writer’s block is all about fear. Conquer the fear and you’ve conquered the block. Refuse to face it and you’re at its mercy.

Takeaway: Discovering the cause of the block is the key to breaking through it.Click To Tweet

Common Causes of Writer’s Block

There are many contributing factors to any one person’s writer’s block. In fact, it’s very unlikely that your block can be traced to only one cause. Writer’s block is complicated. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t struggle with it so much!

If I tried to list all the possible causes of writer’s block, we’d be here all day. (It’s nice here on Firepole’s blog, but not that nice – sorry, Danny!) In the interest of cutting to the chase, here are the most common causes of writer’s block, the ones that are most likely contributing to your struggle:

Fear of Failure/Performance Anxiety/Perfectionism

If you’re a Type A person, a go-getter who cares a great deal about doing a stellar job, you’ll want to give this syndrome a good, hard look.

Fear of failure, a.k.a. performance anxiety, a.k.a. perfectionism comes into play when you have very high expectations for yourself but are afraid you can’t meet them on some level. Your desire for accolades and approval is so deep that the prospect of not receiving it in response to your writing is a source of paralyzing terror.

This could be you if:

  • you tend to be hard on yourself.
  • you often feel you can’t write the next sentence until the first one is perfect.
  • you find yourself thinking ahead, maybe even obsessively, to the critical reception of your work.

Fear of Success/Fear of Authority

This is the flip side of the fear-of-failure coin, and is often overlooked as a cause of writer’s block because it seems counterintuitive. Everyone wants success, right? Wrong!

When it comes to writer’s block, the concept of “wanting” is highly complex. A blocked writer suffering from fear of success or fear of authority wants success because it will feel affirming. But simultaneously, the same writer fears success because of what it might lead to: being exposed as a fraud, a hack, a “writer” rather than a writer.

This could be you if:

  • you avoid referring to yourself as a writer.
  • you’re constantly putting down your creative efforts, convincing yourself they’re unimportant.
  • you’re more comfortable in a follower role than a leadership role.

Early Childhood Influences

Whether we like it or not, we’re all heavily influenced by our childhoods. Factors like where we grew up, who was present in the household, and how those people interacted with us can have long-lasting effects on the people we ultimately become.

Take our blocked writer Sally. Sally’s lack of support and encouragement in early life directly impacted what she felt capable of as an adult. It’s not always so cut-and-dry, but early childhood influences can offer extreme insight into our struggles later in life.

And here’s a curveball: it’s not always rejection that impacts us negatively; extreme approval can leave its mark as well.

This could be you if:

  • you experienced either extreme rejection or approval in your early life.
  • you envision a specific person when you write.
  • you have a little voice in your head constantly telling you you’re not good enough or that every sentence you pen must be brilliant.

Remedies for Writer’s Block

Now for the juicy stuff: what to do about this nasty block that’s doing such a good job of getting in your way. Rest assured, writer’s block is 100% treatable. That fact alone should help you sleep better at night.

Writer's block is not actually permanent; it only feels that way.Click To Tweet

That said, the remedy – like the cause – is multifaceted. To discover what works for you, you’ll need to experiment. Try a few of these approaches; try them individually and in combination; try them once, then try them again. There’s no right or wrong here, only what works for you and what doesn’t.

Remember, these are starting points, not cures or magic bullet solutions. They are crucial first steps on the road to recovery.

Freewrite About the Block

Rather than forcing your creativity, learn to flow with it. Allow yourself to free associate, starting with the question, “What is it about writing that scares me and why?” Write that question at the top of a piece of paper (yes, longhand – no computers allowed!), then transcribe whatever’s in your mind onto the page. Do this for five minutes, never lifting your pen off the paper.

Call-and-Response Exercise

Split a sheet of paper into two columns. On the left, record your negative thoughts about yourself and your writing as they come to you. On the right, write what your best friend would say in response. Now review the two columns, and ask yourself, “Which has more reality?” (This is one of my favorite exercises, by the way. I use it when I’m feeling blue.)

feeling blue

Break Your Habits

Habits are useful in a lot of ways, but they can also make you feel trapped. Especially when those habits you’ve come to depend on stop working for you. So throw your habits out the window. If you usually write on a computer, write by hand; if you usually work at your desk, move to your bed; if you always write with the same pen, find a pencil. You’ll be surprised how freeing such small adjustments can feel.

Don’t Say “Writer’s Block”

Writer’s block can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. You tell yourself you have it, get used to the idea, and before you know it you can’t function without it. By identifying as a blocked writer, by using seemingly harmless phrases like “I have writer’s block,” you’re more firmly entrenching your issues and infusing the block with power. By refusing to speak its name, you’ll take back control.

Freedom from Writer’s Block

While I can’t promise you immediate relief from the suffering your block is causing you (believe me, I wish I could), I can promise you something else, something better because it’ll be more meaningful: targeted attention to your writing-related issues, dedicated work over time, and a deeper understanding of yourself will lead to freedom.

As it turned out, my own writer’s block was rooted in my unrealistic expectations of myself: a classic case of perfectionism. Once I came to this realization, it was as if a great weight had been lifted from me. I could breathe again and – thanks to the work of recovery via self-discovery I had committed myself to – I could write.

The block is not forever. If done right, the recovery is.

How about you? Which common cause of writer’s block feels like yours? What remedies have you tried in the past? What will you try now? Let me know in the comments below.

About Justine Tal Goldberg

Justine Tal Goldberg's writer's block was so devastating and ultimately eye-opening, she made it her life's work to help other writers through blocks, over hurdles, and around obstacles that stand in their way. Today, she owns and operates WriteByNight, a writers' service helping folks like you to write more, write better, and accomplish their goals. With WBN, you'll find do-it-yourself resources like A Writer's Diagnostic: common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer alongside professional writing assistance of all kinds.

24 comments

  1. Heléna says:

    Love this quote from the article: “…..the world of creativity is not governed by logic; in that realm, emotion reigns supreme.”

    :-)s

    Heléna

    Heléna Kurçab
    (Author “You Can Do It!”
    El último empujón at tu inglés)

  2. Alison says:

    Awesome post, thank you! So much of the advice and information about writer’s block can be so superficial and one-size-fits-all, which as you point out, doesn’t work.

    I so agree with Marcy, so much, maybe all, can come down to fear. I think what Amandah highlights in her own struggle about fear of self expression is such an important point. I know for myself as a psychologist and academic writer, I have managed to hide that from myself for years. It is easy (well maybe not easy, but easier) to write about what other people think and belief, than to say what you think and feel. So many of us have learnt that when we speak our minds, the outcome is not always what we would like. So we learnt to suppress our natural voice. Reclaiming our voice, I think, is a key to feeling energized and fulfilled in our writing and work.

    Very thought provoking piece, thank you.

      1. Justine Tal Goldberg ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

        Authenticity and authorship go hand in hand, no doubt about it. This is part of the reason that writing is so personal. It’s not only the subject matter (when we’re writing about ourselves or from personal experience), it’s the act of writing itself.

        Thanks for commenting, Alison!

  3. Marcie Hill says:

    I have an interesting type of writer’s block. I have at least three drafts of books which I could finish within a few weeks and I have been putting them off because I have a lack of cash flow.

    Primarily, I think, “If I finish this book now, it won’t make a difference because I don’t have the money for an editor or designer.” Instead I should be thinking, “Once I finish this book, the resources I need to FINISH this project will flow my way.” But it’s really hard for me to think like that knowing that I need at least $1,000 total for these projects.

    Send positive vibes my way so I can maintain the mindset needed to complete these books.

    1. Justine Tal Goldberg ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      I’ll do you one better, Marcie. Rather than positive vibes, I’m going to send you positive knowledge in the form of a challenge. Ready? Here it comes.

      Complete this sentence in ten different ways: “I have been putting off the completion of my books because __________.”

      “Because I have a lack of cash flow” is one way. What are nine more?

      Now look at your list of ten sentence completions. Which ones feel true? Which one feels the truest? My prediction: lack of cash flow doesn’t make the cut, which means that there’s something else holding you back, something deeper than circumstance. Once you know what that something is, you can work on it until you’re free.

      Oh, and I’m sending positive vibes your way, too!

  4. Carolynne says:

    Hi Justine. I hadn’t put my start and stops in writing down to writer’s block but now I think I should reconsider. Once an idea comes it is great and flows but at times it is difficult to find the starting point. I have started a 10 – 15 min free writing, by hand, sessions in the morning and this really helps. I just write to fill up one page, some days more and some days less. Thanks for the great suggestions to get moving and looking deeper. I will use them.

    1. Justine Tal Goldberg ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Thanks for sharing, Carolynne. Having trouble getting started from time to time is nothing to worry about; that’s a natural part of the writing process. If on the other hand there’s a pattern to the struggle–you always stall when faced with a particular topic or type of writing project, for example–there may be a block involved. My advice is to search for such a pattern. Often the realization is enough to smooth the issue.

      I support your daily freewrite 110%. That’s a really productive remedy for all kinds of writerly pains. Keep it up!

  5. Marcy McKay says:

    Hi, Justine. I’m a writer and you nailed this. Writer’s Block comes in a thousand different forms: anxiety, procrastination, perfectionism, etc. However, I believe in all boils down to one word: FEAR. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of 1,000,001 different, terrifying outcomes.
    All these Fears have one thing in common – they keep us from writing. Your suggestions are awesome. Thanks.

    1. Justine Tal Goldberg ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      I agree completely, Marcy. Fear is central to writer’s block. What’s tricky is that no two people’s fear looks exactly alike, so the work is in identifying, acknowledging, processing, and eventually letting go.

      Thanks for weighing in!

      1. Marcy McKay says:

        You’re so right, Justine. My writer’s block doesn’t look like yours except that it shuts us both down. Thanks for responding.

  6. Amandah says:

    Nice post!

    Yep, I’m in a writer’s slump. When I try to write a blog post for my blog, I freeze up and walk away. I’m feeling somewhat burned out. I’m getting tired of writing about the same topics over and over again. I mean, how many How To posts can you write about the same topic and from a different angle? Plus, I’m getting tired of having to focus on stats, such as blog comments, website hits, social media shares, etc. I mean, can’t I just write for the sake of writing? For the sake of providing valuable content? I know stats are important, but they drain my creativity.

    I am a bit of a Type A personality. After all, my father served in the U.S. Army and always said, “If it’s not perfect, it’s not right.” Another saying was, “If you do it right the first time, you won’t have to go back and redo it.” I’ve tried shaking these, but I guess the programming is still with me. 🙂

    I also need a break and vacation; I haven’t had one in four years. Next week, I leave for Phoenix, Arizona and can’t wait. The hot temps, beautiful desert scenery, close proximity to L.A., etc. is getting me pumped up. I want to disconnect from technology and soak up the sun and nature.

    Another symptom is I feel that I have lost or suppressed my voice based on what others want to read. Also, based on other blogs I’ve read that give well meaning advice that may not resonate with me. I feel that I can’t be me online,or offline for that matter. I’ve lost my edge. Meaning: I’m not being my real self. There I’ve said it!

    Here’s another one… I think I need a career change, one that offers more creativity. I have no desire to give up writing, but I’d like to add more creative writing (screenplays, short stories, etc.) (I have creative personal projects) to the mix along with videos and podcasts. I love social media and connecting with and helping others, but I want to work on projects that are fulfilling, like the animal shelter I volunteer for. I manage their social media and LOVE it! I also helped with their web redesign (work in progress) and introduced them to blogging and SEO. I also love health and wellness and fitness, travel, design (home and other), real estate and a few other areas.

    That’s another reason why I feel stuck… I have many, many interests. Trying to choose and focus on thing is a challenge for me. I can’t help it if I’m not a one trick pony. 🙂

    This post has given me much to ponder… Thanks!

    1. Shahzad Saeed ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Hey Justine,
      Its nice read.

      Amandah… thank you very much for the honest comment. This really adds value here. And, you said it right. It just not about only writing, hits and stats always matters. And, stats is the thing that makes us always motivated.

      So in addition to writing articles we gotta do more networking. So the message for us is write more and network more 🙂
      -Shahzad

      1. Justine Tal Goldberg ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

        Writing more is positive, for sure, with a constant awareness of the influences that affect our ability to do so. This way, when you hit a roadblock, you’ll be able to work through it like Amandah is and Sally (my example from the post) did.

    2. Justine Tal Goldberg ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Amandah. It certainly sounds like there are a lot of forces at work for you: burnout, perfectionism, lack of focus, and some boredom too. It may seem like these issues are separate and distinct but I’d be willing to bet that they’re very closely connected. The good news is, you’ve already begun to explore them, which is a step in the right direction.

      Re: “I’m not being my real self,” yes! You hit the nail on the head. But you know what? Your statement is real. It’s your real self bursting forth — let it. During your time in Phoenix, enjoy some much-needed relaxation and self-exploration (I can see that you’re good at it). I have a feeling things will look different when you get home.

      As for adding more creative writing to your life, there’s no way to do it but to do it. Start with five minutes of creative writing: a screenplay, a short story, whatever you feel like. It’s addictive. You’ll want to keep going, and you’ll be glad you did.

      Good luck, Amandah!

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