When 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.