Where else could writer’s block be? Of course it’s in your head.
It’s not in your foot. It’s not a disease. It’s not an evil force that snatches up words and pithy phrases just as they start flowing. And it’s definitely not about your Muse refusing to tap you with her magic wand.
But you can’t write. Nothing is coming out. Or it all sounds like crap. And you feel like screaming. It’s real, all right.
Why does it happen and what can you do about writer’s block?
You’ve got too much going on
A job, family, pets, home, chores, friends, the gym, yoga, or sports—what’s going on in your life? Do you make time to write?
What does life look like when trouble hits? Maybe the car needs repairs, the kids get sick, or you have an argument with a friend on top of everything else. What about financial worries, marriage problems, or elderly parents to care for? Maybe you fail a class or lose your job.
And in the middle of everything you sit down and try to write. Right.
Too much on your plate
Are you the type who can’t say no? Do you do a lot of “caretaking?” Are you the friend everyone goes to when they need a shoulder to cry on?
Maybe you just thought you could do it all. A half hour to do this, a half hour to do that, and a half hour to write something.
But switching between projects and activities—or too many of them—isn’t conducive to writing.
While it might take only an hour to write something brilliant, how long does it take your brain to latch on to that topic and get into that world? How long to pick up a rhythm of translating thoughts and ideas into sentences and paragraphs that someone else wants to read? How long to revise and edit?
Too much crap in your head
When you’ve got a lot going on in your life, you’ve got a lot going on in your head. Your mind processes everything, and you might not be aware of it.
But when too much stuff is rattling around up there, it’s hard to break through to the deeper recesses, the springs from which your creativity wells. Even non-fiction—like this blog post—is creative. And though it’s short and simple, it’s incredibly complex like any kind of writing.
Have you ever fantasized about an idyllic writer’s life in a little cottage by a stream with nothing to do but write? It’s not for everyone, but with minimal input from the outside world, your inside world gets quiet while your imagination runs free.
Too little preparation time
Your writing assignment: describe in detail the foreign policies of the five US presidents involved in the Vietnam war. You’ve got two hours.
Now that’s a recipe for disaster, unless you happen to be an expert in modern American history.
Writer’s block much? No. You just don’t know anything about it.
I had to write an essay on that topic for a final exam in college. I crammed like crazy the night before, and I was confident I knew everything about the Vietnam war.
But foreign policy? What? My mind froze. But I had to write something. I finally decided I had nothing to lose, and I bluffed my way through—US involvement must have been the policy, right? I got a B. But I couldn’t have winged it like that if I hadn’t done a lot of preparation (even if my focus was off).
Preparation is key. This post took me about about two hours to write, for example, not including revision and proofreading time. But I spent a few hours writing rough drafts and browsing through some articles before creating an outline and whipping through it.
You’re too tired or you’re sick
If you’re already writing consistently on a schedule or you rarely tussle with writer’s block, lack of sleep or a bad cold isn’t likely to throw you off course.
But even the most disciplined writer might have a hard time dealing with other challenges and exhaustion or illness at the same time. Who feels like writing when you’re so sick you want to curl up in a ball and tune out the whole world?
But it’s not fatal, you’re not hospitalized, and you have to get ‘er done. And if you’re not prepared, you might end up like some of these folks on Twitter:
What’s a writer to do?
If you want to take charge and never worry about writer’s block, you’ve got to take some preventive measures and dig into your toolbox.
1. If you’ve got too much going on, prioritize.
What’s more important, writing or your favorite TV show? Replace TV show with any other non-essential activity like posting on Facebook, gaming, yakking on the phone, or recreational shopping.
Trim down and make time for clearing your head. Make writing your career. Do you really need to hang out with the guys at a sports bar or have your girl’s night out every week?
2. Learn to say no or renegotiate.
Having too much on your plate is more about responsibilities than all the stuff you do.
If you’re a chronic volunteer or always offering to help people, practice saying no once in awhile. Wrap things up at some current positions. Find a new organizer for the club or group you lead. You don’t have to do it all.
If you do too much at home, consider divvying up chores more equally with your spouse, partner, or family members or hire someone. Or consider whether some tasks are really necessary.
If you’re often frustrated with writer’s block, it might be time to just say no.
3. If your brain is busy with too much other stuff, take time to relax before writing.
I recommend simple sitting meditation for 20 minutes or so. Nothing fancy. You can even lie down or lean back on a chair or couch if meditation isn’t your thing.
Breathe in slowly. Breathe out slowly. Focus on your breath as you count to ten on the in-breaths or the out-breaths. Then start over or keep going. It doesn’t really matter. Your mind might wander, and you might lose count, but that’s OK and to be expected.
You don’t even have to meditate. You can do what I call “processing.”
Just sit or lie down somewhere. Close your eyes and relax. Let your brain do its thing, wander around, and file things away. Just let it get bored by not focusing on anything in particular. Soon enough, you’ll calm down a bit, and you’ll be in much better shape for writing.
4. Do some preparation.
Even if you know all about your topic, you’ve got to rev up your engine. Get into the swing of things. Get your mind on your task.
Not sure what you’re writing about? Brainstorm. Mindmap. Try Mindmeister.
Go for a walk and start thinking about your topic. Refer back to #3, but instead of letting your brain roll around with just anything for 20 minutes, think about your topic.
Create an outline, even if it’s rough, just to get a general idea of what you want to write about.
Write a rough draft and don’t worry how good it will be. Then write another one. And another.
5. If you’re tired or sick, use every tool you’ve got.
Cancel all activities and appointments. Tell everyone they can do without you. Relax all day with nourishing foods and beverages. Order take-out for dinner. Relax in a warm bath or shower. Meditate or just chill. Read about your topic. Write leisurely rough drafts and outlines in your pajamas and bunny shoes.
Just take it easy and take it slow. Unplug the Internet and hide your cell phone.
If you coddle yourself a bit and shut out the world, you might find yourself writing such brilliant stuff that you’ll want to take a sick day more often.
Here’s the thing.
If you want to write, and if you want to quit battling writer’s block, you’ve got to be a writer and use your tools. You’ve got to have some tricks up your sleeve.
Even then, plenty of great writers face all sorts of writing challenges, including writer’s block.
But it’s all in your head. There’s always a cause, and there’s always a solution. And that’s why some writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Joyce Carol Oates, and Virgina Woolf are or were extraordinarily prolific.
How do they do that? They’ve got tricks, and now you do too. Devise your own! As long as you know writer’s block is really just a state of mind and that you can do something about it, you’ll come out a winner.
What about you? Do you believe writer’s block is an unconquerable force? Or do you have some tricks to beat it? Share in the comments.