That old scourge of many a writer: writer’s block. Is it really a thing? Or is it all in your head?
I’ll give it to you straight: writer’s block is really a thing, and yes, it’s all in your head. Where else could it be?
But “all in your head” doesn’t mean writer’s block is a myth or that you’re imagining it. It means that what’s going on between your ears is the cause of writer’s block, and in most cases, you can beat it because writer’s block is the symptom, not the problem.
Look at it this way. If your nose is runny and you’re sneezing, is that the problem? Or is it a symptom? Think pollen allergies and the common cold. Get away from the pollen, and your nose dries up. Get over the cold—or somehow avoid the viruses that cause a cold—and no runny nose.
No matter which way you look at it, a runny nose—like writer’s block—is a symptom.
There’s no disease called nosynose runnethoveritis. And there’s no illness called nocanwriteralgia.
Still, writer’s block is just as real as postnasal drip. In fact, some neuroscientists attribute it to fear and its cousins anxiety, nervousness, and worry. All that stress affects your brain’s limbic system (emotions, drives, fight or flight), which usually works well with the temporal lobe (language, memory). But if the limbic system is busy pumping out stress hormones, it’s cut off from the temporal lobe—the wellspring of writing.
Ever get scared or shocked speechless? It might be a cliché, but there’s truth in it.
You can read more in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice Flaherty.
But what are the problems that cause writer’s block, and what can you do about them? Everyone has their own set of unique challenges, of course, but here are some typical issues and solutions. See if any of them apply to you or get you thinking.
Some problems that can cause writer’s block are external.
Problem 1: Mental clutter
What fills your thinking, reading, writing, and imagining time each day? TV, movies, gaming. Social media (and clicking on those enticing videos or whatever catches your eye). Talking on your phone and texting a lot. Constant busy-ness or get togethers with friends. What else?
None of these are bad things in themselves, but all together they add a level of excitement or low-key stress (being wound up) that could be causing writer’s block. And how can inspiration take over when your brain is all jazzed up? Think RAM overload. A million viruses or bits of pollen and a runny nose. A traffic jam.
Try characterizing a neighbor or describing the activity and vibe at a coffee shop. Read about writing. Think about writing. Spend time letting ideas bubble up and roll around in your head. Take notes. Go for a walk, be alone, be quiet, and let ideas take shape.
Feed your writer’s brain with the nutrition and exercise it needs (and cut down on the junk food), and that might be enough to break a spell of writer’s block.
Conflicts create stress that causes writer’s block
Problem 2: Ongoing conflicts.
Have relationship or domestic conflicts? Unresolved struggles with kids, friends, or family can get you stressed, clog your brain, and create writer’s block.
Sometimes friends or family feel threatened by your lofty goals, and they might tease you or say things like, “Oh, come on. You, a writer?” When someone has a goal, peers might feel threatened, and family members might scoff. And it just chips away at your confidence and creates stress.
What about conflict with a neighbor, roommate, or someone at work? If you’re on the receiving end of snark, sarcasm, or a trouble maker’s antics—or you’re dishing it out—it’s taking up a lot of space in your brain and putting your limbic system on red alert. You’re sacrificing the space and calm you need for creativity and writing ideas to blossom.
The Cure: Figure out how to end the conflict. Find ways to improve situations like limiting contact with difficult people. Stop discussing your writing plans with people who don’t support you. If a friendship has been iffy anyway, drop the friend. The problem can take many shapes, and the same for the cure.
The thing is, lots of successful writers have family, kids, in-laws, spouses, partners, snarky friends, and conflicts like anyone. They find a solution, and they write. And so must you.
A high-stress job causes writer’s block.
Problem 3: Your job
You have a full-time job and a long commute. After relaxing, eating dinner, and cleaning up, your focus shifts to home or family care and maybe some TV or a movie. An hour before bed, your mind goes blank when you try to write.
The trouble isn’t wasting time on frivolous pursuits, it’s that you simply don’t have time to switch gears. Write at lunch? Not when you have a client with you or your boss. There’s just no way. And you need time on the weekend to [do whatever].
The Cure: What can you give up? Can you sleep a half hour less and write in the morning? (Many experienced writers say that’s the best time.) Can you take a train or bus to work instead of driving—and write? What could you exchange for relaxed writing time and space to just think, brainstorm, and ruminate?
If your budget allows, hire someone to clean, baby sit, or mow the lawn. Get your groceries delivered. Find the time by eliminating some stuff. Do you really have to vacuum every night? Can the kids ride to activities with friends?
Drop nonessentials to make time to write.
And consider changing jobs. Find something without the commute. Pay off some bills, if needed, stockpile your savings account, and get out of a high-pressure, high-paying position if that’s what’s holding you back. But don’t do it on a whim, of course. If you’ve been writing for some time and you’re sure of your choice, make a plan.
And why not downsize your lifestyle to allow for a salary cut? Make life simple by minimizing your belongings, reducing your living space, and skipping luxuries in favor of pursuing important things in life like writing. Minimalism is a thing, after all. Be trendy, get radical, and do yourself a favor. (I did it.)
Sometimes problems that cause writer’s block are internal.
Problem 4: Fear and other pesky emotions
Perfectionism. Frustration with your work in progress when things go awry. Fear that it won’t turn out right. Fear that it will. “Imposter syndrome” or fear that you’re deluding yourself. Idealism. Self-doubt. Worry and fear over what your parents or friends will think.
If you think, “I’m not good enough,” discouragement comes over you. If you think, “I don’t know how to do this,” frustration sets in.
Anger might even raise its snarling head as you encounter difficulties or a particularly harsh critique. And all this emotion sets off a big, bad case of writer’s block due to the stress involved (and that limbic system firing off fight or flight hormones to the dismay of your temporal lobe).
The Cure: Remind yourself that most writers have felt these feelings and more. And that’s all they are: feelings. Emotions. They aren’t truth. They aren’t reality. They’re reactions to your thoughts and beliefs.
But if you accept those emotions as normal (though unwanted) and consciously change your thinking, the emotions become weaker as the negative thoughts become less prominent.
Think “I can” instead of “I can’t.” Or “I don’t know how but I can learn” and head over to Google. Stay alert, and every time you catch yourself feeling afraid, frustrated, or upset, change your thinking to something positive. And take it Bird by Bird.
Too much other stuff causes writer’s block
Problem 5: Not prioritizing your writing
I’m a guilty party as much as anyone else. Just out of grad school (an English major primed to write), I had so much going on I didn’t have time to write, or so I believed. And when I tried, I didn’t know where to start. I could have said the Muse wasn’t showing up for me, but the problem was that I was all caught up in stuff.
And I wasn’t paying attention to my writing. “As soon as I get done with this, I’ll get started,” I told myself.
A boyfriend turned fiancé turned husband (and planning a wedding) wasn’t writer’s block. Decorating our home and garden wasn’t writer’s block. And designing a perfect little home office wasn’t writer’s block. That on top of starting my freelancing business… I could go on.
Writer’s block was the symptom, and procrastination—and not guarding and respecting my time—was the problem.
The Cure: You have 24 hours each day like every other writer. Make time in your schedule, even if it’s just 20 minutes a day. Let your romantic partner, spouse, or family know your plans and put on your Do Not Disturb T-shirt. Cut back on hobbies or pursuits that take time away from your writing, reading, or learning-about-writing time.
And take the pressure off. Write like nobody will ever read it. Picture your muse, the god of writing, or some spiritual personage standing over you, nodding wisely, smiling, encouraging you. Sure, let eventual publication, fame, and fortune linger in the back of your mind, but don’t pay it any mind. Solve the problem of writer’s block by reducing stress, and write for the joy of writing.
Need some extra help? Check out my book Find Your Missing Peace: A Practical Guide to Reclaiming Your Birthright. You’ll get loads of tips and tricks for finding that calm space you need for your best writing. When you’re at peace with yourself and the world, anything is possible, and you’ll understand the problem and find the cure if writer’s block strikes again.
Have you ever had writer’s block? What tricks or techniques did you use to get back to writing? Share in the comments!
Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash.