Writer’s block: short answers and long ones

“What do you do about writers block?” It’s a question writers get asked often.

It’s also a subject on which writers are tempted to go the hard truths route on when they answer.

When I was asked this question, I used to say something like, “Well, I don’t really get writer’s block. I just keep writing.” Maybe I’d throw in some helpful words about how it’s okay to write a crappy rough draft, as if all that stood between a–any writer–and writing was the fear of producing some bad words that they’d need to figure out how to revise later. The truth was, in my earliest writing days, I didn’t believe in writers block, and I did believe in simple truths. Writers write, right?

As time went on, I began to allow as how I did at least know what burnout was–both as a writer and in other fields–and that maybe that was what writers really meant, when they talked about writers block.

I still think I was right that the phrase, “writer’s block,” might be problematic, if only because it carries a lot of almost-mystical weight among writers, and that naming the specific reasons for not writing–of which burnout is only one of many–can sometimes give being stuck a little less power. But beyond that, when asked what I do about writer’s block now, I no longer have a quick, simple answer. There are so many reasons writers stop writing, as many reasons as there are writers.

But if asked to break it down, and given the time for a long answer rather than a short one, now I’d say there are three main things I do when I get writer’s block–or whatever we want to call it–things that, like all writing advice, are right for me, but may or may not be right for anyone else.

1) Sometimes I need to push through.

Sometimes what feels like writer’s block really is just a case of the I-Don’t-Want-Tos or the I’m-Scared-Tos. And sometimes even something more complicated than a case of the I-Don’t-Want-Tos or I’m-Scared-Tos can be fought and pushed through. Sometimes, the advice my younger self gave still holds, and I just need to keep writing, keep my butt in my chair, and get those words on the page by brute force.

2) Sometimes I need to step back.

Sometimes when writing just isn’t happening, something in the story isn’t working, or I need to figure something out before I can move forward. When that’s true, going for a walk, going to a movie, even just taking a shower or grabbing lunch and giving myself some thinking time may be the break I need to figure out what that something is. Once I figure it out, often the words will start flowing again, no brute force required.

Sometimes taking a break just re-energizes me, too, even if it doesn’t lead to any profound story realizations, and that can help my words to flow more freely, too. Writers like to talk about how we can’t afford to take breaks, but sometimes, I think we can’t afford not to.

3) Sometimes I need to step away.

Sometimes there are real, legitimate stresses, positive and negative, that take away our focus or our writing time or our writing brain and leave us in a place where we can’t push through, for a short time or a long one, and a shower or a walk or all the writing pep talks in the world just aren’t going to change that. That’s when we need to forgive ourselves for not writing for a time, allow ourselves some grace, and stop beating ourselves up and making ourselves feel worse about something that just isn’t going to happen right now.

The truth is that I remain, really, really bad at this. And to be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever been wrong to try responses 1 and 2 first–more often than not, they do work. But not always, and that’s okay.

Or maybe it’s not okay. It’s terribly hard, actually, especially when one is also trying to make a living, especially when writing is part of one’s identity and one’s way of being and expressing and existing in the world. I don’t have easy answers to what to do about any of that. (Or even, as Terri Windling says, any difficult ones.) But it’s going to happen to many of us, maybe most of us, at one point or another, if we keep at this writing thing long enough.

Most of us will also, at one point or another, find our way back, though we may stop believing that and it may take longer than we expect. I now believe that if we can learn to treat ourselves with compassion during these times, rather than with anger and self-hate, if we can find a way to be gentle with ourselves, this can actually help us through and provide comfort–something that’s especially important at times when writing isn’t there to do these things for us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *