A Non-expert’s View on Writer’s Block

Damn that flashing cursor. That first, crisp-smelling, fresh sheet of paper in your journal and that sweet pen you just bought. You have the house to yourself or you’ve set yourself up in the nearest coffee shop with all its smells and sounds, and you’ve looked forward to this moment for weeks. You’ve planned it out and imagined how it would be: putting on your particular inspirational music, setting out your special writing tools, sipping your favourite hot beverage. And then you’d pick up your pen or your mouse and out the words would come — the next bestseller. Easy as pie right? I mean, you’re a writer! Always have been, so why would that ever change?

Until it does. You sit down and you’ve put yourself in that zone — and nothing. So you figure you’ll just imagine for a while. That usually helps. But then you can’t follow an idea to completion or fruition. Your thoughts just jump from one thought to another with no connection between them. There are chores to be done, phone calls to make, and memories to remember. So you surf the internet thinking a little research will provide that spark or give you that little piece of info you need to get started. The next thing you know, three hours later you’re staring at a picture of what your friend from kindergarten had for dinner last night. And have you written anything yet? Of course not!

So now you feel guilty. All this wasted time and what do you have to show for it? Squat is what! So you shove all those distractions aside thinking now you’ll really get down to work. Pulling from what you knew you meant to write, you attempt a couple sentences while reminding yourself that it’s just the first couple words that are the hardest. So you write a few bits of gibberish. And then you’re stuck again, so you go back and reread what you’ve read so you can remember where you were headed with this.

Crap. It’s all crap. A six year old could do better. So you erase or delete. You start again. You reread again. You delete again. And over and over for hours. What is going on? What’s the problem with you?

Nothing is wrong with you. You’ve been struck with writer’s block. It’s never happened before, and you can’t think of a good reason for why. Well that’s because there exist a million reasons why. A quick Google of writer’s block will bring up a quintillion hits on causes, solutions, and exercises. Anyone that’s ever experienced writer’s block will have read all the reasons and tried all the exercises. But do they work? And are all those causes really the real cause?

Experts tell you that lack of sleep, drinking alcohol, or anxiety will bring on writer’s block. So will stress, OCD, and perfectionism. Depression, analysis paralysis, and even laziness are supposed causes. Well who among us isn’t or doesn’t experience all of these at least some of the time? I know I’m lazy from time to time, and I certainly analyze the words I’m writing or am about to write. It’s all part of the process. And of course I’m stressed and anxious. Would I be human otherwise?

So you try the exercises. You do the free writing, you pull a card from your deck of writer’s block tips, you change your surroundings. You take a break or grab a cup of coffee. Nothing. We’ve all been there at least once. Some move past the block in hours or days, others take months or years. Can writer’s block really last years? Oh, you bet your !@#$.

I watched an interview with Louise Penny once. She admitted to having writer’s block for years once she was presented with the opportunity to actually write full time — writing what she actually wanted to write rather than what she was expected to write. So why did she have such difficulties? A bright, well-educated, creative woman who would go on to become an international bestselling author?

For anyone who has experienced it and fought to get past it, and for anyone still dealing with it and digging through all the research, I think there is one common thread. Yes, experts say this and experts say that and I’m no expert. But if you take away all the other purported causes and take away all the personal window dressings — family, income level, friends, experiences, location, health, surroundings, and absolutely everything else — leaving just the  blockage itself, I think you find the underlying cause.

Confidence. I think that is both the problem and the key. I mean, truly, we spend so much of our time worrying about what people think of us: what we’re wearing, what we say, what we own, who we associate with, the opinions we hold. As writers that worry is multiplied tenfold. Now we have to worry about how our thoughts and feelings and ideas and the way we put them together are received. We put all of ourselves on that paper, and how scary is that? Because writing isn’t actually writing if you’re not digging deep within yourself and sharing it all.

Remember how easy writing was when you were a kid? That’s when you knew you were a writer, that you had to be a writer. There were so many things to write about! And the scribblers you filled with those stories and poems? Did you go back and reread and analyze those? Of course not! You just wrote for the sake of writing. You had ideas and characters in your head and you just wrote them down. You let the story go where it would. There was no asking yourself how other people would feel about this. You didn’t analyze the words you used or if you were including enough rhetorical tools. Who cared about grammar, proper punctuation, or spelling? And the message? What message? You didn’t write for those who would read it, you just wrote for you. You wrote because it was in you and if you didn’t write you would burst. The ideas and the words rolled and roiled around in your head, and the pictures and stories never stopped.

Is it possible to be that again? Can you put yourself in those child-size shoes while still maintaining your wisdom, experience, and maturity? Can you allow yourself to not worry about others’ expectations? Are you able to put others aside completely? It’s that expectation of how others will respond and what they’re expecting that kills the creative process. All your life you’ve wanted nothing more than to just write, to have that chance to spend all day doing what used to be the most natural thing in the world, to stay up late because your fingers and your brain and the ideas just keep coming, to get up in the morning feeling fulfilled, and feel that feeling burgeoning in your chest as the words come out and you’re completely lost in that world you’ve created. For you.

But now you’re faced the opportunity to do just that and you’re frozen. No ideas, just inner criticisms. No flowing thoughts, just analysis.  That is the effect society has had on you. So don’t tell anyone what you’re writing. Don’t expect each word or character to be perfect. Take yourself out of your current environment and remember what made you happiest as a child and recreate that. Don’t reread your words. Just let them out. They probably won’t be the words you planned to write, but let that happen. Don’t show anyone what you’ve written. Just keep writing it. Keep writing until you feel that feeling again, that freedom, that bursting of ideas. Once the story is writing itself, then you’re where you need to be. Never show anyone that first draft. That’s just yours. You can polish other drafts at a much later date, once you’ve remembered what it is to not care and to just write because that’s what you are and if you don’t write you will go crazy.

So what if you’d meant to write a magazine article on local recycling efforts and instead you wrote a poem? You’re writing again. That magazine article will come a lot easier if your inner gears are oiled and running again. Listen to that inner voice again, not those loud, demanding outer voices. Once you’ve found that voice, that thoughtful but uncritical voice, your writing will happen and it will be more real than anything else you’ve ever written. It will find an audience. There is always someone out there like you, so write for you. Who cares what others think or expect? Especially those closest to you. You don’t write for them. Chances are they don’t even understand the need or the mindset. Just send that voice out into the world and it will find an audience. And you won’t have writer’s block anymore because you’re finally being you. That is confidence.