Three Kinds Of Writers Block And What To Do About Them
It’s a familiar feeling. Your hands run over the keys, unable to find their place. You stare at a screen. The desire is there yet the words will not come. So you make another cup of coffee, maybe put some music on, or pack up and head off to a library or cafe, hoping something will jolt loose the verbs and nouns you need to get going again.
Writer’s block has claimed another victim.
There’s a lot of advice about how to deal with writer’s block. Much of it is excellent. But, there’s more than one kind of writer’s block. Understanding the different causes will give you a better sense of how to handle the challenges you face when it’s time to write.
Writer’s Block As A Lack Of Mastery
It’s tempting to think of writing as always being the same sort of activity, especially since the way we do it often is the same: hands on a keyboard, eyes on a screen. But the way we are crafting words will be quite different if we are sending a text message to a friend, drafting an email to the bank, or writing a technical review of a camera for a blogpost.
These different kinds of writing exist within their own sets of rules and conventions. We don’t struggle to write a text message to a friend because we have a clear sense of what’s expected, what we need to say and what we can get away without saying.
Writer’s block sometimes hits us because we don’t know what’s expected of us as writers.
When I started writing film reviews for The Society For Film, it was a struggle. I’d written lots of reviews before that, but having to write them on a weekly basis, after every film I saw, was tough.
What I didn’t understand was how film reviews work, the conventions of the genre that film reviewers use to make writing reviews easier, and that film review readers often expect. Pulling apart the work of good reviewers helped me to see the moves they habitually made, which yielded a few templates and a sense of where to start. First drafts became easier and second drafts more substantial. Then, instead of burning my creative energy just trying to figure out how to write a review, I was able to focus that energy on adding some writerly hooks, maybe a catchy introduction, or an unexpected metaphor in describing a character, the sort of thing that makes a review satisfying to read.
If you keep feeling blocked when writing, then it might help to ask yourself what the typical components are of the kind of writing you are attempting. In other words, what do the building blocks look like? Mastering the basic skill of assembling those blocks makes it easier to get a solid start, because you are organising your information more effectively and you are better able to make choices about what’s important to include in your writing without expending too much effort.
It’s not just a lack of skill that fuels this kind of writer’s block; it’s also a lack of clarity about who we are writing for. Sending a text to a friend, we can imagine the reaction as they read it. But when we have this kind of writer’s block we perhaps can’t imagine who the readers of our work might be. This can be a big challenge for freelance writers who haven’t been given a clear profile for the work they’re doing. It can be even worse for bloggers who’ve been sucked into believing they are writing “for everyone”
When we feel blocked it’s good to ask who the audience is for this work. You could try picking one person you know personally who might benefit from, or at least be interested in, the thing you’re trying to write. Then write as if you were speaking to them.
Writer’s Block As A Lack Of Habit
If you spend enough time looking into the working lives of successful writers and authors, a clear theme will emerge: writing is a habit. Not just writing every day, but often at the same time, in the same place, maybe even with the same ritual every time. As John Grisham puts it, “It’s the same spot, the same computer … no phones, faxes or internet, because I don’t want the distraction … it’s the same cup of coffee, the same everything.”
Of course, any effort based on habit becomes harder when we don’t do it regularly. I do pilates once a week and that’s always tough, but it’s especially tough if I’ve been on holidays for a few weeks!
In one sense, we already write every day, since putting words on a screen is such an integral part of life. But that isn’t the same as the kind of writing task we face when we are looking to put together words for a specific purpose, for an essay, a blogpost, a story, or an article.
The difference is that these forms of writing require us to demonstrate what we know and what we’ve experienced; they are asking us for description and detail.
While the ability to write good, precise descriptions is a skill, like any skill it grows if we make a habit of exercising it regularly.
A lot of the writing we do every day is done impatiently, often with contempt and frequently with as little effort as possible. The emails, tweets and comments are little more than nervous twitches of writerly muscles. They are to writing what shifting your weight from foot to foot while waiting in a bus queue is to exercise.
The habit of writing every day isn’t just about making time to churn out words. It’s also about making time to craft descriptions, to explore forms, to assemble dialogue, to develop the ability as writers to move in the ways that allow our ideas to take on form and move readers. The daily habit also reminds us that writing is seldom if ever the result of a singular heroic effort, but comes from a gradual process of building something up over time.
Perhaps most crucially of all, the habit of writing shapes our minds. Thanks to the work of cognitive scientists it’s now well documented that what we do regularly changes our brains, to the point where brain scans can even show differences between the shape of a trumpeter’s brain and a pianist’s. The brain is far more like a muscle than we used to believe. It responds to being given a work-out, and especially to repetitive demands.
In the same way that a dancer or footballer builds a body that allows them to perform the physical activity they seek to do, a writer needs to build a mind that allows them to do the tasks they hope to accomplish.
Writer’s Block As A Lack Of Self
Even if we have a good grasp of the skills and process of writing, we can be hit by a third kind of writer’s block. This is perhaps the most crippling kind, and in a way this isn’t something that afflicts only writers, since it seems also to ensnare creatives and artists of all kinds.
You can feel it when just sitting down to write feels almost impossible, like trying to force together two magnets with the same poles aligned. It’s like some force is pushing you away from the keyboard.
Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, named this force of nature “resistance”, which is his way of talking about the fear, anxiety, self-loathing and other distractions that seem to rise up and crush our most creative impulses.
Writer’s block as a force of nature can be a useful description and while I still recommend wrestling with Pressfield’s thoughts, I’m not so sure that turning every day into a cosmic struggle is all that helpful.
Writing to F. Scott Fitzgerald on the subject, Ernest Hemingway suggested it might be a good idea not to get too self-absorbed in the personal tragedy of being an author: “All we are is writers and what we should do is write.”
This kind of writer’s block, the cosmic or spiritual kind when it hurts just to lay my fingers on the keyboard and contemplate the blank page, differs from the first two kinds we considered. What holds the writer back isn’t an inability to write, it’s the consequences of writing.
As long as your ideas exist only in your head they can’t really be evaluated or critiqued by anybody. Your story, or social theory, or approach to making the perfect photo, might be the best in the world as long as it rests safely between your ears.
But once you give it form, on paper or on a screen, then other people can look at it, pick it apart, or ignore it.
One of the reasons I’ve always been an advocate of blogging, not just for writers but for all creative people, is that it acclimatises us to the pain and uncomfortable experiences that come with making our ideas public and open to intepretation by others.
But it isn’t as easy as that.
If it were, I wouldn’t have experienced this kind of block right now, well into the third draft of this article. I got up, made some toast, checked the humidity in every room of my home, justifying that because of the stormy, rainy season we’re having. I randomly picked out songs on the guitar. The procrastination was becoming so pointlessly desperate that I even logged into LinkedIn!
Unlike the first two kinds of writer’s block, this one has no tangible answers. Acquiring mastery and building habits feels like something outside us. Fear and anxiety over the consequences of our writing, how our ideas will be received, what people will think of us — this is deeply personal, deeply psychological.
And it takes a lot of work to address it.
Having mastery and habits will help. If we can stay in the present, these make it easier for us to just write.
Writing this section blocked me because I want to be able to help you. That’s how I’m wired. It doesn’t feel right to just say “This is hard,” but that you’ll have to figure out for yourself how to address the cracks and scars in your own life.
My tolerance for the ambiguity that comes from now being able to diagnose the problem and figure out a solution is low. I’d rather check my email than admit that.
What I can offer is a glimpse into what it’s meant for me. For a start, a lot of writing through past experiences – especially the painful ones. Time with a creative coach, a writing coach, and a therapist. A lot of honest talk with people whom I love, and cutting ties with people who make this creative life more painful than it needs to be.
And a lot of honesty.
Some of the worst kinds of writer’s block hit us when we expect too much of the words we are writing, when we want them to carry some sort of magical power to change the world, or at least to change the reader we are addressing. We strangle our ideas with our expectations. My worst moments of writer’s block have been the result of misplaced fantasies over what I could achieve as a writer. We crave the fruit rather than loving the labour.
The task of a writer is to turn up and write. Then write again, edit, write more, repeat and finish. This is what success looks like. Finished. The best and maybe the only cure for writer’s block is finishing again, and again, and again.