On Getting Your Writing Unstuck
Does this sound familiar?
“I just can’t seem to get myself to write.”
“I have a pile of projects I want to work on, and end up doing none.”
“I keep procrastinating. Help!”
If you’ve said any of those things recently, this is the article for you.
I’ve talked with hundreds of writers over the years, and many have asked these very questions. As we explored them together, I discovered a theme emerge — beneath these questions was a common cause (or, more accurately, a cluster of causes). Once we understood what was behind those questions, we were better able to address the real issue together.
In this article we’ll explore:
a) Where Writers Get Stuck
b) Why Writers Get Stuck
c) How Writers Can Get Unstuck
At the end, I will also tell you about where you can access mentoring (free or paid versions), which can help infuse you with the motivation, encouragement, and even accountability needed to get unstuck. In the meantime, onward with the article.
Where Writers Get Stuck
The writing journey is long and winding, its path weaving through all manner of terrain. Along the way, one finds writers caught in various brambles, needing help to be loosed from the unfriendly clutches. Here are the bushes where, in my experience, most writers get hung up:
“If you gaze long into a blank page, the blank page also gazes into you.”
-my adaptation of Friedrich Nietzsche
Starting a new book, project, or chapter can have a startling mind-emptying effect. That blank page can stare us down and mirror our own emptiness. In the void, questions bubble up. “What was I going to say?” “Do I have any ideas worth writing?” “Have I ever known how to write?” It can be daunting to start. It’s much easier to click on over to Instagram or Netflix…
The sweetest moments are those when the story is flowing. Words practically leap onto the page. Then, inevitably, there arrives that one scene or that one paragraph that must be written but is impossible to write. A brilliant conclusion to a chapter, a riveting climactic scene — it’s not just that it must be written, but it demands the excellence a pinnacle moment like this deserves. It demands… perfection.
Ah. Yes. That blasted, ever-elusive perfection. The ultimate delusion. Often, the writer becomes still and quiet here, waiting for the precise and perfect words to float from somewhere and land on the page. The words are slow to come. Sometimes they don’t come at all. Still, the writer waits and, as long as she does, her writing remains stuck.
Most writers don’t realize that the end of the article or book is not the end of the writing process. It is at that point The End Times begin — the time during which other processes are set into motion:
Editing, rewrites, and then more editing. Sorry, you have not arrived at the finish line, but at the halfway point. And much of the rest of the way is uphill. But don’t worry — it’s exactly this stretch of the path where all the cheering crowds gather (your editor, mentor, writing community, etc) to propel you forward!
Publishing: many authors have been lost in this technical abyss of self-publishing, small publisher publishing, printers who call themselves publishers but are really just a la carte printers charging writers for every little thing… let’s not go there for now.
Marketing: many authors continue to wander in this endless maze of contradictory information, trying different methods, strategies, and tactics and still feel stuck.
Post-publishing: this is mind-game central. A funny thing happens when you hit publish. Shock (that it’s not selling 4000 copies in week one. … or year one.. or year three…) Anger (that this isn’t going the way you want, that the work isn’t over once you publish), Self-doubt (every fear of success, fear of failure, and old insecurity about how you’re not enough and nobody likes you — it all floods to the fore and insists on being dealt with.)
This is the part where I’m sure the stereotype of drunken writers was born. This is, in my own writing experience and in my observations of writing clients, the most difficult part of writing.
These may be the places writers get stuck, but why are we so easily trapped there? What keeps us from dislodging and continuing on?
Why Writers Get Stuck
There’s getting tripped up, which is temporary and happens to us all, and then there’s staying stuck for a long time. It can look like having writers block for months. It can feel like an invisible but unscalable wall between you and the rewrites that remain undone for months or, in some cases, years. It can look like plodding on with writing, but always wondering if this writing thing is a dream or a nightmare. It can look like wondering if any of it is worth it, and thinking you should just quit and get a ‘real job’.
I have found that what keeps the battle raging on is a cluster of causes that are much deeper than just not knowing how to write a scene or how to market a book. The reasons we get stuck and stay stuck emerge from our subconscious.
The effect of our inner world on our writing world is a rich subject one could write multiple books on. To distill it into a handful of causes though, it’s fair to say that the brambles that best grip the writer are those that pierce her deep dark fears and tell her they’re all true.
Let me develop that a bit.
How Can You Tell What the Hidden Reason Is?
When writers are stuck in some phase of writing (the blank page, trying to write a perfect scene, etc), it’s often not really the writing that’s the problem, it’s a deeper reason. A hidden reason. But how can we tell what the core reason is, if it’s some secret, subconscious thing? We can tell by taking note of the emotional clues our mind is giving us.
Clues to look for:
Sometimes we wear the label like a badge of honor, don’t we? Like the pursuit of perfection is a great and noble aspiration? The truth is, perfection is unattainable and the pursuit of it often yields disillusionment. Really, perfectionism is a byproduct of fear — fear of failure, of making a mistake, of losing control, of rejection. In effort to avoid these things, we decide on a subconscious level that if we can do something perfectly, we will not have to suffer such horrors as failure or rejection. If you notice you’re trying to shape a perfect story and the words refuse to come and you’re feeling stuck, this may be the core subconscious cause.
There are other terrors awakened by this writing and post-writing process: what if it’s true that I really am stupid or incompetent? What if I’m really not a writer after all? What if I just can’t do this? These kinds of questions can leave a writer swirling in worry or obsessive thoughts, and unable to write. Sometimes it’s called writer’s block. Or overwhelm. Or self-doubt. Or Imposter Syndrome. Whatever you want to call it, if we look closely at these worried thoughts, we notice they are related to identity and purpose. They probe deep into often unexamined corners and question the essence of who we are. No wonder so many get caught here.
Anger or Sadness
When writers are stuck in some phase of editing, publishing, or marketing, I have observed that anger and/or sadness can grab serious hold. I’ve wrestled with this myself, at the beginning of my writing career, when I noticed that family and friends didn’t seem to care about my writing. They didn’t read it, didn’t recommend it to others, and they sure as heck didn’t pay me for it. That’s just the shape my anger took, but there are lots of reasons to be angry. Perhaps someone has stolen your writing. Or used you. Or you feel like your head will explode if you get one more rejection letter.
I have observed that anger and sadness are two sides of the same coin, both seem connected to grief. Something has been lost — an opportunity, money, relationship, resources, self-respect — and our subconscious alerts us to the injustice through emotions of anger or sadness.
If you’re noticing anger or sadness bubbling up as you think about writing, editing, publishing, or marketing, it may be helpful to ask yourself if you’re grieving something. What do you perceive you have lost? You may be surprised at what unearths itself.
Numbness or Disinterest in Writing
Many writers who get stuck find they have lost hope and feel discouraged. The dream has either become a nightmare or just fled completely out of reach. This sensation is common, by the way, so not to worry — you’re in good company. We, your fellow writers, hear you, see you, and feel your pain. It happens to the best of us.
If this describes where you’re at, consider it an alert from your subconscious that there is something out of alignment. You already know there’s a gap between the dream and the reality, but it’s not a fatalistic situation in which you’ve been dealt a bad hand and reality is against you. No. It can definitely feel that way, but no. That is not the problem. The underlying issue in this case, is often that our expectations are … (and this will be unpleasant to hear)… unrealistic.
We expected our first book to sell 1000 copies. It didn’t.
The problem isn’t the family and friends who won’t fork over five measly dollars for our precious masterpiece. The problem is that we expected that’s where the bulk of our sales would come from, and it’s just not realistic. And it doesn’t mean they don’t care about you either, btw. (Do you buy from every Norwex, Epicure, or Amway seller in your friend group? No. And it’s not because you hate them. In fact, it’s not personal at all, right?)
Other times the hopelessness can come from the dashed expectation that we’d be able to start writing and earn a living immediately. All the online ads and courses say that any monkey can do it, after all. The reality is, unfortunately, that advertisers exaggerate, success is not immediate regardless of what field you choose, and that expectations for anything instant are just not in line with reality.
These dashed hopes and dreams can devastate and disillusion us, but sometimes the bursting of those unrealistic dreams are exactly what we need. Let it teach you. You haven’t failed by misunderstanding how it works, you’ve just learned something important. And that’s a good thing. Let it guide you as you readjust your goals in a more realistic direction.
How Writers Can Get Unstuck
Every one of these situations mentioned are real battles I and my clients have fought. The good news is that in most cases, we scaled the wall, rediscovered hope, and broke through the writers block. In the remaining cases, the battle continues — and it is winnable.
I’d like to recommend two things you can do to get yourself unstuck.
Addressing the Subconscious Cues
Give yourself permission to explore those things that reveal themselves. Like I said, this whole process is a head game, much of it bubbling up from the subconscious. Let it happen. Allow those fears and sorrows to exist. Invite them into the light, accept them for who they are, and then give yourself permission to go through whatever process is needed to heal — grieve your losses. Let anger step aside to reveal the sadness it’s covering. Admit what you’re afraid of, and then start working through them.
Don’t Battle Alone
Most writers are shocked by how their inner creativity is so intimately connected to their emotional landscape and subconscious. Most of us would rather get on with the writing thing already and nevermind all this messy stuff that’s getting in the way.
But it will continue to get in the way as long as it’s undealt with.
Dealing with it though, is a process that’s best done with others. Find safe people — a counselor, a mentor, a coach, or a safe community of writers even, who will not mock or discourage you, but will speak life, will understand, and will support and even guide you through to the others side.
As I mentioned at the beginning, there is a ready-built safe place in which to wage this battle. Two, actually. The first is a free community of writers in which I invest time and attention to address all manner of writing questions. It’s called My Writing Mentor. If you’re a writer, you’re invited. It’s free, and it’s here. The second is a more personal, customized mentorship in which I mentor small groups of writers to develop their craft and character face to face in biweekly zoom meetings. You can find out more about that here.