Writer’s Block — what is it? And, more importantly, how does one move past it and finally become able to write?
Is Writer’s Block simply the inability to write? Is it a lack of enjoyment of writing? Or is it the kind of laziness that leaves us stranded in Netflixland without writing down a single word?
What’s worse than not knowing exactly what it is, is the confusion about how to overcome Writer’s Block. The advice varies as much as causes vary. Some believe Writer’s Block to be a psychological barrier which must be addressed through therapy or emotional working through of things. Others believe it’s a simple matter of habit, easily managed with a few behavioral tweaks. In that case, writers are told to “go for a walk” or “read” or make lists that will somehow inspire them to return to productivity and task doing. These suggestions may help some task-oriented writers, but can do more harm than good to other creatives.
As someone who has struggled with Writer’s Block, I can tell you the pep talks from high achievers do little to invigorate my creativity. Actually, they have an opposite (though unintended) result of bleeding the hope out of me that I’ll ever break free.
My Writer’s Block
My first experience with Writer’s Block came when my Mom went into the hospital to live out her final weeks. That week my writing changed. I no longer journaled to process feelings, and felt like I could not write another single non-fiction thing. Real life was just to awful to record. Months later, I began writing short stories. Fiction, it seemed, was the way for my subconscious to break through and process what I could not consciously face.
For a few years, I struggled to find the motivation to write again. After 15 years as a freelance writer and editor, I was grappling for the strength to go on —I scrambled to hold on to hope. My dreams had not come true — I was neither rich nor famous, and little of what I wrote seemed to make a bit of difference to whoever did happen to read it. A difficult question began to plague my writing efforts: “What’s the point?” I can’t think of a faster, more effective way to drain the hope and joy out of any endeavor than to ask it that question and be unable to hear a reply.
What Is Writer’s Block?
Writer’s Block is generally described as a state of being unable to write. According to Webster’s dictionary, it’s “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” How that manifests however, will be different writer to writer. For some it looks like eternal procrastination. For others, an irresistible pull toward distraction. Some sit wordlessly in front of a blank page, unable to summon a single good idea (even though the ideas seem to flow freely during commutes or weeding the garden). Others get lost in a flurry of good ideas and end up starting thirteen stories before finishing a single one.
Writer Jennifer Lachs (1) says, “There are some experiences that almost all blocked writers have in common. Almost all of them experience flagging motivation; they feel less ambitious and find less joy in writing. They’re also less creative. [Researchers] found that blocked individuals showed “low levels of positive constructive mental imagery”: they were less able to form pictures in their minds, and the pictures they did form were less vivid. They were less likely to daydream in constructive fashion — or to dream, period.”
Causes of Writer’s Block
Theories abound about the cause of Writer’s Block, even in the minds of writers themselves. Some think it’s a core issue of laziness, or maybe depression. Or maybe that whatever good ideas they had were all used up and their well of creativity simply dried up.
Psychiatrist Edmund Bergler studied the phenomenon “in an attempt to determine why they were unable to create — and what, if anything, could be done about it” (2), and discovered these are not, in fact, the causes of Writer’s Block.
“After conducting multiple interviews and spending years with writers suffering from creative problems, he discarded some of the theories that were popular at the time. Blocked writers didn’t “drain themselves dry” by exhausting their supply of inspiration. Nor did they suffer from a lack of external motivation (the “landlord” theory, according to which writing stops the moment the rent is paid). They didn’t lack talent, they weren’t “plain lazy,” and they weren’t simply bored. So what were they?” (3)
The researcher concluded that a writer “unconsciously tries to solve his inner problems via the sublimatory medium of writing.” A blocked writer is actually blocked psychologically — and the way to “unblock” that writer is through therapy.” (4)
Decades later, psychologists Barrios and Singer also conducted a study into the inner workings of Writer’s Block, finding that blocked writers tended to exhibit symptoms such as depression, anxiety, heightened self-criticism, and reduced excitement at work. Also present were such things as obsessiveness, self-doubt, procrastination, and perfectionism. A general presence of helplessness was also noted. (5)
It sounds like a chicken-and-egg problem: which came first? Did Writer’s Block cause the emotional symptoms, or did the emotional symptoms cause the blockage? And maybe it doesn’t matter; especially considering the solutions proposed by the researchers.
How to Overcome It
The most common advice one comes across in the big old internet is that if one is experiencing a blockage in writing, “go for a walk” or “read” or “read inspirational quotes”. These may work for some who are perhaps in more of a lull than a full blown blockage, but these suggestions do little for many of us deep in the trenches of a writing crisis.
Instead of kickstarting creativity, these ‘wisdoms’ accomplish the opposite — they heap more guilt and pressure onto already wounded confidence and battered hope, furthering dampening the desire to express creatively and even the belief that one still can. Honestly, it comes of a bit like a cheerleader at a funeral. Dude. Shut up. I’m hurting over here.
Researchers, however, discovered much deeper levels of truth about how to remedy a writing blockage.
The first approach to address the emotional aspects of the blockage through talk therapy. This, researchers found, did help some writers move through the blockage.
The next approach was to address the creative aspects only. What researchers discovered was that as creativity was restored, the emotional difficulties were relieved as well. Creativity, essentially acted as a kind of therapy. This is better known now(think of how commonly heard the term ‘art therapy’ is), yet many writers remain unaware of it. This second approach will be the focus of the remainder of this article.
Reviving the Creative Process
One critical step in overcoming Writer’s Block was for writers to realize that creativity is not a linear process. Psychologist Kaufman, author of “The Psychology of Creative Writing” said, “I think one must trust the writing process. Understand that creativity requires nonlinearity and unique associative combinations,” he says. “Creative people do a lot of trial and error and rarely know where they are going exactly until they get there.”
It’s fitting then, that for a blocked writer to find her way back into the flow of creativity, she would have to try less conventional advice than “go for a walk”.
Here are some ways psychologists helped writers rediscover their creativity:
Write down your dreams — not for anyone else to read, but just for you. By writing down one’s dreams in a way and place which you know will never be read, you’re free to reacquaint yourself with your subconscious where creativity has perhaps been hiding.
“That dream could become the source for a story. And, at a minimum, it serves as a reminder that, no matter how blocked you may be, you still have the capacity to imagine something new — no matter how small and silly it may seem.” (6)
Practice Visualizing Colorful Mental Images
One successful exercise that researchers implemented was having writers sit in a quiet place and visualize according to a series of prompts given. “They might, for example, “visualize” a piece of music, or a specific setting in nature. Afterward, they would visualize something from their current projects, and then generate a “dreamlike experience” based on that project.”
“Writers who’d participated in the intervention improved their ability to get writing done and found themselves more motivated and self-confident. The exercise didn’t cure writer’s block across the board, but it did seem to demonstrate to the creatively stymied that they were still capable of creativity.”
Where Can I Get Help with Writer’s Block?
Reading articles, watching videos, and buying pre-recorded courses on the subject may be helpful, but all require us to DIY the thing. Sometimes we need someone with experience and compassion to take our hand and walk with us through it. Fortunately, there are ways to get that kind of personal guidance — and it doesn’t have to be expensive, either.
Here are some ways I can help:
Inside the My Writing Mentor community
you’ll benefit from free workshops and hear from me about the writing journey. Check it out here. (This is the free option)
Note: While the following options are paid, you’ll notice I keep the prices low. This is intentional. I have a personal dislike for the rampant price gouging and exploitation that goes on in the writing world, and this is how I personally fight it. These prices do not reflect a lack of confidence in my ability (as some assume), rather they reflect my genuine desire to help others, and the willingness to accept lower pay in order to do so. That said, here are the paid options, in ascending order:
In these biweekly group coaching sessions, you will be met where you’re at on your writing journey and I will guide you like a wise and gentle sherpa.
As low as $20/month here.
In these one-on-one coaching sessions, I will meet you where you’re at on your writing journey and be your sherpa, but unlike in the group setting, you will have my personal and undivided attention.
As low as $125/month here.