How to deal with writer’s block

Writer’s block should be taken serious.

Some people like to tout that block is “all in your head” and that fact makes it popular to believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block.

Yet research has shown that writer’s block is very real. It may be a psychological block in the brain, but so is agraphia: a very real, physical brain disability that prevents communication entirely.

Famed writer of the early 1900s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, (who you’ll remember wrote “ The Great Gatsby”) struggled so viciously with writer’s block that he led himself into believing that inspiration was a finite resource; a well that, after some use, would dry up for good.

There are other types of blocks outside of writer’s block too. Sculptors block, dancers block, composers block. All very real psychological blocks that we often feel powerless to overcome.

Yet, for writers, block is arguably more vital to beat than any other form of block. It isn’t enough to brush it aside saying: “It’s all in your head, so get over it.” Why?

Writers write to communicate. Writing is a clear form of expression, but more than that: it’s often the writer’s way of communicating. More often than not writing is the only form of communication the writer feels comfortable with, particularly in the case of professional writers.

A writer that feels block isn’t simply feeling stuck. He or she feels as though they truly cannot communicate. Block isn’t about simply being unable to write, for the writer, block can sometimes feel like the equivalent of being unable to suddenly move a limb, or – in some cases – being unable to breathe. Wrier’s block is very really debilitating. It’s not something we should brush aside lightly.

There are distinctions worth making here, between a writer who finds herself unable to write, and someone else who is simply unable to write.

In The Midnight Disease, author Alice Flaherty describes the difference between a writer who has block and someone who else who is stuck as such:

“Someone who is not writing but not suffering does not have writer’s block; he or she is merely not writing.”

For writer’s, block is something that must be dealt with, not effortlessly brushed aside.

In her book, Flaherty explores the numerous reasons for a writer to feel stuck. She lists external causes as a common reason for writer’s to experience block.

External causes for writer’s block are difficult for the writer to identify, for the fact that external blocks are ones that we form in our own heads based on external feedback. Feedback that we may not be paying conscious attention too. Though that’s not always the case.

Flaherty shares the story of novelist Paul Kafka-Gibbons: “[Gibbons] decided to take a relaxing summer off from writing his novel. He then spent those months wrestling with his psychoanalyst who thought he should face the fact that he had writer’s block.”

External pressures to write can lead us into believing that we’re the ones at fault, that we’re stuck because we’re lacking in talents, because we haven’t nothing worthwhile to write, or for deeper reasons.

In the case of student writers who feel stuck, the external drive may not be any person, but the subject itself.

Flaherty writes: “Students who seem blocked often turn out instead to have a secret dislike of their subject ” or their teacher, or their parents.”

Or, in the case of non-writers who dream of writing, the societal pressures can be internalized effortlessly. The result of external pressures is that the writer doesn’t feel as though he or she has anything valuable to say, and so doesn’t write. “I’m not a writer,” the belief goes, “so I can’t write.”

Outside of external causes there are other, more internal, reasons for writer’s block as well.

Researcher Mike Rose has a few leading theories on the subject. One of his primary theories for writer’s block is that writers place debilitating rules over their work. These rules ” which can often take shape subconsciously, on their own, without our knowing ” hinder our ability to write. Rules like avoiding sentence fragmentation, following a certain rhythm, or the editing too early.

In the end, the reasons for writer’s block varies from writer to writer.

What is commonly believed among researchers and writer’s alike is that block is predominantly an imbalance between the cognitive desire for writing and the emotional need.

Either the higher-process thinking of cognitive writing has tuned-out the emotional appeal (which can result in raw, but unemotional and un-energetic writing), or the emotional process has taken control and the ideas for writing become too uninhibited, more about “expression” and less about “communication” as Flaherty describes it.

Knowing what we know now, we can look to the array of options for getting unstuck. Because of the many reasons for block, there is an equal number of solutions for overcoming it.

On one hand are cognitive solutions. You’ve undoubtedly heard them before: mind maps, brainstorming, editing other’s work, etc.

On the other hand are more strict solutions, such as Chekhov’s rifle: the notion that every element of your story be essential and utterly irreplaceable. “A rifle hanging on the wall in the first chapter must be fired by the third.”

What other effective solutions are there for writer’s block?

Writer’s apps

In recent years applications have been developed to help writer’s overcome block in a number of ways. I even created an app that provides creative prompts to help you keep writing whenever you may feel stuck or unable to start.

Writers workshops

Workshops can be helpful in the context they give to both the writer and the writer’s work. A supportive structure to write in can help remove external pressures, while the knowledgable criticism of an experienced working group can be what you need to overcome internal rules or pressures you’ve placed on yourself.

Breaking tasks into smaller chunks

Often the thought of writing a novel – or even a series of pages – can be daunting enough to cause block. An effective solution is to break your task down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Rather than looking at the writer’s job as that of creating a large volume of text, look at it as simply to write a single paragraph. Then to write another, onward until a story begins to form naturally.

Addressing the fears of writing

Rejection and failure are the two biggest fears any writer faces. Often those fears cripple without us knowing. The solution is simple: take time to sit down and think about what your fears of writing may be and what you can do to overcome them. More often than not the fears are irrational (or don’t outweigh the potential benefits of writing). In the end, the best option is to get out of your own way.

Change your environment

It’s amazing what a subtle shift in environment can do for the creative person. In a cafe the noise may be enough to distract you, but it might also help to have people looking over your shoulder to see that you are, in fact, making progress on whatever it is you’re doing. Your environment can make a huge difference.

A dozen more things

From The Midnight Disease Flaherty uncovers more promising and practical efforts for overcoming writer’s block:

“Edit something you wrote the day before, always stop at an easy spot, start with an outline that gets more and more elaborate until it becomes your text, start with stream of consciousness writing, don’t edit too early, drink lots of coffee, take a break.”

When it comes down to it, the absolute best way to deal with writer’s block is two fold: first, experiment. Try any of the options listed above, or even seek professional counseling – as many prolific writers of the past have had to do for their block. The second part of overcoming writer’s block is habits.

Form a habit for writing. It doesn’t much matter what your habits consist of, only that they exist. A quality writing habit helps overcome nearly all of the pressures that have been known to cause writer’s block. External pressures are defunct because they have no part in your habits, and internal pressures can be made powerless as a result.

Creativity is, after-all, like riding a bike. The only way to effectively learn to ride it is to get on regularly and practice. Habits should be your practice.

Photo by Jochen Handschuh.