As creative writers we’ve all probably experienced some form of writer’s block in our time. Whether it’s struggling to unravel the swirling puzzle of your story and characters so you can get them on the page, or sitting down to your writing and feeling like you’re pounding your head on the wall of your blank page, or that nagging icky feeling you might get when you sit down to write and decide, “I’ll go do this other thing instead,” then troll Facebook or find some other distraction and excuse.
Writing blocks arrive in many forms and stir up many different feelings but the common ground with them all is that they keep you from writing or they keep you from making significant progress on your work.
So what is writer’s block anyway?
There’s a difference between having a story block and having writer’s block. A story block is what I’ve been working with recently with my science fiction work-in-progress where I’m trying to figure out a couple of plot holes and issues with my main character that has largely halted my progress. I have a lot of my story worked out but I want to get some of these fundamental issues cleared up before I dive full on into writing. These are story blocks.
Writer’s block is something different, something more difficult and challenging to understand and therefore it’s something trickier to truly overcome. Writer’s block is actually not about your writing at all. It’s about you. Fear. Insecurity. Perfectionism. Doubt. Shame. Even guilt that you’re devoting time to your writing and not other things. All of these can put a block on your writing.
This is why the usual advice to “just push through” or “just pick a spot and go” or “do some sprints and don’t worry about what your writing” often doesn’t work in the long term. Yes, those things can definitely help you make a breakthrough or get out of a slump but they address the symptoms of writer’s block and not that actual underlying issue. Often writers find themselves right back to being blocked later on.
What’s your resistance?
When it comes to writer’s block (again not a story block) you have to figure out what’s really blocking you. The key to that is to figure out what’s happening with you IN the moment rather than trying to push through the moment or the every popular running away and doing something else. Our true blocks, barring exhaustion or poor self-care that prevents our brains from functioning properly, are always emotional. I call them “resistance emotions.”
“Resistance emotions” are those things I mentioned above that keep you from progressing or even sitting down to the page: fears, insecurities, guilt, etc. To identify your particular “resistance emotions” the next time you sit down to write stop yourself as soon as you start to feel any kind of resistance, that is to say anything that doesn’t feel completely positive. Take some deep breaths and stay IN THE MOMENT.
Now pause and take note of what physical sensations you feel. I’ve had writers tell me they feel a cold chill, or they get sweaty, or feel this horrible knot in their gut. Pay attention to what physical sensations you get in that moment of resistance. Next step is to ask yourself, “What’s going on for me here? What am I feeling?” Keep asking until you identify an emotion.
Our emotions often arrive first as a physical response then our mind catches up. So when you feel that physical sensation that tells you something here doesn’t feel good you have to pause and figure out what is the emotion that goes with it. This also creates a connection in your mind between the physical and the emotion that you can recognize faster later. For example, “Oh I’m getting that cold sweat again. I must be feeling fear right now.”
Let’s take a look at a universal emotion for writers and non-writers alike: FEAR
Once you’ve named one of your “resistance emotions” it doesn’t stop there. You have to dive deeper. Say you discover one of your “resistance emotions” is fear (and this is most often the root of a lot of writer’s resistance). Now what? Very often when we feel fear we take it as a signal to run away but that would be the WRONG approach here. You have to figure out what you’re afraid of or it will continue to have power over you. When you feel fear that’s a time to learn not run. Make fear your teacher not your dictator.
Take a journal, notebook, or piece of paper and ask yourself “What am I afraid of?” then write until you have an answer. Then ask again and write again. Keep doing it. You may find wildly different fears that are affecting you or you may discover several layers to one fear. When you know what you’re really afraid of you can address the true fear at its root. Can you see how “just keep writing” is just a bandaid on your writer’s block?
The great thing about making these discoveries is that your resistances will almost always affect other areas of your life or relationships far beyond just your writing. Figuring them out can actually clear up a lot of other crap in your world so that in general you can live happier and more fulfilled.
Writer’s Block, perfectionism and the death of your writing dreams
Perfectionism is such a fascinating thing to me. I, myself, am a recovering perfectionist. Not everyone is a perfectionist but this is something I’ve heard countless writers declare about themselves. Perfectionism can look like many things: setting standards that are unreasonable or much too high to reach; being excessively harsh when you make a mistake or fall short of your expectations; procrastination; a lot of planning and a lack of execution; feeling frustrated or unhappy even when you reach a goal.
Here’s the truth about perfectionism: perfectionism is rooted in fear. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making a mistake. Fear that people will judge you or look down on you. Fear of not being enough. Fear. FEAR. FEAR! As I said above, you have to make fear your teacher, ally with it, instead of letting it rule you.
Perfectionism will absolutely destroy your progress and keep you from your writing dreams. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have high standards or you should submit a book for publication without editing. You do need to have high standards and good quality but they also need to be within reason. We are human and we make mistakes. We miss a typo or seventeen. We forget a detail about a character of forget to close a plot gap. And these are just writing examples. IT’S OKAY! It doesn’t have to be perfect on the first draft.
When it comes to breaking through perfectionism you have to treat it like you do fear, because that’s what it is. Seek out the underlying fear. Then you can address it at the root. For a quick method to start turning your perfectionism around try this: make deliberate mistakes. Put a typo here or there in your writing or even in an email to someone. Mess up small on purpose and you’ll see that the world didn’t end. I wouldn’t be surprised if you found a mistake or two in this article. Like I said, I’m a recovering perfectionist myself.
Take it to the next level
If you want to take this to the next level and uncover your writing blocks so you can break through them join my FREE Unblock Your Writing 5 Day Challenge!
In it you’ll discover what your “resistance emotions” are, your underlying fears and insecurities, and how to build the confidence to finish (or start) your novel. Whether you’re new to writing or you have twenty+ novels to your name it’s time to learn how to break through writer’s block for good.
We begin Monday July 11th!!