Writer's Block: Its Causes and Cures
Copyright (c) J. Budziszewski 2023
Most people have come up against writer’s block at one time or another. Some, including even some experienced writers, suffer it frequently. I don’t suffer it often, but that’s only because I’ve learned a variety of tricks, which I now share. I don’t guarantee that every one of them will work for everyone, but try them and see if they work for you.
Most writers, though not all writers, are single-taskers. They find it difficult to compose unless nothing else is going on at the same time, so that they can sink into what they are doing. You may be one of these.
Case one: All sorts of things are happening that you can’t prevent and perhaps shouldn’t want to. Parents know this well: “Daddy, will you read me a story?” Solution: First, find blocks of time when nothing else is going on. This may require rearranging your schedule. Don’t overdo that – if you write all night, then you’ll be no good to anyone else the next day! Second, find a way to organize your current writing project so that you can do it in many small chunks with frequent breaking points. One way of doing this is to multiply your chapters and keep them short, or to build them from small sections rather writing them as continuous streams. Readers usually find that sort of prose easier anyway. At any rate, if you break your project into chunks, then your undistracted blocks of time won’t have to be so long, and your interruptions won’t be so frustrating and so difficult to recover from when they do come. Instead of saying “Hold on until I finish this chapter,” you’ll find yourself saying “Hold on until I finish this sentence.”
Case two: The distractions and interruptions are your own fault. Solution: Stop it. Hang up the phone. Get off the social media. Turn off the talk radio and television. If you need a little something in the background, keep it quiet and choose music that doesn’t thump. Many people, and not just young people, think they can write and do a lot of other things at the same time. This is a delusion. Maybe you can cook while still keeping an eye on the kids (I hope so!), but you can’t write while still watching a soap opera. The fact is that none of us are literally multi-taskers; our nervous systems are not wired for that. When we think we are doing many things at once, we are really switching our attention back and forth among tasks very rapidly. Consequently, none of the tasks has our full attention – and writing does require full attention.
For some people it’s just plain hard to start – but that may mean more than one thing.
Case one: You may find it hard to start anything, and writing is just a special case. Solution: You may be depressed, or just lazy. Write anyway. Sit down. Begin. Stop making excuses. It doesn’t matter whether your problem is laziness or depression; absorbing work is likely to help with both.
Case two: You may not find it difficult to start other things, but just to begin writing. Solution: Early in your work time, before working on the project itself, spend a short time – and I do mean a short one -- writing something else, just to get in the groove. Your little exercise needs to be something which is easy to begin and won’t take long. It also needs to be something from which you won’t find it difficult to disengage once you’ve warmed up. For example, answering a friend’s note may be just the thing; when you finish, you may find that your writer’s block has evaporated, and that you're impatient to begin. But if answering your friend’s note leads to a compulsion to clean out your entire email box, find a different warm-up exercise.
You want to write, you’re ready to go, your hands are poised over the keyboard, but your mind is empty. Or, perhaps, you experience an unusual and disturbing reluctance.
Case one: It’s always possible that you really aren’t quite ready to write after all; your idea may need to ferment in your mind a little longer. Solution: Give it some time to do that. Experience will tell you which things aid in fermentation. If you ferment nicely (instead of just wasting time), the day will come when instead of being unable to write, you won’t be able to keep from writing.
Case two: So far as you can tell, you really are ready to write, but the words and thoughts just aren’t coming. Solution: Don’t worry about it. Set down whatever comes into your mind, even if it’s not a beginning. Perhaps you might write a sentence about what you want to write, or a sentence about why the topic is so important. Eventually the sentences for your opening paragraph will start coming. When that happens, delete that other junk, and get going. You may also find it helpful to begin at some other place than the beginning – for example, to start writing in the middle.
Case three: You’ve been writing, but the block hits you partway through. Solution: Take a break, but learn to recognize which kind of break you need. If you’ve been at it all day and you’re tired, taking a walk is good. If you’ve been working too hard and you can afford a few days off, that can be pleasant, and your spouse will be pleased about it too. Sometimes the best thing is what I call a working break. This means setting aside the big project for a day, and working instead on small projects that you can finish quickly. By the time you finish these little ones, you’ll be eager to get back to the big one. For example, when I’m working on a book and I stall, I sometimes find refreshment by spending just one day writing short items to post later to my blog. (I’m doing that now!)
Case four: The reluctance you feel in writing may be a signal that there is something about what you’ve already written that you haven’t thought of – that isn’t right, that you need to reconsider, or that you just need to reorganize. Solution: Review. Chew on it. Then go back to writing.
So long as you haven’t yet begun to write, the possibilities are endless, but with every word you set down, your options for what to say next are diminished. Knowing this, you may feel that if you make the wrong beginning, you’ll be stuck -- as though you were a stone sculptor who might ruin the marble by beginning to chisel in the wrong place. In some people this produces crippling anxiety. Solution: Keep in mind that writing isn’t stone sculpting. A sculptor can’t put back what he’s already chiseled out, but you can always go back and revise what you’ve written.
If your project is a big one, you may be afraid to begin because you’re afraid you won’t be able to finish.
Case one: You can see the beginning of what you want to write very clearly, but you can’t see the end. You worry that maybe the end isn’t there, and you’ll run out of ideas halfway through, so you’re afraid to begin at all. Solution: Get over it and begin anyway. After all, we are rarely able to see the end of anything we do. We don’t know how it will turn out when we begin a new friendship, or even when we break with routine to have fried eggs instead of scrambled. Almost any beginning is better than none, and in writing, your destination will become clearer as you go along. Even if this doesn’t happen and you do stall halfway through, the practice you’ve had will be helpful, and your next attempt to write will be better.
Case two: The sheer size of the project overwhelms you. Solution: Keep in mind that you aren’t working on the whole project at once. At any given time you are only working on this page or this section or even this sentence. Remember too what we said about dealing with distractions, because it helps here as well: If you organize your writing project into a lot of small chunks, then you are much less likely to feel overwhelmed. Just write one chunk at a time. Outlining may help with that. Outlining doesn’t help everyone, and it doesn’t help even those whom it does help every time, but experience will teach you whether and when it will help.
Fear of failure
You may find it hard to begin because you suffer persistent anxiety that what you write won’t be good enough. This fear especially afflicts perfectionists, who seem to be overrepresented in the ranks of writers. Solution: Maybe it won’t be very good. So what? You won’t know until you try. Besides, first efforts are almost always bad, but the only way we learn to write well is to write, whether badly or well. The more you write, the better you will become at it. Do the best you can do, even if it isn’t the best you can imagine; no one can accomplish that.
Fear of rejection
You may suffer anxiety, not that what you write won’t be good enough, but that even if it is, other people won’t think so. Solution: If it really is good enough, that shouldn’t matter.
You may just need more confidence in your own judgment. Although critique can be helpful, it can also be overdone. Don’t talk about your project with a thousand others, or you will end up writing their idea of your project instead of yours.
Or you may need better judgment. It won’t be surprising that good judgment is developed by wide reading. By wide reading I mean not only many things but things written in many different ages and genres. Make that your habit.
Maybe you just need to find the people who will see the merit of your work. Try pitching your work to a more appropriate audience.
Since excellence comes only through practice, fear of getting started defeats the purpose. It’s like being afraid to eat because you need more nutrition. Laugh at such fears, and start anyway.