Writer’s Block(s)

matociquala posted this today, which reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to say for a while.

I think “writer’s block” is possibly the single most unhelpful idea in the world of writing.

Some people say they don’t believe in writer’s block. Me, I believe in writer’s blockS. In other words, there are many different causes that can produce the effect of Not Writing — and they each have their own particularized solution. If you lump them all under one umbrella term, though, you obscure the differences, painting over them with a mystique that allows you to feel like you’re suffering from something beyond your control (which, not coincidentally, absolves you of the need to do anything about it).

It isn’t beyond your control. But if you don’t really know what your problem is, it’s hard to figure out how to solve it.

My most common problem — since I don’t outline — is that I don’t actually know what should happen next. Or at least I don’t know it in enough detail to be able to put it on the page. Solution? I need to stop and think. I need to review what pieces are on the board, where they’re trying to go, how they might try to get there.

A lot of authors, at one point or another, find themselves with the problem that they’ve taken a wrong turn. The solution to that last conflict was unconvincing, or this subplot doesn’t really fit the story. Solution? Backtrack. Rip some words out, return to the place where you went astray, try again. It hurts, but it hurts less than beating your head against the wall of that error.

Or maybe you don’t want to write because you’re bored with the story. Solution? Un-bore yourself. Pinpoint the cause of your disinterest (character? conflict?), and then send in a man with a gun — by which I mean something that will wake your reader up again. Because if you’re bored, odds are pretty damn high your reader will be, too.

Could be it’s research. You’re about to write the scene where they make their thrilling helicopter escape, and the idea excites you . . . but you don’t actually know anything about flying helicopters. Solution? Do the research, or bracket it and move on and come back later to fill in the details.

In some cases you’re trying to use the wrong process. Somebody convinced you that the One True Way of writing is to do X, and so you’re trying — but your brain is wired for Y instead. Solution? If you can find your process, things will go much easier. Maybe it’s spates of logorrhea separated by days off, rather than the common advice of “write every day.” Maybe it’s taking the time to polish the story in your head first, rather than “vomit it onto the page; you can always fix it later.” Try different things, and see if they work better.

Perhaps you’re coming down with a cold. Solution? Take some medicine, down a bunch of O.J., contemplate whether the influence of drugs and vitamin C is enough to perk you up for work, or whether you’re better off passing out on the couch and coming back tomorrow, once you can breathe through your nose again.

Or it’s a longer-term problem than that: chronic medical issues, or enormous stress from other parts of your life (like grief or moving across the country or day job complications). Solution? Varies from person to person. Maybe it will be better for all involved, you and your story, if you set it aside while you deal with other things. Yes, even if you have a deadline; talk to your editor. Sometimes writing can be a coping mechanism — but sometimes stress really does just drain the juice from your brain, leaving you with nothing. In these cases, beating yourself up with guilt will not help.

Possibly it’s not that anything has gone particularly wrong in your life, but you’ve been mushing on so fast for so long that you’ve burned yourself out. Solution? Figure out what helps refill your mental well, whether that’s taking a vacation or feeding your poor starved brain for a while. And look at your work schedule to see whether you’re asking yourself to do something unsustainable.

Or maybe your problem is that you’d rather play video games or surf the web or whatever. In that case, the solution is to plant your lazy ass in the chair and write.

All of these things can hamper your ability to put words on the page. But if you just call it writer’s block, you don’t know which problem you have, and you don’t know what to do about it. And your attempts to fix it might be counterproductive: if you’ve gone the wrong direction with the story, forcing yourself to sit down and start a new scene will only add to the word-count you’re going to rip out when you realize your mistake.

Having said all that . . . the difficulty lies in telling what your problem really is. I often can’t tell the difference between laziness and “I haven’t thought this through yet” — not until I’ve sat down in the chair and spent at least half an hour trying to make myself do work. By then I’ve usually either overcome my inertia, or figured out that I just wasted half an hour on the wrong solution. But at least I recognize that pattern now, and can try to adapt when I find myself caught in it yet again. Which is more than I could do if I was lying on the couch, one hand stapled to my forehead, saying, “la, woe is me, I suffer from Writer’s Block.”

21 Responses to “Writer’s Block(s)”

  1. yuuo

    Question: do you count issues like depression (bad enough to need medication) or other mental illnesses under the chronic medical issues umbrella? Because a hard depressive swing can knock you down as hard as any physical illness can.

    Just curious about your view on that.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve never experienced it myself, but yes, I’d imagine depression counts under that general category; it’s an ongoing sort of thing, and “suck it up and deal” is probably not the right solution.

      • kurayami_hime

        stepping away from the soap box…

        Depression suffers from being a radically imprecise word. If we’re taking depression to mean “sad” or “down” or just “not happy” then soldiering through might be the way to approach the writing slump. YMMV. If we’re talking clinical depression, it is something else entirely. It is an illness and should be acknowledged as such — rubbing metaphorical dirt in it and walking it off ain’t gonna cut it. In general, no one would think of telling someone to “suck it up and deal” if they had a broken leg or polio or arthritis interfering with the ability to get out of bed in the morning. Why, then, treat mental illnesses differently?

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: stepping away from the soap box…

          This is true. When people are talking about depression as a thing, I tend to assume they mean clinical depression, rather than just “oh, I’m feeling down,” and it’s something that needs dealing with on its own terms.

          In general, no one would think of telling someone to “suck it up and deal” if they had a broken leg or polio or arthritis interfering with the ability to get out of bed in the morning.

          Clearly you’ve never met many P.E. coaches . . . <g>

    • Marie Brennan

      I should add that my opinion really isn’t the one that matters, on a topic like this. Other people will have other categories and solutions; what matters is for the individual to sort through the cause of their own difficulty, and figure out how they can best deal with it. I’m not in a position to dictate that for anybody other than myself. Mostly I just wanted to point out that “writer’s block” is too vague to be a useful term.

      • yuuo

        Yeah, but what you said rang truth for me. I find myself blocked by the chronic mental disorder issue more than anything, but I have gotten bit by the ‘Needs moar planning plz’ bug and differentiating between them can mean the continued life or the utter death of a project. I was mostly just curious where you stood on the medical issue. You’re a writer I admire so I guess I do put a little weight on your opinion. :3

        • unforth

          Hi. Um, you don’t know me, so sorry if this seems intrusive – but for what it’s worth, here are my two sense on this – having been depressed a few times in my life (though never to the medication point) – when this has happened and prevented me from writing, I’ve found it very empowering to take some “power” away from the depression by saying to myself, “I’m too down to do this right now, so I’m going to make the CHOICE to not write any more until I’m feeling better.” It’s sort of just a semantic difference – but it means that I don’t make myself feel like crap that I’ve failed at writing, too (since my depression tends to take the form of my thinking I’m a failure in various ways). It puts some power back in to my hands, because I’ve gotten to make a decision, and deflates that awful feeling of trying and failing – and when the upswing finally comes, it gets a boost when you reach that day where you feel you CAN do it again, and decide, “okay, let’s do this!” …and you do. 🙂

          Don’t know if that’s helpful, but I thought I’d toss it out there. 🙂

          • yuuo

            That’s a good idea, actually. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ve got a massive WIP I’ve been working on for a few years now (yeah, I know, I’ll never made deadlines this way, but fortunately, the only deadlines I have to adhere to right now are my own), and right now, I can’t make myself care enough to even open the file. I’m having trouble making myself care enough to eat and otherwise function, where am I supposed to get the energy to write?

            Thank you for the suggestion, I’ll give it a shot! ♥

        • Marie Brennan

          I’m glad it was useful! (After all, I wrote it in the hopes that it would be.) I just didn’t want it to sound too much like the Word From On High, when the issue can be highly individual.

          • yuuo

            Naw, I’m used to seeing advice from pros. I do NaNo and get the emails with encouragement and advice. Some of it I’ll ignore if it doesn’t ring true for me. But when it does ring true, I hate the fact that I don’t have a way of saying something in the way of thanks or opening a dialogue with the person in question. I’m glad you have this LJ and I was able to respond to advice this time.

          • Marie Brennan

            Then you’re very welcome.

  2. unforth


    I’d written a kinda long and ranty answer to this post, but I think it’s a bit too ranty, so we’re gonna start over.

    I am a person who has said that writer’s block doesn’t exist. Thinking about it, I think I feel that way because I associate the phrase “writer’s block” very specifically with the romanticizing process that describes in her post. To me, that phrase actually has a very narrow meaning – describing a certain kind of dilettante writer, the kind who sits around and waits for inspiration, writes like crazy while the inspiration lasts, but then ultimately gets stuck and stops and bemoans that the inspiration is gone and however can they continue? I associate it with that group of people I knew in undergrad who took college Creative Writing courses and thought they wanted to be writers, but were never actually writing anything except when they had to. None of these people are writers now.

    And I guess that bothers me, a lot, because I do my professional writing under very, very stressful conditions. I can’t go to my clients and say, “sorry your grant isn’t done, I had writer’s block.” I can’t wait for inspiration. I need to get everything written in to my grant, and it all needs to be accurate and right – that’s my job, that’s what I get paid to do (okay, actually I’ve never been paid to actually write a grant, but that’s quibbling. 😉 ) – and I’ve never once sat down to work on a grant the first day and felt happy, good, or inspired – usually, I feel horrible, stressed, and anxious (in January, I had an anxiety attack the day before I had to start the damn things, I’ve only had a handful of anxiety attacks my whole life) – but none of that matters, because I’m being depended on, and in the end I have to just put my fingers on the keyboard and start writing, because I’ve come to learn from experience that – at least for me – once I get started, each day after that will get easier.

    So I guess I’ve not looked at it the way you’re describing, because I define writer’s block narrowly, as this nebulous excuse that people use when they lack the will power to just bull through – something that people use when they don’t have any legitimate excuse (and I do include things like depression, stress, etc., under legitimate excuses). The things that you’ve described, I think of under the categories of “challenges” (one of my favorite pieces of edu-speak jargon… 😉 ) – things that make me sit there when I’m writing fiction and go, errrrrr, what next? Or, alternatively, when I realize that I’m too down or too tired to write, or too damn stressed, and I abort and take a break (like, oh, every fall and winter. 😉 ). I guess what I’m attempting to say is that the reason I’ve said I don’t believe in writer’s block is that to me, those who really claim writer’s block use it as an excuse because they don’t have any of the other excuses that you describe as “types” and which I think of as legitimate explanations (which still need to be overcome before one can continue to write, of course). It’s that abdication of responsibility – the belief that writer’s block is, as you say, something outside of the writer’s control. And it’s not.

    Does that make sense?

    (…and that was my second try! my first was even worse… 🙂 )

    • takumashii

      I think that makes sense, but “writer’s block” can feel a lot more amorphous than that when you’re experiencing it in the moment. In the moment, it feels like nothing more complicated than “There are no words coming out! Waah!” — it’s only in retrospect that I realize, there aren’t any words coming out because I took a wrong turn a few pages back, or because I need more time to plan out what’s going to happen next, or even because I don’t realize how tired or angry or sad I really am. So, basically, I think that the distinction between “writer’s block” and “legitimate explanations” can be a lot muddier to the person feeling the block.

      • Marie Brennan

        As I said, I often can’t tell the difference between laziness and insufficient planning until I’ve tried to bull through! But I’ve learned that trying to bull through will solve the problem if it’s laziness, and will help illuminate the actual problem if it’s something else.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, I hear you on the dilettante-laziness-romanticization-etc. And yeah, it’s funny how living with the reality of actual professional deadlines tends to beat a lot of that out of you (or else you get beaten out of the profession).

      This post is actually a codified version of what I said to my students when I taught creative writing. Because those are probably the people most in need of hearing it: the ones who haven’t yet learned to write like professionals, and are vulnerable to overlooking the reasons why they’ve “gotten stuck.” Some of them will never become actual writers, some of them will, and some might move from one category to the other if they learn to pay attention, rather than letting a well-known term be their excuse to cop out.

      If that makes any sense.

  3. gothicsparrow

    Yes! It seems that every time any writer uses the term writers’ block, each of them mean something entirely different by it, which renders any grand proclamations about it not existing or ‘all writers’ block means this’ completely useless.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s like “hysteria” in early psychology. You’re female and having problems? Hysteria! You’re a writer and having problems? Writer’s block!

  4. midnight_sidhe

    Cool typology. Where would you put burnout?

    • Marie Brennan

      I’d ask what the cause of the burnout is. Are you sick, underslept, stressed by life, or have you just poured the contents of your skull onto the page and need the reservoir to refill?

  5. green_knight

    All of the things you describe exist. When my words stop flowing alltogether, I am too heavyhanded and trying to force my characters to do things they woulnd’t. That means that when the words stop flowing pushing on makes matters worse; I need to backtrack and find out where I’ve gone wrong. Stress, lazyness, and missing building blocks all can slow down or stop the flow of words.

    Writer’s block as I understand it is a different animal altogether, and once you’ve experienced it, you’ll be able to tell the difference: true Writer’s block is an anxiety attack that really means you _can’t_ face writing, anyomore than a person who’s claustrophobic ‘only’ needs to take two strides into a lift. Of course they’d be physically able to do it… but they *can’t do it*. And the more pressure they and others put upon them, the more frightening things become.

    It’s not helpful when people use the same term for two entirely different things, whether it’s ‘feeling a bit down/depression’ ‘being stuck/writer’s block’ ‘fresh horse/bolting’ – when you label an inconvenience with the name of a serious problem, you trivialise the problem, and I wish that people wouldn’t.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t doubt that sometimes people are pointing at a very serious problem when they say they’re blocked. But to use your example, I feel like “anxiety attack” is a much more useful descriptor than “writer’s block.” The latter makes it sound like the problem is that you can’t write — but that’s a symptom, an effect, not a cause. Anxiety is the cause, and once that’s been identified, you can start asking why this particular activity causes anxiety (is it the only one? or do you freak out similarly at other tasks?), and what you can do to lessen the emotional weight.

      We have ways to treat anxiety attacks. We don’t have ways to treat writer’s block, until it’s been identified as something more specific.

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