Years ago I wrote an essay for my site called “Writer’s Block(s),” wherein I said I don’t find the term “writer’s block” to be helpful.
I stand by that, even though I’ve now gone through a period where, if I were inclined to use that term, that’s what I would have called it.
In 2020 I was hugely productive. Some writers found it very difficult to write last year, but I was in the camp that took refuge from the world by escaping into ones of my own creation. I wrote two novels (The Liar’s Knot with Alyc, and Night Parade on my own), plus ten short stories, three flash, one fanfic, one short story for L5R, various short adventures for Sea of Legends, and my ongoing Patreon essays.
Given that, it wasn’t surprising that after I rounded the corner into 2021, things slacked off. I’d been working really hard, after all, and you can’t do that nonstop forever. I’d already decided to slow my roll on short fiction because I was writing it faster than I could sell it, so taking a break from that wasn’t a problem. Besides, I had The Mask of Mirrors out in January and Night Parade two weeks later, so there was a stretch of literal months where I was doing promotional events every week, usually two or three of them. That eats brain and energy and I know it, so giving myself time off from producing something new was good self-care.
Round about late February, I realized my ability to brain creatively was not regenerating. I’d taken two months off and I still had no more energy for writing than I had before; if anything, I had less. I’d written my final L5R story and a couple of pieces of flash, but for the former I had the benefit of all the existing story momentum and the latter were . . . not impressive. More importantly, I had a story due to an anthology, and I was having the worst time getting it done.
Well, there could be multiple reasons for that. And I knew perfectly well that I had a plot problem in the story which I hadn’t yet solved — so naturally I couldn’t move forward on it. I made myself sit down and I figured out a way around that problem, which let me write a little more . . . but then I ran into a new problem, which slammed me into a second wall.
And then I reached a point where even trying to make myself think about the problem induced a flinch reaction in my brain: god, no, please don’t make me.
This was . . . not good.
If you saw the day in mid-March where I asked on Twitter for cute cat pics and the like, that was the day I realized I wasn’t simply tired, and I wasn’t simply stuck on a bit of plot and everything would be fine once I sorted that out. Something had gone wrong in my head, that merely sitting back and waiting wasn’t going to fix.
But the gist of that original essay is that calling the issue “writer’s block” accomplishes nothing. It’s a description of symptoms, not a diagnosis of cause, much less a cure. I had to figure out why my head had gone wrong, on a global level that went well beyond being in a plot corner with a single story.
I mean, pandemic. That was a pretty obvious culprit. But “pandemic” wasn’t really an answer, either, because there was a pandemic before and I still wrote, and also what exactly about the pandemic was the bit stabbed into my brain? There’s been discussions about the lack of novelty involved in being locked down, which can be particularly deadly to creative work; that seemed like a good angle to investigate. My first-line response was to spend a whole day doing things like working on a jigsaw puzzle, playing piano, and otherwise engaging in activities I hadn’t done in ages, which definitely helped to lift my immediate mood, even if it didn’t fix everything.
What about environmental factors? I figured winter had something to do with it — I’ve known for decades that I don’t respond well to a lack of sunlight — but merely rounding the corner into daylight saving time hadn’t brought the improvement I hoped for, so I got more aggressive about seeking out light. We recently got a swing for our back patio, and the weather was nice enough for me to sit out there, so I started making a point of doing that every day (light + a new place to sit, i.e. novelty). In fact, the trainer I see has a list of elements that play into good health — things like nutrition, sleep, and so forth — and sunlight is on that list, so my “homework” from him for a while was not to lift weights or anything like that, but to get at least twenty minutes on the patio each day.
I also started taking a vitamin D supplement, on the theory that a deficiency in that nutrient has caused sluggishness in multiple people of my acquaintance, and overdosing on the stuff basically requires you to down a whole bottle in one go, so why not supplement for a while and see if that helped.
And that story I was stuck on? Well, I had a deadline, so I did have to push through, rather than just shelving it until I felt better. But I talked to Alyc, who not only helped me work out the problem I’d been stuck on, but made a suggestion for another detail that wound up fixing a problem I hadn’t even gotten to yet. Which unclogged the brain ducts enough for me to get the story done, with a small extension from the editor that gave me time enough away to revise the draft as it needed. So yes, “fix the story” was part of the solution, along with other things. (Full disclosure: I held off on making this post until I heard back from the editor with revisions, because a part of me was afraid that I’d turned in something visibly sub-par. But he’s delighted with it, so I feel much more comfortable publicly discussing the problems I had along the way.)
So here we are, roughly two months after I started trying to figure out what was off in my head and how to fix it. How are things going? Well, in April I finally rewrote a story I’d drafted in 2019 and had meant to redo ever since then (the idea was solid, but the execution was meh at best). And I also popped out a piece of flash I’m quite pleased with. And I started revising another story whose polishing I’ve been putting off. More pertinently, one evening recently I decided I’d done plenty of work during the day and sat down to read . . . only to wind up scribbling notes and even writing material for a side project I’ve got going on. In other words, I was excited enough about that project to spontaneously generate ideas for it when I wasn’t trying to extract them.
That’s what my brain looks like when it’s working right.
Now, I will be the first in line to say that I’m lucky: this problem wound up being relatively quick to resolve. I do not appear to have developed major depressive disorder or anything else that would require medical intervention to fix. My home remedies sufficed, at least for now, and they sufficed in a fairly short time — call it a few weeks before I started feeling like I was on my way out of the pit, and a bit over a month before I felt like I was back on my feet. Not everybody has that easy a time of it.
But I stand by what I said before. If I were to rewrite “Writer’s Block(s)” today (which I may do), it would be to change the presentation of the points there, not the points themselves. I had to dig past the surface of “I’m having trouble writing” and even the surface of “well, pandemic” to get to the potential causes and the changes that might help mitigate them. My first attempted solution (taking time off) didn’t work; okay, what should I try next? If it isn’t just low-grade burnout, if it isn’t all the promotional stuff taking my time and energy, then what is it? What path might get me back to where I want to be?
We have to ask ourselves these questions. Simply waiting and hoping the problem will go away on its own will only fix a minor subset of the possible causes; some of the others may get worse, as the failure to produce exacerbates the stress. Sometimes you need to crack the whip over your own head, and sometimes that will only drive you deeper into the hole. Sometimes you won’t know what works and what doesn’t until you try.
But you can try, and eventually — hopefully — find your way back out again.