Writer’s Block: Diagnosis & Prescription
Is Writer’s Block Real?
I’ve been writing short stories and articles for nearly 40 years and novels for almost two decades. I’ve never experienced what people call “writer’s block.” However, there were many times when I found that I couldn’t write. Why did that happen? I suggest that there are three possible sources of this affliction.
Physical Health and Writer’s Block
“the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” — Dictionary.com
In this definition, what does it mean to be “unable to think” or create? To me that speaks to an underlying physical cause. If one has written before and understands how to create a story, an article, or a book, then to lose that ability must be due to some physical process.
I do think there are diagnosable physical causes of writer’s block. I have a writer friend with an autoimmune disease. Most of the time she can write and edit, albeit at different speeds depending on how she feels. However, she also has multiple allergies which can lead to a condition she calls “brain fog.” When mixed with her already compromised immune system, this means that concepts and words are not available to her mind as they usually are. On these days she not only avoids writing but also other complex tasks, such as driving. For me, that is a physical writer’s block.
I know many writers with Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Fibromyalgia. They all have good days (or even months) and bad ones. They know to lower their expectation for output on bad days. When their body is not fighting them, they speed up their output. I’m sure there are many other physical challenges that impact writers ; migraines, repetitive stress injury, chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer treatments and so on. These are better termed “health blocks” and people who want to write find ways to deal with them.
Stress, Trauma and Writer’s Block
“the condition of being unable to create a piece of written work because something in your mind prevents you from doing it.” — Cambridge English Dictionary
Let’s look at the Cambridge definition; “…something in your mind prevents you from doing it.” I think this is the rationale that most writers fall back on.
There have been many times in my life when stress interfered with my ability to finish a project or start a new one. When my father died, I had to stop working on the novel I was writing at the time. Ironically, the scene I was writing when my dad went into the hospital was the one where my heroine’s father was dying. Though he and my own father were nothing alike, the emotion needed to write that scene while simultaneously grieving for my dad, preparing a memorial service and settling his financial affairs proved too much. I had to step away from that book. I did other writing — short stories and articles — in the interim, but I didn’t return to finish that novel until nearly six months later.
Another time I was going through a major economic downturn in my life. We sold our home and moved into a one-bedroom apartment to save money. With all the stress that accrued during that three-year period I was nowhere near my usual output of four or more books a year. Writers react to emotional stress in their own lives in different ways. Some use it as inspiration or motivation. Others, like me, have a hard time focusing on writing because my mind is thinking about all the things not going well in my life and what I need to do to change the situation.
However, even in stressful or very emotional times, I was still able to write if I would just sit down and do it. I was not without ideas. I did not suddenly lose my skills. But sometimes I needed to pause during a project or write something different than what I’d scheduled. However, I would not define this as writer’s block. I wasn’t blocked from ideas. It wasn’t that I suddenly had no idea where the story needed to go. This is better termed “stress or trauma block.”
Fear and Writer’s Block
“It’s not the fear of writing that blocks people, it’s the fear of not writing well; something quite different.” ― Scott Berkun, best-selling author and motivational speaker
Mr. Berkun brings up what I think is the underlying factor behind the vast majority of writer’s block cases. And that is fear. What he describes certainly applies to me 90% of the time when I’m doing anything but writing. Early in my career, fear was the number one reason I stopped writing a scene or a book. I worried that people would finally know I’m a fake; that I have no idea what I’m doing. This fear consistently raises its head at the point of the book I call the “muddy middle.”
I start every novel with energy. I love getting to know my characters, setting them on their journey and giving them some initial difficulties to overcome. I love getting them mired in the quicksand of their own actions. My creative process in the beginning of a novel is to write into the mist; in other words, no outline or plot, just letting the characters and the situation lead me. A common term for this type of writer is a “pantser” — one who writes by the seat of her pants.
Then, around page 75–120, I realize I don’t know how to resolve it, how to make all the bits fit together in a way that is coherent and interesting. I start questioning my intuition. Meanwhile, my deadline is looming which adds to the stress.
On the rare book when I don’t have a muddy middle, I can guarantee I’m going to have a stoppage at the black moment or the ending. That is because I fear that all the work I’ve put in needs the perfect ending and I am incapable of writing it. Then it will be as if the entire novel is garbage because the last thing the reader will remember is the ending and be unsatisfied.
How to Overcome Writer’s Block-Based in Fear
I have two big fears: 1) Being stuck in the muddy middle and unable to move forward; and 2) Never finishing it because the ending isn’t perfect. I have two techniques for getting past the muddy middle; and a third technique to help me plow beyond the fear of not writing the perfect ending.
Getting Beyond the Muddy Middle
The first technique I use is to actually plot what needs to happen through the remainder of my story. I don’t suddenly create a twelve-page outline or beat sheets. That’s asking too much of my pantser nature. But I do brainstorm a basic outline of what may happen next. I make notes about what needs to be resolved, and what must happen to my character(s) in order for her to grow and become the person I need in the end. I’ll put in scene ideas: locations, action sequences, or relationship elements and temporarily order them into the remaining chapters. All of these serve to point me in a particular direction and that gets me out of the maelstrom of my mind and writing again.
I often change the outline as I write and I always end up with more than I imagined I would have. This bit of plotting takes away my fear of not knowing where the book is headed or that I can’t possibly make my word count or that I have no idea how to resolve things.
My second technique is to blow something up. Scott Westerfield, a young adult fiction author, said, “Cure for writer’s block: blow something up.” That doesn’t literally mean to blow up a building or start a war in your story — though you could if it was appropriate — but rather to throw in a major twist and see where it goes. It could be the George R.R. Martin way of blowing something up; i.e., to kill off a major character. Or for a romance writer, it could be to make something happen that tears the lovers apart so they no longer trust each other. For a mystery or suspense novel, it could be throwing in a red herring, adding another body to the crime that may or may not be related to the original crime, or disabling the protagonist’s ability to work on the crime. There are many ways to “blow something up.”
You may throw it out later but it will definitely get you writing. Tension, uncertainty, distrust are all things that help breathe life back into a story and back into my brain and typing fingers.
Getting to the End
A big fear for me is that the ending will ruin the entire book. After I’ve sent my romance characters through hell and forced them to realize they can’t control every part of their lives, but they’ve held on to one piece of themself to keep going, then I need one last devastating experience — known as the black moment. That is where the character is forced to do something she never thought she could do, emotionally or physically or both. It is the moment that the reader thinks all is lost.
Not only does that have to be amazing, but then i need to get the character through it, resolve loose ends, and give them hope again that life is worth living though different from what they ever imagined. Just the thought of writing those final scenes can stop me from writing. My fear of not doing it perfectly often makes me rethink the black moment, or not write it at all.
I’m now 15 fiction novels into my career and it still happens. It doesn’t happen with every book, but it happens more frequently as I get further into a series. The last book of a series is particularly daunting. It needs perfection beyond the previous books.
I have only one technique for getting past this fear. That is to give myself permission to create an over-the-top scene that will be resolved by a clichéd hero on a white horse coming to save the day. Yes, melodrama. I know that in all probability I will delete it later, but it has served its purpose. It gets me writing again. I’m putting words down on paper.
Here’s a secret I’ve learned about myself. Most of the time when I write what I believe to be an over-the-top scene, my editor finds it exciting and on target. Sure, there are things to change, but for the most part, the concept and framework remain intact. It was only my fear of not finding that perfect ending that held me back.
Does writer’s block exist? Yes, by the definitions I’ve seen it does, but I think it is too often used as a convenient excuse not to write. I’d rather throw out the word and instead ask writer’s to identify the actual problem: health, stress, trauma, or fear. In identifying what is really going on in your life, in your head, about your book, then you can address it and find a way to continue writing if that is what you really want to do.
If you have physical conditions that impinge on your daily life, you can be sure they will also impact your writing. They need to be addressed, not ignored. Talk to other writers with similar difficulties and find out how they’ve been able to continue writing through health difficulties.
Experiencing a major traumatic event in your life is bound to affect your writing. You need to deal with that event emotionally and physically before you can focus on finishing that book. Consider journaling about what is happening to you and what you are feeling as a way to keep your hand in it. No need to ever publish those, but it keeps your writing skills active and it may also help you cope with whatever is happening in your life.
Most cases of writer’s block stem from fear. Every writer I know — even bestselling authors — experiences self-doubt about their ability to continue to write good books. It is natural to have fears about your writing, natural to want to be better than you are. But please, don’t let this stop you from writing. Walk away for a couple of hours or days. Then sit down and start writing; if not on your current project, then on something else. The longer you stop, the harder it is to come back.
As to the fear that people will discover I’m a fake, I’ve just decided to embrace being a fake. After all, I make my living writing fiction. Or as one friend likes to say: “Telling lies.”
I suggest you never let yourself accept the excuse that you have writer’s block. Instead, look at what is stopping you and why. Then determine what you can do. Life is not a series of binary decisions — yes I can write or no I can’t. It is full of variety and opportunity. If you want to write, you will find a way to write.