To be a writer, one must do two things: write and, perhaps surprisingly, not write. Usually, we champion the first and demonize the second with much fear and trembling, giving it dread labels such as “writer’s block.”
The implication is that, for a writer, not writing is about as bad as it gets.
The truth, however, is nuanced.
I have been waiting to write this post for a very long time—four years, in fact. I have been waiting because I knew it was a post I could not properly write until I overcame my own lengthy writer’s block and could speak about the lessons it was teaching me. From my perspective on this side of the desert, I know it is a landscape I did not traverse alone. Many writers—I even dare to say most writers—experience significant writer’s block sooner or later. I am writing this post now for those writers who are currently struggling with significant creative blocks and also for those who may encounter this phenomenon later on. Perhaps you will remember this post and take heart, not just from the lessons I will share in a moment but simply from the fact that my writer’s block came to an end—and so will yours.
For four years, starting in the fall of 2018, I lived with significant writer’s block. It was my first such experience, and I felt bewildered by it, frightened, and often ashamed. After all, I was an established, published writer, who made her living not just writing novels, but teaching others how to do so. How could I possibly have writer’s block? It felt so threatening on so many levels. Nothing I did seemed to make it any better. In fact, it only got worse. What started as simply “writing being hard” (coupled with a lot of denial) in 2018 and 2019 turned into a full-on word drought in 2020 and finally a conscious sabbatical in 2021 and most of 2022.
One of the basic lessons I learned was simply that writer’s block comes in two different types—which may happen individually or be complicated by each other. The first type of writer’s block is the simplest (although no less frustrating): plot block. This is when your story simply isn’t working. Whether momentarily or fatally, your story’s logic has run itself aground. The plot doesn’t make sense. The characters aren’t likable or realistic. Beta readers aren’t connecting with your narrative style.
Resolving plot block is relatively simple in that it requires only the application of craftsmanship. This doesn’t mean plot block can always be solved; sometimes throwing logic and good story sense at a block forces you to recognize that an idea is beyond saving and must be abandoned. But plot block is something that can be worked through with the application of enough time and patience.
The other type of writer’s block is what I call life block. This occurs when the writer’s creative energy is blocked or diverted by deeper personal issues. At its simplest, this might be caused by a lack of time or focus, as when a day job requires all your energy. It can then be complicated by other challenges, such as changing your living circumstances or relationship status, or dealing with the health challenges of either yourself or your loved ones. Not only are these circumstances time- and energy-intensive in their own right, they can also bring up deeper psychological issues, including fear, grief, and anger—all of which can interfere with the flow of your creative juices.
Unlike plot block, life block isn’t always something you can resolve by applying mental and physical effort. Often, it will require work that goes much deeper than simply figuring out what’s wrong with your story.
6 Lessons Learned From Long-Term Writer’s Block
I love the following insight from the essay “36 Assumptions About Playwriting” by Jose Rivera (from The American Theatre Reader), which was quoted in a recent blog comment by a reader named Patrick:
Embrace your writer’s block. It’s nature’s way of saving trees and your reputation. Listen to it and try to understand its source. Often, writer’s block happens to you because somewhere in your work you’ve lied to yourself and your subconscious won’t let you go any further until you’ve gone back, erased the lie, stated the truth and started over.
Sometimes this “lie” is as simple as a mistaken bit of logic in the plot. But sometimes, it is goes much deeper and requires the patience of much more excavation before you can return to your writing with the honesty and vulnerability necessary to access a strong creative flow.
Patrick went on to ask:
I wonder if you have any helpful thoughts on the kind of writer’s mental hygiene that Jose’s talking about here.
I like his term “mental hygiene,” because in many ways this sums up the lessons my writer’s block taught me in those four years. Looking back, I know my block resulted from a uniquely personal confluence of life challenges—a combination of plot block from a complicated story I was working on and a constellation of life challenges that required me to deeply reconsider almost all of my own personal identities, including that of “writer.”
Most of the work I did to finally overcome my writer’s block was not directly related to the craft of writing, but rather to my relationship with myself and the world around me. In that work, I learned more about creativity than I ever did when writing all of the many stories I had put into the world up to that point. The six lessons I learned during those four years of not writing were, in many ways, the most important lessons I have ever learned as a writer. Whether you currently find yourself in a season of writing or a season of not writing, perhaps you will find resonance with them as well.
1. Creativity Is Your Partner, Not Your Servant
When I was a child, I danced with my creativity. We went on so many adventures together, but I was never the one who led or commanded. If anything, I simply followed wherever my imagination led. Later, when I started writing down my stories, I began taking on the identity of “writer.” In some ways, this was an important and wonderful transition into a greater consciousness of the art form and a responsibility for my own disciplined approach to the craft. In other ways, it was the moment when I stopped treating my precious creativity as a consensual partner and began placing demands upon it, treating it as a servant who had no choice but to show up on my timeline and perform according to my bidding.
I’m not saying that applying discipline, logic, and willpower to one’s creative work is wrong or even problematic. But it can become so when we put too much emphasis on “being a writer,” rather than “following our creativity.” The former is results oriented; the latter is process oriented. Both are important. But if the process becomes subordinate to the end goal, we can lose sight of the fact that creativity is not a limitless resource. It must be cultivated in a environment of respect.
When my creativity stopped obeying my every demand—that it show up when I told it to and produce as much as I wanted it to—I found myself bemused. I seemed to have lost the ability to communicate with my creativity in the old ways. I had forgotten how to dance. For a long while, I was terrified that not only had I forgotten how to dance, but my ignorant and arrogant treatment of my creativity had perhaps even killed my dance partner.
I had to learn how to once again relate to my creativity, not as a “professional” or even an “artist,” but as a child. I read Julia Cameron’s wonderful classic The Artist’s Way, and I began to remember how to play—how to interact with the world around me with attention and expectation. I had to remember how to stop assuming the answers and to instead just ask the questions.
2. You Are More Than Your Writing (or Your Writer’s Block)
One of the scariest parts of experiencing long-term writer’s block is that, suddenly, you feel you can no longer be “a writer.” It seems as if that part of you is broken. Once upon a time, you were creative, inspired, imaginative, intelligent. You were a storyteller. Now, you are none of these things. Now, you are empty of ideas and exhausted of thinking. Either you sit in front of your computer trying to write and hating it, or you avoid the practice altogether. As a result, you feel lazy, unmotivated, and undisciplined. All of that can combine to also make you feel unworthy. Even if you experienced success as a writer previously, none of that matters now. Now, you aren’t a writer anymore.
For as long as I can remember, I have always been a storyteller. And yet, during my writer’s block, not only was I not writing, but I was no longer experiencing stories. Characters weren’t visiting me in flashes of inspiration or walking beside me in my daily life. When they did sometimes flicker into view, I usually didn’t have the energy or attention span to watch them for long. Even my enthusiasm for other people’s stories (books and movies) waned. And, yes, I panicked. Not only was I losing all these experiences that had always been of central importance to my life, I was also losing my primary identities. If I wasn’t a writer and a lover of stories, I didn’t know who I was anymore.
One of the single most powerful lessons I learned during this time was that I am so much more than these identities. I had to come to the realization that I was not a Writer; I was simply someone who, sometimes, writes. Writing was not the beginning and ending of my creativity. Indeed, I began to realize the effort I was expending in simply working on myself and my own life (learning, processing, healing, building) were profound creative acts. Even when I wasn’t writing, even when I felt I was no longer creative, I was perhaps being more creative than I had ever been in my life.
3. The Reason for Your Block Might Not Because You’ve Regressed, but Rather Because You’ve Outgrown Old Habits and Viewpoints
Writer’s block is stigmatized because we fear it. One of the main reasons we fear it so much is because we often view it as a regression. On its surface, the experience of writer’s block seems like a step back—as if we have reverted to a previous stage in our lives when we did not write and, indeed, did not know how to write.
My own experience has taught me this is rarely the case. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this kind of regression is impossible. An inability to move forward does not mean we have moved back. It just means the way is barred. Indeed, in a story, this would likely mean the intrepid hero has progressed so far down the road that he has now earned the right to face an unprecedented obstacle.
We are more likely to encounter plot block when we are educated enough to realize certain mechanics are not working within a story (rather than obliviously and blithely carrying on). The same goes for life block. The specifics of everyone’s experience will differ here, but my creative block was influenced by a near-total shift in my personal perspectives of my life in general and my art in particular. For one thing, I had grown enough to realize some of my previous work habits were unsustainable and even counter-productive (see Lesson #1). For another, I was on a profound journey of personal growth, doing deep shadow work (i.e., recognizing and working through previously ignored fears, wounds, etc.) and learning to live with myself in a much more conscious and integrated way.
Even though my writing ground to a solid halt for nearly four years, the person who came out the other side was not a regressed version of myself, but rather one who had learned and gained so many new ideas, understandings, and experiences. Learning to “listen to” my writer’s block, as Jose Rivera says, made me realize it was not an antagonist to be overcome, but rather a tremendous teacher bearing gifts.
4. The Return to Creativity Must Happen on Its Own Schedule
One of the things my four years of writer’s block taught me was the value of presence and patience. Actually, it taught me this over and over again because I was (and am) a slow student. Even as time passed and I began more and more to accept my not-writing, I still chafed. When would it be over? When would I write again? The more I fidgeted and fussed, the more blocked I felt. It was like the watched pot that never boils. Indeed, if I had learned this lesson earlier, my block might very well have ended earlier as well.
What I had to learn was that there is a season to everything and everything to a season. There are seasons for writing and creating, and there are fallow seasons for waiting. I could not rush through the fallow season. No matter how much I longed to write again and no matter how much I feared the not-writing, I couldn’t will the stories to return to me. In December 2021, my self-imposed sabbatical was ending. This sabbatical had been a year in which I simply let myself have writer’s block, instead of trying to deny it or fight it. So there I was; my year was up. But what I (terrifyingly) found myself writing in my journal was, “I don’t want to write.” Something inside of me still wasn’t ready.
So I gritted my teeth and made myself practice what I had been learning all those years. I listened to myself, and I waited. I ended up waiting eleven more months. It wasn’t until November 2022 that I felt a shift. After all the fussing and fidgeting—all the incessant internal questions about what story I might write or how I would fit a daily writing practice back into my schedule—suddenly, I was just ready. I didn’t choose the story; I just knew what I wanted to write. I didn’t choose the time; I just sat down and started. In some ways, it felt baffling. Certainly (and so very fittingly), I couldn’t take any credit for ending my writer’s block. It felt blissfully anticlimactic.
What I learned—or rather, what was shown to me—was that creativity, like life itself, is not something I control, however much I may fool myself into believing it is so. The best I can do is get out of my own way, learn to listen, and be prepared to move when (and only when) the moment is upon me. More than that, it is a lesson to me that the season of waiting is just as important and valuable as the season of doing. The right moment will never come if we cannot wait for it.
5. Learning to “Fill the Well” Is a Skill All Its Own
During those four years of writer’s block, I spoke often of needing to “fill the well” of depleted creativity. What did I even mean by that? It’s still a difficult concept to quantify. I knew I was burned out and drained and that I seemed to have no inspiration. More than that, I seemed to have no true desire for inspiration. I didn’t want to write (even though I did—it’s complicated, as I’m sure others with writer’s block can corroborate).
I had to learn what it meant to fill my well. One lesson was that burnout isn’t caused so much by depletion as it is by overload. One of my first tasks was unloading myself—getting rid of all the rubble I had let clog up my creative well. I also had to take a break from producing. Instead of talk, talk, talking all the time (literally and metaphorically), I had to start listening. The talking (the writing, the storytelling, the doing) represented an emptying of the well, in which I was literally giving away pieces of myself, however productively. Instead, I had to learn to shut my mouth and open my ears—to take in.
This meant reading and learning, but it also meant simply being. It meant listening to sounds, but it also meant listening to silence. It meant learning to be okay with the fact that I wasn’t always receiving incoming messages from my imagination—until slowly, out of the stillness, I began to catch flickers of the old magic.
In the modern society in which I grew up, we were taught to empty our wells. We were rarely taught how to fill them. Learning how to receive ideas and inspiration and to keep them, to hold them in reserve and to let them root and grow, instead of immediately packaging them, speaking them, and turning them to our advantage—this is a skill all its own. It is an art I knew instinctively as a child. I lost it as I grew older, until finally it was a gift given back to me my writer’s block.
6. Your Writer’s Block Probably Won’t Disappear All on Its Own
Although learning to wait and be is often a crucial part of overcoming deep writer’s block, this is not to say writer’s block will necessarily disappear on its own. It is a block after all. Something has dammed the river of your creative flow, and it will probably need to be discovered and excavated. Sometimes, in the case of plot block, this inadvertent dam is simply an illogical or poorly conceived story trope that needs to be tweaked. But in the case of a more serious creative block, you may find yourself excavating deep into your own psyche and soul.
Something I learned when researching sciatica is that you need to “look upstream” for the problem. Even if you’re feeling the pain in your leg, the source is likely to be much higher up (in your butt or back in this example). Same goes for writer’s block. If you’re lucky, you may only have to paddle back upstream a short ways—perhaps just a few hours back to that ambiguous comment someone left that gave you a feeling of unease about your competence as a writer. But you may also have to paddle deep into the jungles, into the heart of your own darkness. Like me, you may even find yourself needing to spend years healing, learning, and growing.
If this is so, then I can promise you these will not be wasted years. Indeed, they may well turn out to be the most creative years of your life—and the stories you return with will be worth the wait.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you have any personal experience with writer’s block? Tell us in the comments!
Love Helping Writers Become Authors? You can now become a patron. (Huge thanks to those of you who are already part of my Patreon family!)
Go to Source
Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland