The first installment in this how to write series focuses on the notion of writer’s block. What is writer’s block? Why do people get mentally stuck? Is writer’s block even real? Here’s my advice on how to write during writer’s block.
For a substantial number of years, at the onset of my writing life, I believed in writer’s block.
The inability to breakthrough while writing an article, book or short story usually crept its ugly head at two precise moments — the seconds before sitting in front of a computer to get to work and the hours spent thinking about the task that needed to be completed.
Yeah, writer’s block happened all the damn time.
My form of writer’s block always involves chasing the “feeling.” Being overcome with the motivation or inspiration to write. To be in the mood, in my case, demanded this perfect scenario of setting, time of day, physical sensations and a hundred uncontrollable factors that must align.
Eventually, I came to a few realizations. First, nothing in life will ever be perfect. Second, I realized writer’s block is a fictional ailment, and I was just scared. What if I put all my eggs in one basket and that basket is made of wet paper?
Now I know the truth.
Writer’s block is a bunch of bull. Writer’s block doesn’t exist. As much as every working writer wishes it were an actual ailment, I repeat, writer’s block does not exist. Writer’s block is self-doubt. There’s something you don’t want to write, think you can’t write or feel you’re unqualified to write.
You don’t have writer’s block. You’re just scared of something.
Common Causes of Writer’s Block
Here are some of the common issues that plague writers, making writer’s block seem very real.
1.) The “I Suck” Syndrome: Every writer, even the literary greats, begins the writing process with an awful first draft. No author vomits perfection all over the page every single time he or she sits down at a keyboard.
Most writer’s block issues can be traced back to personal feelings about yourself and your writing ability. You believe you haven’t written anything “great” in a while and have lost your mojo. The work on the page isn’t up to your often immeasurable standards, and it’s causing internal conflict. You don’t want to spend another minute sitting in front of a computer.
Here’s the bad news — you do suck. Here’s some fantastic news — every writer sucks (at some point). But you’re in good company with every other writer ever. Welcome to the club!
“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway
2.) You Have “Nothing To Say”: One of the most prolific writers of the last 50 years is Robert Shields. You’ve likely never heard of him because he never published any work. Well, not really. He did, however, bang out an estimated 37.5 million words over a few decades.
“Starting in 1972, Shields was hit by the urge to document every moment of his life in his diary. It was estimated that he spent about four hours everyday typing, relaying the day’s most major events alongside the most brutally minute details while sitting on his back porch in his underwear.
He described what he had for every meal, what kind of heartburn he had (along with what he took for it and how long it lasted), who stopped by to visit him, and what he fed the cat. Shields was particularly precise about his bowel movements, documenting when they happened and every detail about what came out of him.”
Everyone has a story. Everyone’s life is interesting. Even though Robert Shields and his list of daily activities. Admit it — even though you don’t know Shields personally and every detail of his life sounds monotonous and crazy, you kinda want to see at least one of his journals.
You’re putting something off because you feel like you don’t anything original to say or add to the topic. You’re wrong. Every person adds their own unique angle to a story, and other people are interested in reading those opinions.
3.) You’re a Perfectionist & Nothing Is “Good Enough”: A motivational poster hung in the writer’s area at one of my former places of employment. The sign read “Sometimes done is better than perfect.” I’d glance over at the advice every time I hung myself up on a specific piece of writing.
One reason writer’s block is hanging around is a fear of moving on. You’re not happy with past writing efforts and it’s hampering your ability to move onto something new. Get over it. In the words of Ernest Hemmingway, “the first draft of everything is shit.” Just keep writing.
What Is Writer’s Anxiety?
There’s a major difference between writer’s block and writer’s anxiety. In simple terms, one issue is imagined. The other is incredibly real.
Writer’s block involves avoiding the act of writing while writer’s anxiety is classified as “feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure when faced with a writing task.”
The notions of writer’s block is prevalent among individuals who enjoy the act of writing and have a choice in the matter while writer’s anxiety pops up among men and who forced to write for work reasons. For example, research on writer’s anxiety suggests that “around 50 percent of doctoral students in the U.S. and Canada drop out during the research proposal or dissertation-writing phases of their degrees before finishing their programs.”
The cure for writer’s anxiety is slightly more complex. Combating this issue is slightly more complex and could require professional help from a psychologist or therapist to uncover the psychological reasons for writer’s anxiety.
How To Write During Writer’s Block
I’ll humor you for a few minutes and pretend writer’s block does exist but I won’t call it writer’s block. Instead, I’ll say you’re stuck. Here are some ideas and items to get the gerbils in your head back up and running on those wheels.
The first method is one of my own creation, named after one of my favorite professional wrestlers.
Writer’s Block Tip #1: The Lie, Cheat and Steal Method
Eddie Guerrero is a former world champion and a member of one of the most revered families in professional wrestling. Right before his untimely passing in 2005, Guerrero was one of the most popular wrestlers in the WWE. During the height of his heel run (that’s wrestling speak for a “bad guy,” Guerrero preached the three tenants of getting ahead in wrestling or any walk of life. Lie. Cheat. Steal.
Guerrero’s advice isn’t practical or sound for any profession other than the fictitious world of professional wrestling, but it’s solid advice for a writer. Here’s how it work…
First Lie: Sit down with a blank piece of paper and conjuring up the biggest bullshit lie ever. It can be about yourself or even your subject. Write a lie so massive it would be impossible for anyone to ever believe. Now, prove that lie to be true. Make your prose convince you, a family member or total stranger that this massive lie is a stone cold truth. I’m certain that by the time you’re done either a new story, new article idea or angle to a project you’ve been putting off for months will emerge.
If that doesn’t work…
Then Cheat: Go back into your archives and find a finished article or story. Now take the opposite argument. If it’s fiction, write the story in a new direction. If the story is about a man, change the gender of the protagonist. Is the article about donating time to shelter animals? Take the opposite stance. (Yes, that’s a jerk thing to write about, but this is an exercise in breaking writer’s block). Find the piece you’re most proud of and turn it on its god damn head.
If you’re still stuck…
Now Steal: Grab your absolute favorite novel off the bookshelf. Open it to a random page and begin reading. Find the first sentence that really grabs you by the genitals and copy it, word for word, into a new document. Start typing a brand new story based on that one line. When you get far enough, go back and change that first line to your own words. I’m not telling you to literally steal another writer’s work, just temporarily channel their mojo for prose.
Writer’s Block Tip #2: The Runner’s Approach To Writer’s Block
Next, Jen Miller alluded to this approach in her quote earlier in this text but one of the best approaches to writing is similar to how people tackle the task of training for long distance runs. A runner doesn’t always feel like running, especially those long distant athletes who have to log miles and miles every single day to stay in top performing condition.
So what’s their secret to running on the days when they just don’t feel like it? They just start running. It’s that damn simple. They lace up the sneakers and hit the road. The same goes for writing. What should you do when you don’t feel like writing? Sit down and write. Every mile is a step towards running farther. Every sentence is a step towards something, even if it’s absolute gibberish.
Writer’s Block Tip #3: Buy A Writer’s Block Book
There are countless apps and websites dedicated to breaking writer’s block through writing prompts. I’ve tried a few, mostly just for inspiration, and my far and away favorite is 642 Things To Write About.
“This collection of 642 outrageous and witty writing prompts will get the creative juices flowing in no time. From crafting your own obituary to penning an ode to an onion, each page of this playful journal invites inspiration and provides plenty of space to write.”
Writer’s Block Tip #4: Buy A New Notebook
Five-and-dime stores were crack dens to me as a kid. If you’re unfamiliar, or not as ancient, a five and dime store was a step above a dollar store but not quite a Walmart. Places like Murphy’s and McCrory’s littered the land in my youth, and I loved every single one of them. What I loved most about these stores was that they sold just about everything. Toys, clothes, games, housewares, tires, magazines, records. I’d get lost in the aisles and never want to leave.
A similar feeling overcomes me each time I step foot in a stationary store. Just staring at all of the journals, pens, and accessories for writing and I GET SO FIRED UP!
Writer’s Block Tip #5: Live a Life
The reason you’re unable to find things to write about lies in your inability to look for things to write about. You’re not out in the world, living life, trying new things and exploring all the possible avenues of inspiration.
Do this today: Find something you’ve always wanted to do. It doesn’t have to be a huge, life-changing, activity. Take a cooking class. Visit a bar full of cats. Volunteer at a local food bank or school. Become a dog walker. Do ANYTHING out of your normal routine. Write about it.
The End Of Writer’s Block
If you still believe in writer’s block, there could be something deeper behind the inability to sit down and get work done. It’s up to you to figure out the issue and fix it. None of these problems ever go away. You’ll still have doubt, think you’ve got nothing to say or continuously chase the perfect “time” to put out a best seller or finish a work project. In the end, the only way to break through is to literally break through.
If worse comes to worse, and the words don’t come, just write about what you know. As Charles Bukowski put it “Writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.”
Get Over Writer’s Block With Advice From Other Writers
In conclusion, in case you’re thinking “who’s this idiot saying writer’s block doesn’t exist?” Well, first off, my name is at the top of this website. That’s who I am. Second, I’m not the only writer that’ll say bluntly that writer’s block is sometimes just an excuse.
I reached out to fellow freelancers, writers, editors, authors and a few people who write just for the fun of putting pencil to pad (or digits to keys). I gave them one prompt. “Writer’s Block. Go!” They shared the first thoughts that sprung to mind.
“Anyone who says they have writer’s block isn’t writing…THAT is the problem. Writer’s block is an excuse for distraction. Write until it’s not there.” – Jason Donnelly, author, Gripped
“Some people think writer’s block is like a dam. All the ideas are backed up. Others think it’s a drought, and eventually, the rain will come. Writer’s block is when the river is still flowing as usual, but the water’s turned to piss. The flow is still there, but there’s nothing worth drinking.” – Daniel Coffman, author, Four From Below
MORE WRITING ADVICE
“Writer’s Block is a funny thing. I think it comes from trying to come up with something perfect. The perfect topic. The foolproof opening sentence. The ideal follow-up sentence. The faultless closing sentence. And for the most part, we overthink it. We end up blocking ourselves from thinking of what to do next because we just want to get the damn thing right.” – Rey Moralde, writer, The No-Look Pass
“My writer’s block generally stems from self-doubt, when I start wondering why the hell anyone might care what I have to say about a subject. I’m usually working on multiple projects at the same time, and I often find that if I’m struggling with one, it cripples my other writing because it starts occupying all my thoughts and I’ll set aside time to work on it, then spend all that time thinking about how stupid it is and what a colossal waste of time it has been and how if I actually practiced what I believe about sunk costs I would scrap it altogether and move on.
Being in the news business sort of forces you to get over writer’s block when it comes, since sometimes you simply have to cover something, and even if you suspect all your words are dumb and bad, you need to be willing publish them to ensure future paychecks. And after writing professionally in some form for the past 10 years, I’ve come to understand that there’s not always a correlation between the stuff I write that I think is good and the stuff people seem to enjoy reading.”
The best cure I’ve found for writer’s block is pushing forward through something even when I think it sucks, because I’m not going to get anything else done until I’m finished with it anyway and because there’s a non-zero chance the dreck I burp out when the words aren’t flowing will prove more popular than the stuff I write when I feel great and invincible and dope.” — Ted Berg, sports columnist, USA Today
“The first thing that comes to mind when you say Writer’s Block is a scene from the best running moving ever: Run Fat Boy Run. He hits the wall in running his first marathon, and it’s a wall. No really, a wall. I think that’s what writer’s block is like. I don’t want to spoil the end of the movie, but he gets through it, just like I do in writing life.” — Jen Miller, author, Running: A Love Story
“Writer’s block is the unavoidable flu of writing. It must be pushed through, survived, repeated, and conquered.” – Elysia Regina, writer
“It’s like anything else: Ask for help. Sweeten the deal with cookies if you have to. It also helps to take a walk Or just physically move. I get my best ideas when I’m driving or in the shower or boxing, so basically never when I am in a situation where I can actually write something down.” – Jessica Sager, writer
“The best way to conquer writer’s block is to engage your brain that can mean anything from listening music, watching a favorite show, or sometimes I find a good walk gets things moving. Failing that, sometimes it helps just to write and I mean write anything, even if it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes just the act of putting words on paper, even if it’s putting words on virtual paper, can get the juices flowing.” — Karl Smith, editor and former newspaper columnist
“I’m a big fan of music, usually a good instrumental track works. I mix it up between jazz and new stuff like Tycho. Wine also works really well” — Andrew Ward, writer & strategist
“Step away from it and do something else. Something out of your norm. Whatever you need to concentrate on it. Then take a nap. Or just fuck off for as long as you want to like George R.R. Martin.” — Carl Ceposki, writer