“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
—Sir Terry Pratchett
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to writer’s block. Some people believe it doesn’t really exist while others insist it does. Regardless of what your stance is, some writers mythologize writer’s block as a kind of bogeyman to be feared like the plague while others deny its existence altogether.
While there are always different reasons for why writers feel blocked at a given time, there are three general divisions I’ve noticed over the years that writers tend to fall into:
One: This is for writers who need to spend less time on Facebook/Netflix/[insert other source of addiction here]. While one could argue this is pretty much all of us, the root of the problem in this category is procrastination. While that’s a separate topic in and of itself, most of the writers here feel uninspired or blocked due to fear so all of a sudden social media sites, video games, or even laundry seem like much more appealing options than the fear of facing the blank page.
Two: This deals with writers who are going through a major crisis such as a divorce, job loss, financial woes, the death of a loved one, the fallout from a traumatic event (such as an attack or a robbery), caring for a loved one who is ill, receiving a diagnosis of a major illness, and so on. It’s challenging enough to feel creative in day-to-day life without something negative happening to muck it up, but when something jarring happens to a person, it affects their ability to create for a good chunk of time. Everyone is different and no two people will respond the same way to something in this category.
Three: This is for writers who suffer from mental health issues, often in addition to chronic illnesses such as diabetes and arthritis. The severity of one’s condition varies from person to person, but sometimes what a writer mistakes for writer’s block can be severe depression. Writers and depression go hand-in-hand (although not always), so it’s important to recognize that if you fall into this category, it’s essential to receive the proper treatment. For some people this may be a combination of medication and talk therapy. For others, they may need a more extensive kind of therapy. And for others still, this may look like mindfulness meditations and yoga.
There’s actually something else that’s more pernicious than the third category. Some writers aren’t capable of accessing their deepest, most primal desires. Their fears. The things that make them shake where they’re sitting. The things that rob them of their breath when they wake up in the middle of the night (or that prevent them from going to sleep).
In order to be able to write well, a person needs to cultivate the ability to be intensely vulnerable and to open themselves up to all kinds of pain–the things we tuck away in the back corners of our minds and that we hope don’t resurface, the things that lurk in the cobwebs, and the things that we would rather pretend don’t exist, the things we wish didn’t happen, the things we wish we could take back or that we could change.
So, does writer’s block exist or is it just a myth, a kind of crutch that writers lean on when we’re not feeling inspired but we’re not sure what the source of our lack of momentum is?
Writer Unboxed has written several pieces on the subject, including this one from today.
As their post mentions, fear is probably the biggest killer of creativity. It restrains us, tells us we’re not good enough and probably never will be, and forces us to accept decisions that seem like safe choices because they feel familiar or because there’s less pressure attached to them.
Trying too hard is another culprit behind why the words won’t come. We feel pressured to produce something that will sell, or we’re worried that the book we want to write most won’t sell, or a multitude of other things that fit this category.
And yes, there is the psychiatric point of view that emphasizes that writer’s block is an excuse for not having enough discipline to sit down in their chairs and write. But this is limiting–it doesn’t take into account what’s going on in a person’s life at the time and doesn’t encourage writers to take stock of our issues, to drive at the root of our paralysis and find out what’s really going on beneath the surface.
Some writers find a way to get around their blockage is to do something else, then come back to the writing. Others use a reward system whereby they produce a certain amount of words, then reward themselves with a TV show or video game they’ve been looking forward to watching or playing all day.
What about you? Do you think writer’s block is real? What helps you get over those slump periods when your writing just isn’t flowing? Sound off below!
A few weeks ago, I watched the documentary “Takedown: The DNA of GSP”, which was released last year as a treat for fans of mixed martial arts fighter Georges St-Pierre (who stepped away from the octagon at the end of 2013. There’s still a lot of buzz as to the reasons, although he has discussed some of them in interviews). I knew I would find the documentary inspirational and I wanted to find out more about this fascinating man’s background, but the thing I didn’t realize is that things really got interesting when he started losing.
At one point, GSP tore his ACL and the documentary shows in painstaking detail what the process was like for him: everything from going through the injury to surgery to how incredibly long and exhausting his recovery was.
When he was ready to go back into the ring again for practice, his coach put him against guys he called “amateurs” who were smaller than GSP and Georges got tired within three rounds. He couldn’t do his superman punch. He couldn’t move as fast as he used to be able to move. He couldn’t do all the things that he used to be able to perform so flawlessly before, so in a lot of ways it was like he lost his “super powers”, if you will.
That resonated with me because I have felt like since 2011, I got an ACL tear without knowing it when it came to my writing. It’s possible I may have gotten the fracture or the first small injury that led up to the ACL tear of 2011 a few years prior to that, but I felt like the worst thing had happened to me. I stopped feeling like myself. I started to feel like I couldn’t perform my equivalent of a superman punch. I started to feel like I couldn’t go past 3 rounds–in fact, I couldn’t even walk inside the ring. That’s how hurt and defeated I was.
I’m not sure if it was because rejection after rejection kept grinding me down, the ‘almost’ acceptances, day job unpredictability, home life woes, insecurities, my expectations and perfectionist tendencies, or my streamlined focus on book reviewing and book blogging. I think it was a combination of many different things.
Even though I have done quite a bit of writing between 2011 and now, there were many times where I knew deep down I wasn’t giving it my all and I wasn’t giving it my best and I was saying to myself that I only had energy for one draft and nothing beyond that. Revision meant “Now I have to fix it only for multiple people to reject it again and again and again.” But that’s the writing life.
Even though I suffered a massive injury, I don’t think I realized the real impact and even though I’m on the road to recovery now, it’s slow, painful and brutal. I did, however, have a turning point in late 2015 when I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo if only to prove to myself that yes, I can still write. The first day that my most recent contract expired, I forced myself to write the werewolf WIP that I had been wanting to write but couldn’t muster the energy or strength for. It was painful, but it got me back in the game.
Getting back to the documentary, Georges St-Pierre had “forgotten everything” when it came time to do his recovery–all his training, his techniques, and everything that made him the best UFC fighter in his division. He was out for 9 months and had to very slowly start back up again.
He wasn’t coordinated. He wasn’t able to perform takedowns on his opponents. He wasn’t able to stop their takedowns. He had forgotten everything.
GSP says in the documentary that with each fight, he is afraid to be knocked out and submitted, not to be able to deliver as much as he thinks he should deliver or as much as people expect, and to lose. This humanized him even more for me because there’s something refreshingly honest when someone who is at the top of their game says that they struggle, too, and that their craft or sport or whatever it happens to be doesn’t come as naturally to them as others might assume.
The ACL is a career-killer. Not many people have come back from the ACL injury. Some fighters feel great for a few months after surgery only to suffer another ACL tear in training, which makes things even worse so the fact that Georges came back so triumphantly after his injury is truly amazing.
GSP’s head coach thought about counselling GSP not to take the now infamous Nick Diaz fight and admitted that if Georges had lost that fight and had a bad go of things, his career would be very close to over. Thankfully that turned out not to be true and he went on to fight another day (although many fans, myself included, await the possibility of his return with much excitement).
And as for me? I’ve got a long recovery ahead of me. I’ve “stepped into the ring” again and I’m taking things one day at a time with my projects. The difference is that I have a bit more patience now. I’m a bit wiser. I’m aware of how short-sighted it is to say I want to get published because I’ve got something to prove.
I’m also learning not to equate my sense of self-worth on my successes and failures as a writer and to look at myself as a human being. The Georges St-Pierre documentary taught me that even when a person thinks that they have “lost it” or that they’ll never be able to perform as well as they used to or that they can never recover from a particular setback, all we can do is pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. And keep trying.
As evidenced by my sidebar, I did indeed hit the 50,000-word mark and qualify as a “winner” of NanoWriMo 2015–I hesitate to use the term winner only because it has connotations of competition, and I wasn’t treating my participation as such, so I’ll say that I’m happy I met the goal of 50,000 words. To my own astonishment, I also somehow managed to accomplish this before the end of the month.
As it is, there are still 2 days left of the competition and I am rooting for everyone who is participating this year to meet their goals. I’ve come along way from being someone who once vowed never to participate in Nano. I asked myself why any writer would put him or herself through such sheer torture, and now that I’ve been through the torture, I discovered the answer for myself, but it turns out I was right–most of my experience was painful and fraught with peril, self-doubt, anxiety and worse.
Post-Nano, I have had two writing sessions and I’m starting to slack off a little bit. Part of me thinks this isn’t so bad and in fact is kind of necessary because after almost a month of writing every single day, I think I’ve earned a bit of time off. However, the other part of me that’s fighting this is the part that is desperate to keep my momentum with this manuscript going, the part of me that knows that I don’t want to give way to another extended period of not writing, and so the two sides grappling and at odds right now.
What are some things this entire experience taught me?
- This wasn’t the first novel I’ve written and I knew that Nano would be difficult, but I had no idea what I was in for.
- I had to fight myself and resist the voice that always insists I do something else. A picnic this was not.
- My success stemmed in part from not having a miserable day job hanging over my head, and I know this is not the case with most people, so just putting that out there.
- Nano took a huge mental health toll on me–I already struggle with my demons, but I hit my breaking point twice during Nano. Climbing over those hurdles felt like moving mountains.
- Going off social media helped me in some ways, but made me feel a little too isolated. Also, I realized YouTube is more of a time-waster for me than social media sites, which was interesting to find out.
- Post-Nano, I’m not a speed demon who can pound out thousands of words in a day even though that’s what I did for all of Nano, which is disappointing but also a realization that I’m still finding my process and what works for me.
- Although I still don’t have a set writing time, which is something I need to work on straightening out, I did figure out that working on a full stomach results in better output than writing when I’m sleep-deprived and hungry or anxious.
- I surprised myself by exceeding the 1,700 words that’s recommended to write every day–and I got my writing done in one session per day, which was also a surprise. I did do multiple sessions on a few days, but I figured out I tend to work better when I limit myself to one writing session per day.
- For the first week, I did writing exercises to warm myself up before the actual novel writing took place–this was okay at first, sort of like training wheels, but I’m glad I was able to remove them eventually.
- It is unbelievable how much I had to force myself and push myself to write, which made me question if I even have it in me to do this anymore, but I realized this is one of the elaborate disguises that fear wears to trick us into procrastination and avoidance.
- I know that I need to write before I hop on to the Interwebs, but I’m struggling to keep that up.
- When I get stuck, it’s because I don’t know what happens next–or I do know but don’t have the info necessary to execute something properly and I need to do research to figure that out before I can write.
At many points, I questioned if I was participating in Nano just so I could boast about it or if it was because I genuinely wanted to improve myself as a writer and figure out what made me tick. I believe it was a mix of both, but by the end, it became more about me getting the bones of this story down and breathing life into a story that’s new territory for me. As well, this is the first non-supernatural novel I’ve worked on–something I’m still getting used to–so I’m trying to cut myself some slack in that regard.
So, will I do NanoWriMo again? I’m not a person who likes to say never, because life is unpredictable and full of surprises. While I don’t see myself participating in NanoWriMo again in the foreseeable future, for now I’m happy that I challenged and dared myself to put my money where my mouth is and to push myself as a writer in a way I’ve never done before.
What about you? How has your experience of NanoWriMo been going? Are you a die-hard participant who will most definitely be partaking in the madness next year or do you prefer to steer clear of the extravaganza altogether? For those who haven’t participated in NanoWriMo, do you have any tricks to productivity or things that help you produce more writing? Sound off below!