“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.
LDStorymakers is a writing conference that happens every year in Utah. This year, it took place at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo, Utah. Until a month ago I had not even heard of the wonderful conference but a dear friend told me about it and encouraged me to come. When I looked into the classes and programs being offered, my reaction can pretty much be summed up as: “Why am I only hearing about this now? This is fantastic!”
Rather than provide notes of highlights of each and every individual classes/sessions, I’m going to include my notes from Traci Abramson on the subject of overcoming writer’s block. Here are some of the other classes/sessions I attended:
- The newbie orientation:
- This was a good session to open with for anyone who was nervous about attending LDStorymakers for the first time. It was also a nice way to serve as a bridge between the registration desk and the first session so that people weren’t thrown into the water right out of the gate, so to speak.
- Page-turning plots
- Overcoming writer’s block
- When your mojo is lost
- Goldilocks and the three writers:
- Another great exercise in calming oneself and taking a breather, this session included some great tips on what to do after Storymakers ended, and one of the suggestions was to write a blog post, so here I am 🙂 There were a lot of good reminders of Do’s and Dont’s, but overall it was a good reminder to take things as they came and not stress too much about how to remember everything we heard over the past couple of days.
- Strong female characters in urban fantasy and paranormal romance
- Dan Wells on Anti-heroes:
- This was one of the best sessions I attended the entire weekend—Wells gave us four categories of anti-heroes and an interesting sidebar on the Seth Rogen type of anti-hero, which is used to great comedic effect. People asked great questions during this panel and got a lively discussion going, so it was a nice mix of essential information but also good conversation.
- 21 deadly sins of writing romance:
- For this session, I pushed myself to attend something that’s outside my comfort zone and not in a genre I write, and it paid off. Donna Hatch, the presenter, made some great points throughout. I noticed a lot of parallels to the kinds of characters I hate reading about in urban fantasy novels, so the trend translates outside of just the romance genre.
- Stealing plots:
- An entertaining session from Courtney Alameda, author of Shutter, about how our story ideas are not quite as unique as we think they are, and that we should be aware of our influences. She explained the difference between plagiarism and outright stealing versus subtle nods or winks versus showing the influence of other writers and texts in our own work.
- Author Cassie Mae talked about selling yourself online and social media:
- She explained some of the measurement tools available to authors such as Facebook’s page insights as well as Twitter’s new analytics feature. She had a lot of helpful Do’s and Dont’s to mention. Some of the Do’s and Dont’s may have seemed obvious to some, but I’m always surprised what some authors still do (like auto-DMs).
Here are some highlights from Traci Abramson’s presentation about overcoming writer’s block:
The most common reasons writer’s block happens:
- Lack of ideas
- Too many ideas
Here are some of the most helpful tips/solutions she shared:
- If we discover our writing style, this can potentially help unblock us. You could be an outline writer like I am (or a “plotter”) or you could be a discovery writer (more commonly known as a “pantser”), or even a combination of both.
- You can try writing scenes out of chronological order—write what’s fun first and then move on to the other scenes we’re stuck on later. This is a similar principle to when teachers would tell us before tests that we should answer the questions we knew first and then come back to the ones we didn’t know in order to make the most of exam time deadlines
- Read your previously written scenes as a way to excite you about your project and keep that momentum going
- Make sure you find quiet time to formulate what you’re going to write on a particular day—everything from waiting in line to when you’re stuck in traffic—as pre-planning and knowing what to write before you sit down to write help to get that flow going
- Accountability—that is, checking in with a critique partner or a friend to make sure you’re meeting your writing goals—is a great way of staying on course
- There are too many amazing folks to name here that I met during the conference, and I don’t want to leave anyone out. Let’s just say this little Canadian is used to giving myself the “Dorothy, we’re not in Canada anymore, steel yourself” talk whenever I travel to the US. I’m still in shock over how genuinely nice, humble and down-to-earth almost every single person was at this conference.
- This is the first time I’ve observed what it looks like when people are sincerely happy that someone else won a prize or an award. I’m still reeling from how amazing people were and the convivial atmosphere even when passing people on the escalators!
- The presenters were so choc-full of amazing information for almost every panel I attended that they almost always ran out of time towards the end of their designated time slots. People were attentive, engaged and asked great questions.
- I didn’t arrive in time for the day of Bootcamp workshops on Thursday (which was my first day of never-ending flights). Alas, there’s always next time.
- Not having any projects that were in pitch-able (pitch-ready?) condition for the wonderful and fantastic agents and editors that were at the conference
- The whole weekend the other conference-goers spoiled me with their amazing warmth and friendliness so getting back to the airport was a bit of a harsh adjustment 😉
- I do wish I could have had more time to explore some of the stunning nature that Utah has to offer. Those mountains alone are magnificent!
So post-conference, what am I doing? Well, I’m working on my rewrite of my current WIP. I’m a big proponent of the slow writing movement, having first heard about the concept from Anne R. Allen’s wonderful blog, and I’m trying to embrace it because we all have a different process. One of my chronic illnesses slows me down quite a bit and I only have so much energy in a given day, but I’m doing the best that I can with what I’ve got and I’m learning the value of “good enough” instead of “No, it must be perfect all the time!”
How do you fare after a conference or a convention? Do you come back feeling re-energized or invigorated and re-inspired to come to your work with new energy? Do you need some time to percolate and process all that you’ve learned or maybe just get over some jet lag? Sound off in the comments below!