Writer’s block. We’ve all experienced the dreaded symptoms. Your hand frozen over the page. The blank screen staring back at you like an unblinking eyeball. The fear rising, whispering “you’ll never be able to write anything good, ever again.”
Writer’s block is one of the few things that nearly all writers share, no matter where they are in their careers. The beginning writer working on their first book. The bestselling debut novelist trudging through the sophomore slump. The prolific author who fears the well has finally run dry. Esteemed authors from Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck to Stephen King and Margaret Atwood have all lamented their woeful run-ins with this dreaded disease.
Given the ubiquity of this scourge, you’d think there would be clear advice on how to treat it. There is not. In fact, the most common advice is contradictory. Some insist writer’s block can only be cured by more writing, suggesting daily scheduled writing periods or writing prompts to get the creative juices flowing. But another camp argues the last thing blocked writers should do is force themselves to write. Instead, they advise taking a break, reading a book, doing laundry—anything that will temporarily distract you from the blocked project.
So which is it?
Not only am I a writer but I’m also a research psychologist, so whenever I see contradictory information, I look to the data. And the data suggests that the solution depends on the type of writer’s block you have.
That’s right, contrary to popular belief, there is more than one kind. There are in fact four, according to Yale researchers Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios. Using their work as a template, I will help you to identify your particular strain of writer’s block and point you toward the best treatment.
1. The Fear-of-Failure Block
The fear-of-failure block is driven by perfectionism and excessive self-criticism. These writers can feel their imaginative juices bubbling under the surface, but they are crippled by the sense that nothing they produce is ever good enough.
One way you can treat this strain of writer’s block is to relax your expectations. As Margaret Atwood said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” Accept that writing is a messy process. Your story isn’t going to be perfect the first time you write it (nor the second or third). But that’s okay. You must give yourself permission to not be perfect, to not even be good, during your initial attempt. As writer Jacques Barzun suggests, “Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper not eternal bronze. Let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes.”
A second way treat this strain of writer’s block is to change your view of failure. Failure is an inherent part of any endeavor, especially a creative one. Novices often view failure as an indication that they don’t have what it takes to become a good writer. But experienced writers know failure is part of the process and that it simply indicates they need to try harder.
Because this block is driven by anxiety, a third treatment it is to engage in calming activities. This is where the “take a break” advice for writer’s block is appropriate and actually works. Go outside and get some fresh air. Spend some quality time with friends and family. Better yet, try meditation (which not only reduces anxiety but boosts creativity). Give yourself a few hours or even a few days off and chances are, when you come back to your writing you will feel less anxious.
2. The Fear-of-Rejection Block
Rather than self-criticism, the fear-of-rejection block is driven by a concern for others’ criticism. “Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged,” Erica Jong states in The New Writer’s Handbook. “If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line.” This strain of writer’s block can produce fear (the writer is afraid she will never achieve others’ lofty standards) or hostility (the writer is angry because she believes she is talented but feels that others are not recognizing her talent). Both emotions occur because the writer feels they are falling short of others’ expectations.
One treatment for this strain is to write without concern for others’ opinions. Easier said than done. Barbara Kingsolver offers this advice: “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say.” Similarly, Stephen King says that writers should work in a room with a closed door—both literally (to block out distractions) and metaphorically (to block out concerns about others’ opinions). Now this doesn’t mean you should never care about what others will think, only that you shouldn’t care during the initial writing phase (save that worry for the rewrites).
But what if you’re the type of person who needs others’ opinions to motivate you? If that is the case, then pick just one person to metaphorically allow into your writing room. John Steinbeck once told a friend suffering from writer’s block, “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother.”
3. The Fear-of-Success Block
The fear-of-success block is driven by a writer’s worry that her success will negatively impact those close to her. Writers who suffer from this block tend to put others’ needs ahead of their own, so the thought of success leads to guilt, fear of change, and worry that their loved ones will become envious or resentful. Now you may be thinking, “Who the hell is afraid of success?” but the truth is people are often unconsciously afraid of success and (more importantly) the changes it brings. Success alters the status quo and produces new experiences some writers may feel unprepared to deal with (e.g., dealing with publishers, lawyers, reporters, internet trolls, stalkers).
To treat this strain of writer’s block, you must learn to prioritize your needs equally with those around you. Also remind yourself that just as you learned how to become an effective writer, you will also learn how to overcome the obstacles that may result from your success. And keep in mind that when you succeed, you will not be alone. There will be agents and publishers and editors to hold your hand and help you navigate your new surroundings.
4. The Lack-of-Motivation Block
The lack-of-motivation block is driven by a sense that your creative well has run dry. You find yourself unable to daydream, to stitch together a coherent sentence, or even find the right words. There are generally two reasons why you might experience this block. Either you’ve fallen out of love with writing itself or you’ve fallen out of love with your current project.
If you feel you’ve fallen out of love with writing, remind yourself this is probably just temporary. Everyone feels burned out from time to time. You just need to take a short break from writing so you can rediscover your love for it. Try sleeping, join a writer’s group, watch a movie, or read a book to remind you why you wanted to write in the first place. And if you adhere to a daily writing schedule, give yourself permission to take a “you” day when you’re feeling blocked. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Burnout also tends to occur when writers replace their intrinsic reasons for writing (your love of it) with extrinsic reasons (desire for critical acclaim, money, fame). If this is the case, it’s time for you to reassess your priorities and remind yourself why you started writing in the first place.
If instead the problem is that you’ve fallen out of love with your current project, then you may need to shake things up. According to Ray Bradbury, “If you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.” Now it’s possible the entire project needs to be amputated, but more likely it’s that you need to make a few strategic, surgical cuts. Maybe the scene you’re working on is unnecessary. Maybe you thought you were writing a horror novel when it really wants to be a mystery novel. Maybe you need to completely remove one of your characters (Stephen King killed off half his characters when he got bogged down in the middle of writing The Stand). Whatever the reason, you need to take a good, long look at your work and be ready to hit the delete button.
But deleting alone is not enough. You also have to fill in those missing spaces with new ideas. This is where free-writing and creative writing prompts can actually be effective. Those tasks help you get reacquainted with your muse and introduce new scenes or storylines or characters that you hadn’t yet considered.
Lastly, because this block is caused by low energy, writers can temporarily treat it by engaging in activities that boost energy. Drink some coffee, go exercise, get some fresh air—whatever works to reinvigorate your sluggish brain.
Writer’s block is often viewed as a disease to be cured. But the truth is, you will never fully get rid of it. If you are lucky enough to have a long writing career, writer’s block is something that will inevitable pop up again and again.
Instead of seeing writer’s block as a disease, think of it like physical pain. Your body uses pain to warn you that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. It is a necessary and beneficial system because it helps identify exactly where the problem resides. Writer’s block is the same way; a little bit can be good for you. It can force you to take your work in new and exciting directions. It can tell you when you are working on the wrong project. And it can tell you when you are writing for the wrong reasons.
When you have writer’s block, your mind is trying to warn you that something is off, so listen to it. What is it telling you? Then treat the block in the ways I’ve described and get back to doing what you love.
This article initially appeared in Hinnom Magazine 005.
I’d love to hear your favorite advice for overcoming writer’s block–tell me in a comment.