These four myths about writer’s block are holding you back.

Monday, July 7th 2014 • Advice, Goals, Writing

People talk a lot about this mysterious affliction that many writers “suffer” from. I’m not kidding. This thing has been called a “condition” and it’s apparently quite contagious. If you look it up on Wikipedia (never to be trusted completely), you’ll find what appears to be a WebMD type posting about it.

Seriously, have a look at Wikipedia’s definition of writer’s block here: “Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work.” Doesn’t that sound positively scientific? And horrifying?

But I’m here to tell you that, whatever you have been told, writer’s block as we know it simply doesn’t exist.

Why? Because, as a professional writer, you cannot allow it to exist. You do not magically “lose the ability to produce new work” as a writer because you do not have the luxury of being blocked from writing. You must produce writing because that is your livelihood, and rarely do we apply the idea of this “block” to any other profession. I’m not talking about a sick day here. I’m talking about the days, weeks, and months that writers blame on “writer’s block.” That just would not fly in any other profession.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that writers have been told these myths about writer’s block, but they haven’t been told what’s actually going on. Here are the four myths about writer’s block and the real diagnosis that’s holding you back.

You don’t have writer’s block, but you don’t know what happens next in your story.
Stop thinking of writer’s block as some huge, overwhelming thing that you simply cannot get past. Start realizing that what is probably really happening is that you haven’t outlined or developed the scene/character/world enough, and as a result, you don’t know where to go next.

This summer, I told myself that I needed to finish my new book in about a month from outline to finish. I did a paper outline (according to The Writer’s Journey) and dug out the two sample chapters that I had written a few months ago. I got through maybe three more chapters before I was stuck, and it hit me that my direction was still unclear.

So, I went back to the drawing board.

Thankfully, Auggie was there to supervise.

Thankfully, Auggie was there to supervise.

I had never used notecards before, but I figured that trying something new might help me visualize the story. So, on each notecard, I put the motion that I needed in the story (“Ordinary World,” for example) and then I described the scene or chapter. I did a few cards for every motion, and I even color-coordinated based on the character that would be narrating that chapter. Then, when I sat down to write each day, I would pull a card and write that scene. If I was stuck on that scene, I would grab another card. It worked, and it made sure that I was producing work every single day. Find the method that works for you. Maybe you need to write a diary entry from a character or switch the perspective. Maybe you need to interview your setting and find out what’s going on in the world. Figure out what’s missing and address it so you can move forward.

You don’t have writer’s block, but you are distracted.

For me, it is incredibly challenging to write at home. Sometimes, I sit on my couch and churn out 1,000 words. Most times, though, I start to write and then get distracted by the pillows on the couch or the dishwasher or how nice it looks outside. I’m the kind of person that likes to “clock in” to writing, and for me, that means that I often need a change of scenery. To make that happen this past month, I would make it a point to migrate to a coffee shop at least once a day so that I could focus. The coffee shop made me feel like I was going to work, and I got a lot done in only an hour or so. Then, when I went home, I usually still felt inspired and got even more work done. Dishwasher be damned!

Thanks for the chai-fueled inspiration, M Street Coffee!

Thanks for the chai-fueled inspiration, M Street Coffee!

Go to the park. Go to the library. Get out of the house and find your “office” where the writing will happen. Plus, if you buy a $4 chai tea latte and don’t do any writing, you are going to feel miserable. Stay at that coffee shop until you’ve written 1,000 words (or whatever your goal for the day is). Chances are, you will at least produce something!

You don’t have writer’s block, but you are in need of some guidance.

As I mentioned above, a lot of “stuck” places come because you don’t know what is going to happen next. A lot of writers hate outlines (I love them) and choose to write without them. That’s fine, and if it works for you, I’m happy for you. But here’s the problem with writing without a map: writers end up writing the same story for years because they have no idea where it ends or how it ends.

My number one advice is to find a style of outlining that works for you and try it. I like the mythic structure outlined in The Writer’s Journey because it’s so pliable. I’m not a write-by-numbers kind of writer, but I like the basic structure of the hero’s journey. I deviate from the outline quite often, but it’s a good place to start and makes me answer serious questions about my characters’ hopes, dreams, desires, obstacles, and more.

Also, when I find a rough patch of the story, it’s really helpful to open up The Writer’s Journey and read about what other stories do at that point. Is there usually a face-off with the villain? Should I try that? Is there a mentor in my story? Do I need that? The answer won’t always be “yes,” and sometimes I’ll try something and it won’t work. But it usually shakes up my writing and gives me ideas, and that’s essentially to producing work.

Master writers.

Master writers.

If you find that you are struggling with a scene, pack up some writing books (three of my favorites are pictured here), go to your office, and read up. Flip to random chapters or, if you’re like me, reread parts that you’ve bookmarked as helpful in the past. There are ideas waiting for you in those pages if you’re willing to use them.

You don’t have writer’s block, but you do need a break.

This past month, I’ve been writing 4,000+ words a day on average. That is way more than I normally write, but I was able to do it thanks to the strategies above. However, I would not have been able to do it if I didn’t give myself moments to just enjoy the summer. In addition to writing this summer, I’ve met up with old friends, gone to the beach, gotten ice cream, gone shopping, and more. Writing needs life in order to flourish. If your writing has hit a wall, consider calling up someone to go get coffee or go to a museum. Talk to people and enjoy your life, and then come home and try to look at that blank Word document in a new way.

Do not miss out on beautiful days like this. They will make your writing so much better.

Do not miss out on beautiful days like this. They will make your writing so much better.

It’s okay if you only write 40 words on one day. If you’re stuck, go walk your dog or make a salad or something. Listen to some new music while you drive into a new town. Try a new restaurant. Then, go to your office the next day and make things happen.

Remember, believing in writer’s block is essentially telling yourself that you cannot write for whatever reason. Take a good look at what is actually holding you back, address it, and get back to producing. You are a writer, and as long as you keep the pen (or the keys) moving, there is nothing that can hold you back.

4 Responses to “These four myths about writer’s block are holding you back.”

  1. Katie says:

    I think your take on writer’s block is totally right. You might enjoy this other blog She writes about what’s happening in the brain when writer’s block is happening and teaches how change that.

  2. Rosanne Bane says:

    What a coincidence that we share our last name and an interest in writing and what gets in the way of writing.

  3. […] a time like this, I remind myself of the strategies that I’ve used before to break through busy periods. I like to give myself notecards with scenes to write on and an outline to follow. I know that I […]

  4. […] Tomorrow, National Novel Writing Month will descend on us all and Twitter will explode with posts, word counts, and increasing cries of panic as the month progresses. Thousands will rise to the call to write a novel in the month by rushing to their computers and notebooks. Success stories will be pointed to as models. Message boards will be flooded with pleas to read scenes or identify the source of writer’s block (which doesn’t really exist). […]

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