Is it All in My Head?: Battling Writer’s Block
*Originally published February 17, 2020*
I hate when it happens.
I sit down at my desk (or dining room table, actually) or maybe sit down with a notebook in Starbucks. It’s early morning, I’m well-rested, and I’m ready to start writing with a few topics in mind. I get started and at some point, I just hit a wall.
Uh…maybe I should take this a different direction? I don’t think this is going to work. Or maybe I should shift a few things….I don’t think I even like this anymore…Ugh, this sounds all over the place. Maybe I should start over.
I try to move on to the next topic and for whatever reason, I just can’t get myself to convey the point just like I want to. Writer’s block has been something I’ve gone back and forth with for years. There are times when I believe writer’s block is a complete myth, but then the next thing I know I’m “suffering” from it for days. I want to explore and explain some of the ways I overcome the dry spells, but first things first:
What is Writer’s Block?
Just kidding, that’s way worse. Writer’s Block is described as “a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which the author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slow down”.
Writer’s block can be as short as a few hours, or as long as a few years (I thank God I’ve never been in a dry spell for that long). However, writer’s block isn’t necessarily about the amount of time passing, so much as it is about the time passing without productivity in the task at hand. It’s not a New Age thing by any means; early romantic writers saw it as a sign that there was an outside power telling them not to write anymore (dramatic).
Writers, as well as other people who work in creative industries, face pressure to consistently push out well-crafted content. For example, since September 2019 I’ve been writing on the Medium platform. I won’t go into the full dynamics on Medium, but the site does have a Partner Program which would allow subscribers to reap profit from their writing. If someone wants to create a nice side income this way, however, it would take a lot of writing. Most of the people who are considered Top Writers or in the top percentage of income in the Partner Program are people who publish at least two or three stories per day.
I will say, however, that just because you produce more stories doesn’t mean that you will automatically create a larger income.
What Causes Writer’s Block?
It’s a little tough to say that there’s a single direct “cause” for writer’s block. There are plenty of reasons that could cause a creative to stumble and get caught up in a dry spell. For the most part, it usually falls under the umbrella of distraction, be it internal or external.
Sometimes those distractions are small and completely under our control. Maybe it’s one of the many available streaming services you would rather tune into and binge-watch your favorite show. It could be your own cell phone, as it is with many of us. Things like this can easily be fixed if we are willing. A lot of smartphones are currently equipped with some sort of Screen Time feature, that allows you to see just how much time you are allocating to certain apps.
When I check the screen time on my phone and realize things like Youtube or Facebook have been taking up most of my time, it’s usually enough to switch gears. If you want to push the envelope even further, you could place settings on your phone to lock you out after a certain amount of time.
However, sometimes these distractions could be something outside of our control. If you’re still working full-time, your workload spilling into other aspects of life can play a factor. Or maybe you’ve experienced a loss in the family, or you’re facing financial issues, car troubles, etc. These distractions are emotional and can affect how we focus and give attention to writing.
I found that when it came to anything emotional, the best thing I could do for myself is allow myself to process my feelings. Sometimes we get so caught up in the idea of “pressing through” the pain that we don’t see how unproductive we actually are in the process. It’s true that some works of art are usually inspired by some sort of pain/sadness, but this isn’t a constant.
There are other internal factors that can inhibit us, like fear and self-doubt. It’s hard to put out content if you’re constantly worrying about whether you’ll get enough viewership, if people will understand your viewpoint, if people are going to find it interesting, etc. Yes, you want to be mindful of your audience but be careful of Analysis Paralysis–being caught up in all the “thinking” that you find yourself unable to “do” anything.
What Can I Do About Writer’s Block?
It will take some trial and error to really figure out what kind of methods or systems will work for you specifically, but these are a few things I’ve tried that tend to work for me:
Step Back from It – Some people hear this and think it means to just “give up”. That’s not really the case. Imagine you’re in an art gallery and you’re looking at a painting. However, you’re looking at it while standing 5cm away from it. You’re only honed in on one aspect (and you’re probably messing up your eyes). It’s impossible for you to figure out what you’re looking at, and you’ll just continue to be frustrated. However, what if you take a step back? And then another, another, another, etc. This time, you’re a few feet away from the painting and you’re able to admire the bigger picture. Think of writing in that same regard. There are different ways to “step away” from a writing project. I usually like to go for a walk outside. For others, maybe it’s engaging in a different activity or (if possible) taking some time to lie down or take a nap. I return to my writing space and try again with fresh eyes and likely a different perspective.
Write to Practice, Not to Publish – It may be tougher for someone who writes freelance full-time, but getting in some practice is essential. If we’re always focused on writing for a submission or a post we are adding stress on ourselves. I write every day, but I don’t necessarily post or submit a piece every day. This can be done through a journal that can help you process your thoughts, or you can pick up a workbook full of writing exercises and prompts that can help get some ideas flowing. They can typically be found in Barnes and Noble (in the bargain section!)
Go Do Something! – I’ve heard before that when we feel like we’ve “run out” of things to write, it’s usually because we’re not living enough life. In other words, having some sort of experience can be the thing that helps us get out of the rut. When is the last time you tried something for the first time? Who is a friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with? What’s the latest movie you’ve been wanting to see? What’s a new recipe you’ve been meaning to try? Understand that writing is a part of your life (likely a huge part) but it’s not all of your life!
Switch Up your Environment – I do some writing at home, but I find that I’m more productive in public places. If I go to a library or Starbucks or some other cafe, I find that I’m less likely to get distracted. I don’t have access to food or drinks unless I purchase them and I’m less likely to open a new tab and waste time on something else. I’m much more focused and it’s just nice not being cooped up in my apartment. Something as small as changing environments–even within your own home–can definitely help the process.
You’re Human, it Happens
Being stuck or in a rut is a very normal part of the creative process, but we tend to make it out to be a bigger deal than we should.
Everyone has encountered stumbling blocks, everyone has experienced rejections for their work, and everyone has released work that was only so-so. However, if we focus on what we’re learning in the process instead of being focused on where we aren’t we can find ourselves a little less anxious.
Back in October, I wrote a piece on Medium that is still considered my most profitable. At first, when I wrote something I was so focused on replicating that success. And every time I published something I was comparing those numbers to that one successful piece. The stats weren’t matching up and thus I was discouraged. As a result, in the month of December, I was barely writing any pieces and most of the ones I did write were not curated by the editors. This means that there would be significantly less viewership of those posts because they weren’t being showcased to other Medium subscribers.
I allowed the success of that one piece to dictate my attitude on how I would write everything else. I found myself overthinking everything I wrote and not really taking into account if I was actually adding value; rather, I was focused on what kind of topic is going to get me the most viewership and recognition. However, all of those things come as a result of good work, not stressing, and experiencing writer’s block through all the stress.
Writer’s block is annoying and makes us question our abilities, but remember that it’s not forever. And most times, there’s a new piece that you can be proud of on the other side. I hope this helps!