I know stuff, and I write stuff. Sometimes I can’t write, though, and then I have to break my writer’s block.
What Makes a Writer?
There’s only one thing that’s required to be a writer: you must write. But there are times when writing feels like pulling your foot out of the mud – slow, murky, and you wind up with something that you probably don’t want to keep. The words don’t come easy, and you have to wrench each one from your brain. It makes you want to walk away from your computer and take a new path in life.
What Is Writer’s Block?
Writer's block occurs when a writer can’t write or is having difficulty with their creativity.
The block is not because of commitment problems, procrastination, or a lack of skills. “Writer's block is not solely measured by time passing without writing. It is measured by time passing without productivity in the task at hand” (Rose, 3).
Writer’s block can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You feel like you can’t write, so you worry that you can’t write. Surprise – now you can’t write! Was it because you were worried about not writing or because you have writer’s block? That’s not an easy question to answer.
What Causes Writer’s Block?
Any stress can lead to writer’s block. You may not even realize how stressed you are. If you’ve noticed your eye twitching, your stomach rumbling, or your jaw clenching, you may be suffering from stress.
- Mental Health
Changes in medications and flare ups of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues and disorders can make it harder or impossible to write.
- Major Life Changes
New house? New spouse? New kid? New school? Even a new car. A lot of life changes come with a price tag, making it harder to find the time to get yourself into the groove if you’ve added a job or other responsibilities to your life, they may take that time away. You may have to find a new way to get into the groove to get your writing life back.
No reason in particular. Sometimes you find that you’re out of ideas or out of ways to respond to their ideas, and you can’t pinpoint what it is that’s keeping you from your writing.
How Can I Get Over My Writer’s Block?
- Don’t set goals you can’t reach. Undersell yourself. 100 words is a good goal. Five minutes is a good goal. Build up your confidence instead of starting out beating yourself up. Margaret Atwood once suggested that it could be as simple as sitting at the desk and opening your computer or notebook as a start to get back into writing.
- Meditate. A wise woman once told me “if you don’t have time to meditate for twenty minutes a day, do it for an hour.” Some people tell me that it makes no sense, but it makes a lot of sense. If you feel like you can’t stop and relax, then you clearly need to stop and relax. If you aren’t familiar with meditation, there are plenty of guided meditation options: YouTube and a multitude of apps for both iPhone and Android phones come immediately to mind. If you prefer to sit and breathe, check out the “Calm Meditation Music” channel on Pandora or make your own. Figure out how much time you can devote to meditation, and then try to devote a little more.
- Read. You can’t write in a vacuum. You want to make sure you aren’t accidentally plagiarizing or taking anyone else’s ideas, but if you try to write without reading, you may find yourself stymied. Reading other people’s work is inspiring. It’s uplifting. It’s necessary. If you are worried that you’ll start integrating someone else’s ideas into your writing, read outside of your genre. For example, if you’re writing a romance about a vampire and a pixie falling in love, it’s time to hit the hardboiled mysteries or perhaps a non-fiction book about investments. Reading will help you be balanced and focused.
- Rest when you need to. You might think your goals are easy, but that doesn’t mean they are. Get up and stretch. Call a friend. Go to the mall and buy something. Pamper yourself. All these things are quick and easy ways to take a break and decompress after sitting at your computer. That little breather away from the computer might get you eager to go back to the computer and your writing.
- Take baths. I love baths. Hot water. Bubbles. Jets. You can stretch out and think of nothing. Light a candle. Have a glass of wine or, if you’re like me, a cup of iced coffee. Use a washcloth to gather up some of that hot water and lay it across your forehead, touching your temples. A bath is more than relaxation. It’s a chance to think of new ideas. There’s nothing like trying to empty your mind to make it full. Baths are a chance to think through that problem you’ve encountered or even figure out what will happen next. If your plot is slowed, maybe slowing your thinking in the bath will help you re-focus and get things moving again.
- Affirmations. There are several options that can help you think about writing all the time and may get your brain bubbling again. Put affirmations on post-it notes all throughout your house. Simply write “I am a brilliant and prolific writer.” Look at it when you go to the bathroom, when you get a snack from the kitchen, or when you go out the front door. If you really need to push your self-esteem up a few bars, spend time every day to write it out. Write 10 to 25 repetitions and see if it gets you back into the groove.
What Are Techniques That Help Cure Writer’s Block?
- Find your vibe. Does a coffee shop work for you? A library? A writing retreat? What is the feeling that makes you write? Can you create that in some of your own space?
- Writing ritual. Okay, we’re not talking about having to rest on a chaise lounge before figuring out the brilliant words you’ll compose. This is more like hopping in the shower to clear your head or even clearing a space to sit at the kitchen table.
- Break your writing up into three jobs. Then you can do the right one at the right time: full brain jobs, half-brain jobs, and no brain jobs.
- Full brain is writing itself. You need focus. You need concentration.
- Half brain is when you need to multitask. This is when you are sketching out a scene or even working on the outline. It can also be short writing bursts.
- No brain activities are potentially relaxing, but they’re also helpful to your writing. Hit up Pinterest to get ideas for your 19th century horseback riding costumes. Make a list of things you need to research.
Are you feeling a bit under the weather? What about aiming for one of those half-brain jobs? Did you go to work only to find out that something had gone horribly wrong and you’ve been on your feet and on the go for 10 hours? No brain, for sure.
- Stop thinking and start doing. Doing something physical can help. I have a “FitDesk” that actually lets me sit and bike with my computer or a book. I can choose to write while I bike, or I can doodle ideas in my notebook while thinking and biking.
- Change how you write.
- If you normally hand-write your work, now it’s time to use your computer. Or hit a thrift store and keep a typewriter on hand, just in case. It’ll keep the lure of social media away.
- If you normally type it, it’s time to get a writing implement.
- If you don’t want to write or type, try out a voice-to-text program. You might find that dictating a story or a story idea helps you get past the fear of a blank page.
- Color is meaningful. What’s your favorite color? I personally like blue best, but when I’m stumped on my writing, I pick out a pen (or even just a font color) that I don’t normally use. Purple. Pink. Green. Whatever color you like, get one or find one. Use it.
What Are Some Helpful Exercises?
Getting down to writing can be easier if you have something planned. Doing writing exercises or using prompts can help get your mind going again.
- Image search
Find an image. The important part is to not search for a particular image. It should be completely random. To find a random image, you can go to any number of free clip art websites and see what their featured image of the day is. Another option is to go to a random image generator, like Cool Generator. If you like professional-level work, you can go to sites like Unsplash where they have images of the day on the homepage and you can use any of them to help push your brain into thinking.
- Read an obituary
This might sound a bit morbid, and to some extent, it could be, but the intention isn’t to be morbid – it’s to find out about amazing people. When someone has an obituary published, they are going to have facts about their lives that you can use in your writing. To find an obituary, grab your local paper or look it up online at a site like Legacy.com. Let’s say you live in Texas (like me), but you’re interested in Alaska. Find an obituary for someone in Alaska. You’re writing something set in the past? Go look at genealogical websites.
- Word of the day
This one is full of different opportunities and options. You can make it as random as you want, or you can make it a bit more controlled. You can find them on dictionary websites, like Dictionary.com. You can also grab a calendar that offers a word a day, or you can even play a game like “Words with Friends” to find out what their word of the day is.
What Can I Write When I Can’t Write?
Don’t worry about writing; journal instead. When you’re writing, you’re trying to be creative. When you journal, you can recount events or sort through to-do lists. No matter what you journal about, it’s still writing, and the act of writing can awaken the muscle memory of writing for you.
It doesn’t have to be poetry, but that’s a great option. The important part of the idea is to change the genre that you normally write in. Poet? Now’s the time to try to get that personal essay written. Novelist? Write a blog. You might find that giving yourself the freedom of a new form also gives you a new perspective on your usual genre.
Outlining sounds like something that you only had to do in school, but it’s a skill that can help you with your writing, regardless of what type of writing you’re doing. This works best if you’d had a work in progress when you got hit by writer’s block. What happens next? Why? What are the major plot points you need to include in that chapter?
- Mind Map
Mind mapping, also called “bubbling,” is a way to create relationships between ideas and words. You can use the word of the day to help you out. Write down the word you want to start with in the middle of the page. Circle it, and then start making other bubbles that connect to it. Come up with other words that are related to the main word, whether by theme, meaning, or mental connections you find. Keep going until you’re exhausted, you’ve had an idea, or you’ve run out of ideas.
A lot of writers have heard of this, and some were forced (or enjoyed) doing it for their writing and English classes. This is a different take on it.
- Set a timer and write for 10 or 15 minutes. Accept that the writing is going to suck. You don’t need a focus, you don’t need an idea. You just need to write.
- When the time is done, read what you’ve written, no matter how cringe-worthy it is. Does anything stick out to you? Circle it.
- Now set that timer again, but for five minutes less.
- Focus on that idea, and write for the new time.
- You can repeat and focus in as often as you’d like, but five minutes is the minimum time per focus.
If you don’t have any ideas, ask yourself for new ones. Like freewriting, you can start with little to no focus. Why does it rain every time I go on vacation? How do I pick the wrong partner? Keep asking and answering.
How Do I Keep Writing?
- Habit stacking
Come up with useful if-then statements. If I take a shower, then I write afterwards. If I drop the kids off for school, then I write afterwards. If I write, then I can get coffee. Make them work for you. The idea is to make writing the reward, or you can give yourself a reward for writing.
- Say "no"
Easier said than done, right? As with so many other things in life, it get easier with practice. The first time you have to turn down dinner or a movie or refuse to babysit your neighbor’s children, it will be hard. You will feel guilty. Realize that you are doing something important to you.
- Carve out the time
Do you have to wait in line to pick up the kids from school? Do you ride the bus or train to work? Do you get a full hour for lunch? Any time that you have is time to write. It might not seem like much, but if you give yourself fifteen minutes here and thirty minutes there, you’ll be amazed at how quickly it adds up. To make it easier, try printing out the last five pages you were working on and carrying them with you wherever you go. That way, you can always add on if you have a few minutes and a pen.
Everything. Not just your writing. When are you going to the store? When will you make all those phone calls? This isn’t figuring out your life and forcing it into a little box. It’s more like figuring out when you can get to a doctor’s appointment - and then actually going to that appointment. Your writing is as important as everything else you need to do.
- Get an early – or late — start
I’ve always hated the advice of waking up early to write because I don’t wake up early. Instead, I stay up late. I do better with a good writing session from 10 p.m. to midnight, sometimes even later. Admittedly, it’s often buffered with a lot of coffee. The thing is to figure out what works for you. Is waking up an hour early or staying up an hour later what you need to get that writing time into your day?
- Make it clear to others that you’re writing
I own a writing tiara. Yes, you read that right. I wear it when I’m writing so that my husband can tell that I’m off limits for conversation. Another option is to make a simple sign that states when you’re writing, when you’re doing “other work,” and when you’re “available.” Simply put it on a clothespin, and then you can attach it to whatever you’re writing on (notebook, laptop, or monitor) in order to let people know when they can or can’t talk to you. A final cheap and easy solution is to buy yourself an open/closed sign at a dollar store. Simply flip the sign to “closed” when you’re working so that people know you’re not open to being bothered.
- Avoid the internet and games
When Microsoft first came out with Windows, it included solitaire. It immediately became an addiction. Its original purpose, supposedly, was to help get people comfortable using a mouse, pointing and clicking. Instead, it became a time suck. A massive, massive time suck. Now we have a lot more than solitaire. Log out of Facebook, or better yet, set your devices to airplane mode. Set a ringtone for important calls and ignore everything else. Own your social media and games. Don’t let them own you.
Writer’s block can feel crippling, but there are ways to deal with it. Remember that it can be caused by a lot of temporary situations, but there are techniques to help deal with it.
References and Further Reading
- Rose, Mike. (1984). Writer's Block: The Cognitive Dimension.
- How to Overcome Writer's Block: 20 Helpful Tips | reedsyblog
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.