I love writing, most of the time. I like making things up, and then making them fit together. I love the feeling I get when I’ve come up with something I think is really clever and unexpected (whatever the judgment of the rest of the world may be after).
But every so often, I. Just. Can’t.
I can still write a grocery list. I can still write a letter. I can still write a blog post complaining bitterly about my “inability to write.” Sometimes I even know what’s going to happen next, either in general terms or in very specific ones. I simply don’t feel like sitting down and doing it.
Years ago, one of my dear friends termed this “not writer’s block, not an inability to put words on paper, just a profound disinclination to write.” Sometimes it’s even more specific – not a profound disinclination to write fiction, but a profound disinclination to work on one specific story.
This is, I think, what most people mean when they talk of “writer’s block” – this profound distaste for the act of sitting down and adding more words to this particular story, chapter, scene, page. It’s an unfortunate terminology, because “writer’s block” conjures up images of an impassable wall or a narrow pass totally cut off by a landslide. A block is something that’s in the way and all but impossible to get around; without dynamite or earth-moving machinery, there’s no way forward.
Which is why I prefer the term “stuck.” Saying I’m stuck or bogged down pulls up images of my car stuck in the mud or the snow…and I’ve been there, done that, and eventually gotten out of it more times than I can count. Being stuck is a condition that one can overcome, and since “writer’s block” is a mental obstacle rather than a physical one, the first step in getting out of it is reframing the problem in your own head.
The second and most critical step is diagnosis: why am I stuck? This can require some thought and digging, or it can be really obvious once I actually turn my attention to what’s going on. The most common reasons I’ve observed, in no particular order, are:
- Insufficient development and/or failure to think things through. The writer has a great character or scene or idea and doesn’t stop to think it through before plunging ahead. This works for a couple of chapters, but then comes the moment of truth when the story has to start coming together and/or making sense, and the writer simply can’t keep going on the fly. Or the writer has blithely written himself into a corner because he didn’t think long enough about the implications of his cool technology or magic system and the ways they would affect his grand finale,
- Process block. The writer is most comfortable and productive writing one way but for one reason or another is writing this piece some other way, or the piece demands to be written in some way different from the writer’s usual working method. Either way, there’s a mis-match that’s getting in the way of further production.
- Wrong turn. The writer has just made, or is just about to make, a boneheaded decision about the characters or plot, something that will take the story in a completely wrong direction that will not work. On some level, the writer knows this, and is subconsciously refusing to move forward until the mistake is fixed.
- No discipline. It’s a gorgeous summer day, and the writer would really rather go to the beach than write. Or it’s a sunny winter day after three inches of fresh powder fell last night and the writer wants to go skiing. So the writer does.
- Insecurity. The writer has hit one of those times where every sentence looks wrong or stupid or terrible in some other fashion, possibly because they just read someone else’s brilliant book, or possibly because they attended a lecture or read a how-to book where someone said “If you want to be a writer, you absolutely have to…” and whatever it is they supposedly have to do, they don’t do.
- Dread. The writer knows perfectly well what comes next, and is dreading writing it for some reason. She’s going to have to kill off a favorite character, or she’s going to have to juggle eighteen characters trying to talk at the same time, or it’s going to be one of those background-fill-in scenes she just hates writing, or require a technique she knows she’s bad at. Whatever the reason, it’s going to be unpleasant to write, and she knows it. So she puts it off.
- Exhaustion. The writer has been working twenty-hour days for a month now, and their brains are fried. Or they’ve been facing a series of unrelated crises – family, health, financial, disaster, whatever – that have made them incapable of facing one more thing to be responsible for, even if it’s a bunch of imaginary people in a story.
Obviously, the correct response to being stuck varies considerably depending on what the cause is. If the writer is exhausted, taking a break, a nap, and it easy for a while is the clear winner; if the writer is hearing the call of the beach, these remedies are not so helpful. If the problem is insufficient development or a pending wrong turn, the writer needs to stop and do some serious thinking about content; if the problem is a process mis-match, thinking about the story won’t help – the writer has to think about process and why they’re so determined to write things linearly when writing out of order seems more likely to work this time (or vice versa). If one is dreading the next bit or feeling insecure, one has to pull up one’s pants and just do it, but “just do it” is no help if what’s needed is thinking about process or content.
This is why all those books and articles and blogs about “how to beat writer’s block” aren’t terribly helpful; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. First, you have to figure out why you’re stuck, and you are the only person who can do that (though sometimes talking to an objective outside observer helps, if you have a good friend who’ll actually tell you “Writer’s block? Oh, you mean because the weather’s been so nice lately? You always do that.”)