The Myth of Writer's Block
Updated: Jun 28, 2022
...and what to do about it.
Typewriters are antiquated, and so is the bugbear of "writer's block."
Picture this: you're sitting in front of your word processor (or notebook, for you tactile types), staring at a blank page that has also been staring back at you for longer than you care to admit. Maybe you're toiling over the perfect opening line, maybe you're trying to work out the premise, or maybe you have no specific goal in mind and therein lies the problem. Whatever is inhibiting you from putting words on the page, the beast known as writer's block lurks in the recesses of every writer's mind, occasionally--or, perhaps, all too often--coming out to terrorize their progress. But here's the thing: it doesn't have to. In fact, I'd argue that the way we view "writer's block" as an inhibiting force is self-defeating and self-perpetuated... to the point where I might even call it a myth.
To vanquish writer's block once and for all, let's first examine the various ways it can manifest. Depending on where one is in the writing process, the solution might look different. So, let's begin with the problem of a blank story premise because, as a friend once told me years ago, starting places are a good place to start:
Exhibit A: You want to write a story, but you can't settle on a story premise.
Good news! This doesn't have to be writer's block.
"I'm sorry, what?" you say in a small fit of indignation. "Of course this is writer's block. I don't know what to write."
And that's true, traditionally speaking. But I'd like to suggest a new paradigm for how we frame writer's block: it is the struggle to produce writing. If you're struggling to produce an idea, it may help to realize that you could still write if you wanted to.
This is where you roll your eyes so hard they slow the Earth's rotation, adding, "I can't write if I don't have an idea."
Counterpoint: You can't write the hypothetical idea you don't have, but you can write. If your goal is to write a story, you can always write something. Maybe that sounds like an unhelpful truism, but hear me out. Too many writers wait around indefinitely, hoping The Story™ will dawn on them. Sometimes it does. But more often than not, our best stories are found through the act of writing. It's okay to write a story you don't love. It's okay to write something, anything, just to keep the creative juices flowing. Is it possible that after months of stagnant deliberation, your magnum opus will materialize in front of you? Sure. It is plausible? Not so much.
"It's okay to write something, anything, just to keep the creative juices flowing."
Of course, it's fine to put your writing on hold while you work out a story premise. However, if that "hold" has devolved into a prolonged case of writer's block that is starting to grow moss, maybe it's time to try that story idea you had previously crumpled up. It's better than nothing, possibly better than you thought, and very likely a creative road to your next idea.
Exhibit B: You can't find the motivation or inspiration to write.
Good news! You don't need to "find" motivation. It's almost certainly lurking within you, waiting to be unleashed. The trick is to realize that it's lying dormant, and all you need to do is sit down and write.
Analogy time: let's look at creative motivation as a matter of momentum. In this way, it's similar to driving a car. It's a matter of being stationary at first, but then gradually moving toward your destination. That's momentum. But there's a crucial step in both of these scenarios that writers overlook while drivers take for granted: you have to start the engine. When it comes to driving a car, it would be ridiculous to assume that we could get anywhere without starting the car. We know we need to sit in that car, start the engine, and accelerate from zero. No one simply wills their car to move from zero to sixty instantaneously, and we certainly don't do it without getting in the car first. So why do writers assume that they will magically find motivation (momentum) to write without sitting down and getting started?
"No one simply wills their car to move from zero to sixty instantaneously, and we certainly don't do it without getting in the car first. So why do writers assume that they will magically find motivation (momentum) to write without sitting down and getting started?"
In writing, starting the engine means sitting down and being physically prepared to put words on a page. It means going through the act of writing, even if it's a snail's pace, so that we can build momentum. We cannot and should not wait for the mood to strike us, no more than a driver should wait for their car to rev its own engine.
If you're waiting to feel inspired, you might be waiting forever. Consider that your inspiration is actually waiting for you to sit down and give it a medium.
Still not convinced? I kindly refer you to Newton's First Law of Motion.
Exhibit C: You're in the middle of a story. You want to continue. You have the
motivation to write. You just can't figure out what should come next...
Okay, so this might be a legitimate case of writer's block. If you're well into your story and have the momentum to continue, but simply cannot find the next logical scene, then you have my sympathy.
The silver lining here is that you probably won't be stuck for long, assuming you're making a good faith effort to map out the plot. Fortunately, this is a topic I plan to tackle in a future blog post.
But if you are mercilessly stuck, having driven your story into a dead-end from which you see no way of return, then I imagine you are left with 2 options.
1) Backtrack. Find where your story starts to go down a one-way street, and revise it. Take it in a new direction to open up more possibilities for yourself. It's okay to delete whole chapters if you need to. Don't let your story canonize itself; it is still a work in progress.
2) Put it aside and focus on something else. If your new endeavor leads to inspiration for your dead-end plot, then great! If not, you will still have a new piece to pour your ambition into.
That's it. That's how to get over writer's block. And since I don't want to approach the other end of the spectrum (prattling on needlessly), I'll end here, as I have nothing more to say.