How to Deal with Writer’s Block

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“Writer’s block’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘I don’t feel like doing any work today.” ― Meagan Spooner

The overwhelming impression I have of advice for writer’s block, gleaned over my years of storytelling, is summed up in the above quote: writer’s block isn’t real—it’s your brain’s excuse to be lazy—so keep writing anyway. While there’s some truth in that, it’s never helped me to view my “writer’s block” moments that way because all writer’s block is not created equal.

Solving writer’s block is much like a medical diagnosis—the same symptom can belong to multiple illnesses. Sometimes the fatigue is because of seasonal allergies; you can take some medicine if it’s particularly bad, but there’s no reason why you should take off work or spend the whole day napping. That’s the type of writer’s block to which the above advice applies. Sometimes the fatigue is a common cold; it won’t kill you, but you’ll probably get over it sooner if you don’t push yourself too hard, so resting more and drinking plenty of water is a must. And sometimes, the fatigue is the flu; you need to rest for a while if you don’t want it to go on for weeks and weeks. Furthermore, if you’re immune system is already compromised, you might be sick for a while, and pushing yourself to get over it prematurely will only make things worse.

Severe writer’s block obviously doesn’t require a literal hospital visit, but I think the metaphor is apt. You can’t treat the same symptoms with the same medicine every time. A Claritin tablet isn’t going to help you get over the flu. In the same way, forcing yourself to write every time you hit a “block” isn’t going to work every time, and it might even worsen or prolong the block. Instead, the best way to deal with writer’s block is to become an expert diagnostician.

I’ve written before about the importance of asking questions about your story, and I think the same principle applies to writer’s block: you need to interrogate yourself and find the meaning for why you’re suddenly stuck. The reason may be easy to spot—perhaps you’re exhausted from other life demands and need a good night’s rest; perhaps you’re actually coming down with an illness; or perhaps you just need to eat some protein or go for a walk to perk up. The reason might also take a while to figure out—perhaps you’re hit with discouragement because of comparing your story to others; perhaps you’ve encountered a serious story issue that you need to solve before moving forward; or perhaps you have other, personal issues or responsibilities that need your attention more than your writing does. And, on some rare occasions, you may never be able to figure out the reason you hit a block—but those instances are rare, and, I think, more rare the longer you work at understanding yourself.

Once you figure out the reason why you’re stuck, then you can find a solution. This, of course, will vary from writer to writer, and advice for boosting creativity or solving story problems has been written about so much that I doubt I have something revolutionary to add. However, I’ll share what works for me, and perhaps it will help you figure out solutions that work for you.

When I’m stuck because of a minor issue (like lack of sleep, listlessness, hunger, etc.), I:

  • Take a short break
  • Go for a walk
  • Drink some water (or tea)
  • Spend time doing something creative that isn’t writing (reading, painting, drawing, music, etc.)
  • Finish other tasks that need accomplished (such as cleaning, laundry, errands, etc.)
  • Eat a nutritious meal
  • Sleep on it and come back to it after getting enough rest

When I’m stuck because of a semi-serious issue (like an outline point that doesn’t seem right, a huge plot hole, frustration or dissatisfaction with a section or chapter, etc.), I:

  • Talk to someone about the problem and brainstorm/troubleshoot
  • Brainstorm alternative options
  • Look for inspiration in other stories (books, TV shows, movies, etc.)
  • Write another type of piece (poem, short story, etc.) that allows me to gain new perspective on a character or story element
  • Work on a part of my story that needs attention but doesn’t include the specific issue (e.g. if I can’t figure out a plot point, I’ll do some worldbuilding or character development)
  • Take time to daydream/ruminate about the issue
  • Give myself grace to allow the process to take more than a day or two

When I’m stuck because of a serious issue (like discouragement, other life issues, etc.), I:

  • Focus on pressing responsibilities or concerns
  • Make sure my physical needs (food, water, sleep, exercise, etc.) are thoroughly met
  • Find alternative ways to be creative, whether that means actually creating other types of art or simply taking time to appreciate other art
  • Voice my concerns or feelings to trusted friends
  • Take pressure off myself to be perfect/work on my story every day
  • Give myself a reality-check/pep-talk (a.k.a. “your writing isn’t as bad as you think, you’re just always looking at it in detail”)
  • Switch from passive perfectionism to active perfectionism
  • Accept that periods of rest are natural to the creative process and allow myself to rest when I need to do so

Ultimately, much like your physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health, you’re the one who truly knows the reasons why your writing comes to a halt. You’re also the one who can best determine what you need in those instances, although it may take a lot of trial-and-error. But the only way you can find true solutions (and be able to prevent future bouts of writer’s block) is if you’re willing to take the time to understand your individual needs and writing style. To rephrase the beginning quote: Writer’s block is just a way of saying “something’s wrong with what I’m currently doing, and I need to identify what’s wrong so I can fix it.” And that means finding a balance between pushing yourself to do better when you know you’re being lazy and giving yourself grace for when you truly need a break.

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