Let’s talk about Writer’s Block.

Photo by: Florian Klauer

The thing a lot of people don’t understand about writer’s block is that there are many different kinds of blockages, and each one reacts a little differently. If you find yourself unable to write and you apply one of the many tried-and-true methods for resolving it, you could find that it only makes things worse; odds are, that means you have a different sort of block that calls for a different sort of treatment. A big part of honing your craft as a writer is learning about your writing process, style, quirks, and so on so you can adapt to any set of circumstances.

One major flavor of block that I tend to get a lot is lack of creativity. I plan out time to write, grab my notebook and laptop computer, pick out a nice softball scene to warm up with, pull up my writing software, and stare at the blank page. Nothing happens. I check my outline. In this scene, Marie and Eileen are meant to be discussing their projects; the goal is to show their easy camaraderie and give the reader a real feel for the nature of their friendship. Easy stuff. But nothing comes of it. Finally, in desperation, I write:

“Hi,” said Marie.

“Hey,” replied Eileen. “How are you doing?”

And then an hour passes and I’m still staring at the screen perplexed by the concept of how, exactly, Marie is doing right now. I start to get frustrated. I want to shake my brain like a pen whose ink has run out, but I can’t figure out how. The minutes tick past, the pressure is rising, and I’m still striking out.

Typically, for me, that’s a sign of burnout. I tend to push myself a lot harder than I’d be comfortable pushing other people; when I’m overworked, stressed, and exhausted, my creative faculties suffer the most. If that happens, it’s time to put down the pen, walk away from the computer, and take care of myself. An afternoon spent playing video games followed by an early bedtime does wonders for restoring my capacity to be creative. In extreme cases, I might take a whole weekend off, cancel every one of my obligations and curl up with a good book. The words will come when I am ready to produce them.

Another type of block is restlessness. I grab my things, sit down, remember about something else, go to add it to my to-do list, sit down again, check my email, remember about some online task, get caught up in the internet, and end up on TvTropes. I close my browser window, look at my outline, glance at the clock, realize it’s lunchtime, get up and make a sandwich. I come back, check my email, there’s another new email, that reminds me I need something, I go shopping online. Before I know it, my allotted writing time is gone, and while I’ve done an awful lot, I’ve accomplished nothing.

For me, that kind of block is a sign of anxiety. Again, like the burnout case, I need to take care of myself first. Odds are, I’m stressed about something else, and it’s destroyed my ability to focus. Finding what’s really bothering me and handling it often leads to a far more productive day than pushing through and trying to ignore it. Plus, like burnout, a little self-care goes a long way.

The third type of block I commonly experience isn’t so much the inability to write, but the struggle to write anything worthwhile. No sooner have I written a sentence than I loathe it. No sooner have I finished a section than I decide the tone was all wrong. No sooner have I written an interaction than I realize it went in a strange direction, derailed the story I was trying to tell, or ultimately fell short of the mark. This, for me, is a sign that the book isn’t ready to be written yet. I need to let the ideas cook in my mind, leave them on the burner at a low simmer for a few more days or weeks. Often, by leaving the story alone, I manage to see something or read something and come to a breakthrough about how to write the story. Then it’s off to the races; the words come out almost faster than I can type them, and I end up with a draft I’m satisfied with.

Readers, I have been struggling against this type of block for Marie’s book since the conception phase. I keep leaving it alone for months, but each time, it just gets harder and harder to come back to it. I’m beginning to think what I have is a fourth type of block: I’ve left it alone so long I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing. So. I’m renewing my approach to the novel by writing something different altogether. I’ve written bits and pieces of short stories (all of which are atrocious, seriously, you do not want to see the shit saved in my writing folder right now), and next month I intend to do a nanowrimo project that is utterly unrelated to anything I feel I “have” to write. I’m going to be writing fanfiction. By December, I hope to be energized, refreshed, and ready to tackle the Expatriates world all over again.

Anyone else plan to come along on this nano adventure this year? If so, what do you hope to gain from it?