“The Writer is an infantryman. He knows that progress is measured in yards of dirt extracted from the enemy one day, one hour, one minute at a time and paid for in blood. The artist wears combat boots. He looks in the mirror and sees GI Joe. Remember, the Muse favors working stiffs. She hates prima donnas.” –Steven Pressfield.
Steven Pressfield wrote this amazing book called Gates of Fire. It’s a fictionalised account of the famous battle of Thermopylae. If you enjoyed 300 but wanted a few less monolithic elephants, then you’ll love this book.
He also wrote this other amazing book called the War of Art. In it, he compares the work of an artist to that of a soldier, or sometimes to a general, and shows how artists must (and can) overcome resistance in order to flourish. It’s a tough read if you’re a tender soul – Pressfield pulls no punches at what he sees as lazy habits and excuses. It’s one of the best books about the creative process I’ve ever read.
He has a lot to say about writer’s block, which he calls the Resistance. Pressfield doesn’t regard writer’s block as a passive force – a wall blocking your way – but rather it’s this active, malevolent other that must be thwarted, or surrender is inevitable.
Even though many writers like to claim writer’s block doesn’t exist, Pressfield’s description felt true to me, so I decided to investigate.
The history of writer’s block
Being the person I am, if I want to dig into a subject, I first look at how it’s been dealt with throughout history. I thought writer’s block was a ubiquitous term understood since the time humans first put pen to papyrus. How wrong I was.
It turns out the terminology “writer’s block” was coined by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler in 1947. However, the idea of it does go back much further, with many historians and commentators noting periods of stagnation during the lifetimes of prolific writers like Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, and Herman Melville.
“You don’t know what it is,” groaned Gustave Flaubert to a friend, “to stay a whole day with your head in your hands, trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word.”
Even now, there are suggestions writer’s block might have its roots in science. The writer and neurologist Alice W. Flaherty explains that under stress, the human mind is controlled by the limbic system of instinctual cues (your fight-or-flight responses). This system often shuts off creative processes in order to fulfill its function of getting you out of danger.
For all the years that writers have suffered thus, others have jumped up to recommend solutions, from changing surroundings, free writing, or going into therapy, to Agatha Christie’s wonderful suggestion of “eating apples in the bath.” Like all advice, some of it will work for you, most of it won’t, but you won’t know until you try it all.
I’m going to add a few more suggestions into the mix. But first, do you even need to worry about writer’s block at all? Isn’t it the mark of all great writers to toil in this creative cesspit?
Newsflash: you can’t afford writer’s block
There’s no denying that for many writers, feeling ‘blocked’ is a real thing. Denying this is pointless. The key question is not if writer’s block exists, but whether you want or need to change it.
If you’re a hobbyist and you’re okay with putting down your project for months at a time while waiting for the block to pass, then you can claim writer’s block to your heart’s content.
But if you’re aiming to be a professional writer, then you’ve got to find methods to work through your blocks. Writing is work, and like all work sometimes you’ve got to do it when you don’t want to. You never hear about a nurse with “nurse’s block”, or a plumber with “plumber’s block” (haha!). Why do we deserve to claim this special term to describe the fact we’d rather watch Netflix in our pajamas?
You have to be tough with yourself because the world does not stand still and wait for you to be ready to write. Readers will go and pick up other books and form unhealthy obsessions with other, non-blocked writers and those writers will buy mansions and fancy cars and all the boats in the world and all the boats that have been made in the past or will be made in the future and then how will you sail around the Canary Islands on your literary dollars?
You don’t get paid if you don’t work. In order to work, you’ve got to get the words down. Up to a certain point, it doesn’t matter which words they are. Of course you can’t just write “oook oook oook” repeatedly and expect the Pulitzer Prize. What I mean is, as a creative you’re usually digging into a number of different projects at once. If one project isn’t working, switch to another. You’ve got to keep getting words down because that’s the only way the mortgage gets paid.
Before you throw up your arms and claim writer’s block, ask yourself the following questions:
Are you waiting for inspiration?
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Jack London said that, and he’s awesome, so I think you should listen to him.
If you wait for inspiration, you’re going to wait a long time. For some people, that’s totally cool. But if you want to make a living at this, you have to learn to write even when you’re not inspired.
So much of writing isn’t about the genius ideas and inspired zingers. It’s about slotting the puzzle pieces of a story together. The inspiration is the dart in the middle of the bullseye, but the work is adding in the dart-board, the grimy wall in a backwater pub, the crew of miscreants you’re playing darts with, and the body slumped over the pool table.
Sit down. Work. Make with the clickety-clacks. Inspiration doesn’t make a writer. Perseverance does.
Are you being a lazy-arse?
Or lazy-ass, if you’re American.
Here’s a thing – we often think that in order to go and do stuff, we need to be motivated. The action follows the desire. Most of the time, it’s the other way around.
My ability to get shit done on any given day is all about how much I force my lazy-arse mind to do what it doesn’t want to do. That first act of defiance is the loudest and boldest and scariest. It gets much easier after that.
I know that exercising daily makes me happy. I know it makes my days more productive. I know that 11AM is the ideal time for me to get this done, and that I can do my routines in 20-45 mins and listen to some killer tunes.
Even knowing all that, sometimes I don’t care. It gets to 11AM. My alarm rings, and I keep working, or reading, or faffing around on Facebook. I don’t exercise.
Sometimes I have to drag myself to my weights by bargaining with myself. “You only have to do one circuit, and then you can stop.” Anything to make me pick up that Olympic bar. After I’ve done one set, I always, always do the other two. Because I’ve hit the zone where I know it’s good for me and I want it. The desire follows the action.
Find out how to trick your brain. Bribe yourself. Create a reward system. Put on a timer. Try these other hacks. Don’t let laziness be your excuse.
Is there a problem with your story?
It’s absolutely possible to write yourself into a corner, or to have a need to get a character from point A to point B but to draw a blank on how.
For me, when this happens – and it happens less and less these days as I improve my craft – it usually means that a character isn’t acting like themselves, or I’ve written a scene that doesn’t have any conflict.
That kind of block to me means the story is broken.
Instead of staring at the blank page and trying to puzzle out how to move forward, I’ve got to dig deeper. I can’t place a band-aid on a bullet wound. I’ve got to go back in time and stop the bullet from leaving the gun.
This is the point where I’ll often explain the situation to my husband, or to a writer friend. The simple act of explaining the story will often alert me to the issue. Otherwise, a few follow-up questions usually get to the crux of the problem.
If I can’t or don’t want to talk out the story with someone else, I’ll ruminate on the issue for a few days. If possible I’ll skip ahead in the book to a section I can write, so I can keep working. While I do that, I use my thinking time (aka, my shower time) to allow my mind to wander.
Are you not ready to write this book?
It could be that you’re trying to tackle a topic that’s emotionally difficult for you, and writing about it means remembering or dealing with that issue. It could be that you’ve had an idea that’s big and wonderful and important, but you don’t feel as though you’re developed enough in your craft to do it justice. Maybe you’ve got a new baby in the house and your cat just died and you ran out of coffee and it’s just not a good time right now. Or it could be that there’s some consequence for you writing a book – for example, if you’re whistleblowing or writing a memoir about your family that you know they’ll read.
If you’re not ready, it’s okay to acknowledge that, and to figure out what steps to take to make you ready, and to take them. Or, to put that project away and work on something that brings you joy instead of fear and anger and pain.
Are you burned out?
This one happens to professional writers and it’s gutting. You’re trucking along doing all the things and then WHAM. You. Just. Can’t.
If this is you, or you suspect this might soon be you, take a motherfucking break. This has nearly been me so many times. It had been me once for definite but probably more times I didn’t acknowledge.
Quit some stuff. Everyone has stuff they can quit. Saying no feels amazing. Do it more often.
Nothing cures burnout except turning the fire back on. To do that, you’re gonna need some fuel. Eat well. Get exercise. Go outside and smell the fucking flowers. Call your mom. Read a good book. Remember that the world is more than words on a page. Stoke that fire.
Did someone say your story is crap?
It could be, but who cares?
Sometimes, people are dicks. There are people who take a perverse pleasure in tearing down enthusiasm and making others feel small and sabotaging creativity. They usually end up being the people we tell all our most brilliant ideas and spill all our secrets. That’s how the universe works.
If other people are stopping you writing, either physically (by throwing your computer out a window) or mentally, then you gotta get rid of them, either physically (by throwing… I’ll let you fill in the rest) or mentally.
Are you afraid of something?
“Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”
That’s another wee pearl of wisdom from our man, Steven Pressfield.
At its core, all writer’s block may boil down to fear. Fear of failure, of rejection, of putting something out into the world and having it help up for ridicule. Or fear of success – of becoming someone we don’t like, or having our privacy impacted or our world shattered.
I wrote a long, meaty article about conquering your fears as a writer. Give it a squizz. It may just help.
And celebrate every small victory against that fear. Relish the defeat of Resistance. That’s how you grow as a human.
If you want to banish your writer’s block, consider:
- You don’t have to work through a book/project in a linear fashion.
- It’s okay to put a project down and pick it up when the timing’s better. Just make sure you’re moving forward with something.
- You broke your story. You can fix it, but you’ll need to go back and figure out how you broke it first.
- Identify what it is you’re afraid of. Can you find techniques to minimize and deal with that fear?
- Eliminate distractions and create a regular habit to force yourself to write through that initial discomfort.
- Talk about your ideas with a supportive friend or family member. They might help reinvigorate you.
- Are you making excuses? Are you wallowing? Are you using the words “I’m blocked” when you really mean, “I’m lazy.”
- Write some words. That’s the only way to get over writer’s block. They might be terrible words, but eventually, you’ll write something worth sharing. If you don’t start, you never will.
More brilliant writing about writer’s block
How Steven Pressfield helped me to drop the term ‘Writer’s Block’ by writer and veteran Matthew Webb.
Author Jeff Goins (he’s pretty famous in writing productivity circles) on how to overcome writer’s block: 14 tricks that work.
There’s no such thing as writer’s block, by Randy Cassingham, mainly looking at the excuses we tell ourselves about our writing.
More about the science of writer’s block.
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