Understanding Writer’s Block

Like many writers, there was a point at which I did not believe that writer’s block existed.  Like many people new to the business of writing, I thought it was simply an excuse, or laziness, or some other form of denial that kept someone from being productive.  I know better now.

Every writer who experiences writer’s block experiences something a little different.  It is unique to him or her, and to try to catagorize the event under one, all-encompassing umbrella does an injustice to the person who went through the ordeal – and it is truly an ordeal.

My own personal experience – the one that changed my mind about the existence of such a thing as writer’s block – came mid-way through my Master’s degree program.  During the beginning of the second year, we were required to produce a critical thesis – a research paper on a specific topic pertaining to writing – and I was struggling immensely.  I had come up with several topics already, and each had been rejected by my faculty adviser.  In one case, I had written my thesis statement, started my research, and written the first half of the paper, only to be told by my adviser that the thesis “wasn’t arguable” and I would need to find a topic with “more bite” than this one.

I was devastated.  Add to this that my father was hospitalized for congestive heart failure, and my husband and I were having personal issues, and you have the recipe for my brand of writer’s block. I had been trying a new system of writing based on The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I would get up an hour earlier – which was no easy feat for me as I am NOT a morning person – and I would do the “automatic writing” exercise.  After three weeks of this, nothing had changed, and I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me.  After all, everyone was absolutely RAVING about what a fabulous system this was.

And then the bottom fell out. I woke up one morning, did my automatic scribbling of nothing for half an hour, got the kids off to school, headed to the computer to start working on yet another thesis, and froze.  I sat at the computer, fingers literally poised above the keyboard, and I began to cry uncontrollably.  I shook with anxiety, could not catch my breath, and ran back to my bedroom where I sobbed for several hours without stopping.

Finally, I composed myself enough to return to the computer, telling myself I would just read my email.  However, when I went to reply to a message, my hands again froze and the anxiety returned with a vengeance. I had deadlines looming, and I knew that I was running out of time to complete my paper, but some part of me was refusing to cooperate. It was overwhelming, it was frightening, and it was very real.

This situation repeated itself every day for more than a week.  I called my adviser, I called friends, I called my therapist.  No one had much advice to offer me, though my adviser did come up with a new topic for my thesis.  I was desperate, and the book which was supposed to be helping me was, in reality, making me feel less and less capable of writing at all.  So one morning, I slept in. I told Julia Cameron – silently, of course – exactly where she could get off.  Then I started looking into brain function and creativity.  I found SARK – Susan Arelius Rainbow Kennedy – and began reading her very upbeat and creative books and workbooks.  I got books on brain function and began understanding how memory and creativity are linked together; how the brain stores information for retrieval later.  And ultimately, I took the mystery out of my muse.

It took me several weeks of researching before I could actually sit down at the computer without having a panic attack, but one day, I did just that.  Understanding that I control my own creative process, taking control of my creative abilities, was the key to shaking loose of the grip of writer’s block for me.  Let me emphasize that this is how it worked for me.  There are many writers and artists who have benefited by The Artist’s Way and Julia Cameron has made a fortune off this, and subsequent books.  But it doesn’t work for everyone.

One of the things that I accepted and embraced from SARK is that everyone has their own, individual creative process.  For some, that extra hour in the morning is what they need.  For me, sleep is better at that time.  My creativity flourishes at night.  Much of this stems from when I began writing when my children were little.  The only time I could use the computer without interruption was late at night when everyone else was asleep.  I’ve always been a night owl.  My mother used to come into my room after midnight when I was still in elementary school and find me reading.  My own body clock is set to different hours than writers who find that the early morning is their prime time.

Another thing I discovered is that when someone tells you “this is the only way you can do things,” they clearly don’t know what they are talking about.  In fact, the concept that “you must do it this way” can actually cause someone to be blocked rather than helping him or her to recover from it.  I kept thinking to myself that there must be something wrong with me if I didn’t suddenly start crafting amazing literature at o-dark-thirty in the morning thanks to this genius book.  That was contributing, along with other factors, to what was blocking my writing.

There are as many ways to write as there are writers.  My process is obviously going to be different from anyone else’s. Some of us may share some things in common, but there is no one system for being a successful writer.  If that were the case, then some entrepreneurial genius would be selling it through a 1-800 number or on line.  With time, and discussion with other writers, I’ve found three key components to overcoming writer’s block.  The first is accepting and embracing your own process.  Who cares if some world-famous writer says “You must write at least one hour every day of your life.” I know plenty of successful (and, yes, world-famous) writers who don’t do that, and they are just fine, thanks so much.  For example, I can’t get any writing at all done on Wednesdays until at least July.  I teach from 8 – 11:40 a.m., 12:00 – 3:20 p.m., and 6 – 9:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.  I could certainly fit in a bit of writing if I wanted, but I’m usually busy trying to prepare, follow up, check on kids, get dinner ready, and get back to work on time.  So why stress over it?  One day off doesn’t make me a failure; it doesn’t mean I’m not a “real” writer.

The second strategy for getting past a block is to demystify the writing and creative process.  For me, understanding the process, and acknowledging that I am in control, gives me a huge amount of power over that process.  There are all kinds of neat little tricks and games that you use.  I recommend making a dodecahedron (a 12-sided dice) with creative suggestions on each side.  When you hit a wall, toss the dice and try the suggestion.  I teach this to my creative writing students as a technique for generating ideas.  If you’re interested, you can find a pattern for a dodecahedron pattern here: http://www.shelbyed.k12.al.us/schools/omhs/faculty/sculbreth/Projects/PlatonicSolid/Dodecahedron.doc

The third strategy for getting past a block is to keep trying.  Don’t give in to the fear; don’t give in to the panic; don’t give in to the negative voices whether they are real or imagined. The fact is, you have your own way of writing, just like you have your own way of doing everything.  Your method may require a little tweaking for effectiveness, but it probably doesn’t need a major overhaul.  Keep sitting down with pen and paper, or at the computer, or whatever it is you do.  It gets easier day by day, until eventually you find you are in the flow of it again.

And, yes, it really is that easy – and much cheaper than therapy.

Writer’s block is not imaginary, but it’s also not the end of the world.  Trust your own creative self, trust your process, and keep working.  The rest will take care of itself.  Now go write something good!


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