Writers’ blocks are great teachers. They may annoy us, frustrate us, and even lead us to despair (if we let them), but if we ignore what they’re saying to us, we’re missing an opportunity to learn about ourselves and our writing process.
In Understanding Writing Blocks, Keith Hjortshoj writes that blocks “have useful things to tell us about what writing actually is, what people are doing in the process, and how finished writing comes about.” The problem is how to determine what a block is telling you—and what to do once you find out.
Every writing block is unique, but there are some general patterns that can be easily identified. Here are five things a writing block may be communicating—and what to do once you get the message.
1. You are writing the wrong thing.
Many writers have pre-conceived notions of who they are as writers and what they “should” be working on. Sometimes, those notions conflict with who we really are.
A block may be telling you you're writing in a genre that doesn't suit your talents. Whenever I try to write a short story, one of two things happen: I start out strong and get stuck somewhere in the middle, or I just keep writing until I have a novel. I love the short story form and envy people who do it well. I’m just not one of them.
My late husband, writer Omar S. Castaneda, found himself completely blocked on his first novel. The moment he suspended the project and started penning short stories, his writing blossomed. Although he did go on to publish three novels, it was as a short story writer that he made his mark, and he was always more comfortable with the form.
It may not be the genre that’s the problem. It may be the work itself. Perhaps a poem about your child’s birthday is not what you should be working on at the moment. Maybe the personal essay about your trip to Mexico is not the story that wants to be told. Those works might be ones you write later, but if you’re blocked on them, it could be because they’re not what you should be writing right now.
What to do: Write something else. Leave the blocked project for awhile. You don’t have to abandon it entirely. Just take a break from it—but make sure to keep writing. It may be that you never come back to the work—or you might come back to it with fresh energy and a new vision. But the only way you can tell whether it’s what you should be doing is to move away from it.
2. You are trying to take your work in the wrong direction.
If you repeatedly get stuck on a particular chapter, scene or paragraph, it may be time to evaluate whether you’re trying to take your work somewhere it doesn’t want to go. This happens if you start the work with a clear idea of what is going to happen or what the work is going to be like. If you’re stuck on the paranormal romance you wanted to write, it might be because the work wants to become a horror story. If the inspiring personal essay you started refuses to budge after page two, it could be shaping itself into ironic dark humor. Sometimes characters don’t want to do what you want them to. Plots can suddenly take on a life of their own. If you refuse to let those things happen organically, you can find yourself blocked.
What to do: The key here is flexibility. Give your characters a choice. Give your work some leeway. Give up control and expectation. Above all, banish pre-sets. Let your writing take you where it will.
3. You may be hiding something from yourself.
Blocks often come when something is buried in our subconscious and we want it to stay there. Most of us have painful memories and deep-seated fears that we keep below the level of consciousness. As we write—especially when we’re writing deeply and authentically—the stuff buried in our subconscious begins to bubble up. That’s a good thing both for our psyches and our writing, but it can also be scary and uncomfortable. The entire reason we’ve buried the pain to begin with is so we don’t have to feel it. If our writing is threatening to bring it to the light of day, we’ll often simply shut our writing down.
What to do: This is a devilish issue to deal with but there are techniques you can use to uncover the problem. For one thing, try identifying how you feel when you start to write. If you feel fearful, queasy, or panicky, there’s a good chance you’re keeping something from yourself. To identify what it is, do some self exploring through journaling or meditation. In Writing as a Sacred Path, I offer some techniques to help writers feel safe when they write about frightening or painful events in their lives. Using that kind of support can ease the fear and allow your writing to flow. If the problem is serious or you can't shake it, consider a trained therapist or coach, and don’t hesitate to seek one out.
4. You might be afraid of having your work judged.
Many people experience blocks just as they’re coming to the close of a project. They can’t figure out the ending of their novel. They can’t get themselves to do a needed rewrite of a story or poem. If that happens to you, it may be because completing your project will force you to evaluate it as a finished work—and let it be evaluated by others.
As long as your project is a work-in-progress, it’s all right if it isn’t perfect. No one’s going to see it unless you want them to—and then it’s with the stipulation that it’s “just a draft.” Once the work is completed, it is what it is, warts and all. Completion forces you to admit that this is it: The best job you can do.
What to do: Once you identify this as the problem, the block usually takes care of itself. Accept the fact that no work is ever perfect. And repeatedly remind yourself that, if you don’t get the work out there, it won’t matter whether its brilliant or not.
5. You have an ineffective writing process.
According to Hjortshoj, writing blocks often result from misconceptions or “mismappings” of the writing process itself. Going from the glimmer of an idea to a complete and polished product is an immensely complex task. It is also a learned skill--one that can be studied and improved upon. If you have a mistaken idea of how writers write, or if you have a process that doesn’t work for you, you may find yourself blocked. For example, if you believe you should start with the first sentence of a work and keep writing until “The End,” or if you think each sentence should be perfect before you write the next one, you will almost certainly find yourself unable to complete your work. These are common beginners’ misconceptions about writing, but there are dozens more--and even veteran writers can find themselves with a process that just isn’t effective any longer.
What to do: First, become aware of your process. Take note of what are you actually doing, step by step, as you write. Next, pay attention to whether there’s a particular step at which the block is occurring. This will give you insight into specific problems with your process.
Finally, be willing to change what you’re doing. It’s amazing how difficult this is for some writers: We can become so comfortable with our way of writing that we cling to it even when it's failing us. To get out of the block, you must be willing to try something different. There are thousands of teachers, classes, coaches, books, blogs, and articles ready to offer you help. And sometimes trial-and-error can be enough to help guide you to an effective writing process.
Blocks are painful and discouraging. More than one talented writer has fallen by the wayside because of them. But, rather than trying to break through them or find a way around them, we can try studying them. They have much to tell us about our writing, if we’re willing to listen.
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