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Do you believe in writer’s block?

I was on a writer’s panel last week, with authors from a mix of genres. Children’s books. Memoirs. Poetry. Romance. One of the questions the moderator asked was: Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how do you get past it?

After the votes were counted, we had three who believed and four who didn’t. But two interesting things happened in the seven answers.

  • We all explained how we got past writer’s block.
  • Those who didn’t believe were more emphatic about stating their opinion as fact.

Getting past writer’s block. I am a believer. Writer’s block happens to me, at least as I define the term. There are times when I simply can’t write–and any artificial attempts to push past it make things worse.

What I do instead is immerse myself in stories. I read my favorite authors. Stream Netflix. Listen to podcasts or the news. Ideas start building again and punch a hole through the logjam. Sometimes, it only takes a few days. Sometimes it takes longer. After my nephew died, I stopped writing for a year, and I forgave myself for the pause. Once I was ready, stories poured out. If I’d forced the issue, I might never have written again.

All panelists had advice for what to do when writing is a struggle. Go on a walk. Take a break. Bake cookies. Crochet. Write one bad sentence. It was interesting to hear I don’t believe in writer’s block, but here’s what I do when I can’t get words on the page…

One panelist’s advice was to just put down sentences. They’ll be crap, and that’s okay. Toss them later.  That idea doesn’t work for me. In my process, really bad writing is paralyzing. It’s better for me to stop and spend the time filling my well.

Fact or opinion. By day, I’m a facilitator, assisting teams to solve wicked problems. A tenet of facilitation is that perception is truth. If people believe something is wrong, it is–and management must honor that. Perceptions can’t be willed away. They have to be addressed.

At the panel, I answered the question by sharing my ideas for getting past the block. The next author scoffed. Writer’s block does not exist. Just keep on writing. 

Soap box on. America is on the strangest tangent right now–the one that says “If I’m right, you’re wrong.” No, no, no. I can like broccoli, and you can hate it, and both are true. It should be possible for people to reach completely opposite opinions without labeling the other person wrong. 
Soap box off.

The moderator of the panel worded the question well. “Do you believe in writer’s block?” I can believe it does, and you can believe it doesn’t–and because we have different writing journeys, we can both be right.

Do you have advice for people who are struggling to get words down on the page?
If you believe in writer’s block, how do you break the logjam?

 

Whisper Falls coverElizabeth Langston writes young adult fiction. Whisper Falls, book 1 in the Whisper Falls series, is free through December. Also writing as Julia Day, her most recent release is Fade to Us, a sweet YA contemporary with an autistic main character. Elizabeth believes in writer’s block but is happy to say she’s not experiencing it now!

17 responses to “Do you believe in writer’s block?”

  1. Jennifer Bray-Weber says:

    Great topic! And yes, it really is all about perception. Not everything is black and white, right or wrong. For me, writer’s block isn’t about just sitting down and not being able to write. If the words are not coming to me, it’s because of an outside element, not because I don’t know what comes next, or if the characters aren’t behaving, or a plot hiccup. Instead, it could be something going on with the kids, stress from a job, a family illness, and the like. If I am overloaded, over-worried, overstressed, it can very well slow my production.

    I have to take care of me first. Sometimes that means addressing whatever issue has me preoccupied. Beyond that, I go for a walk or jog. Maybe unclutter a space. But I find doing something ELSE creative helps, as well. A bit of scrapbooking, making Christmas ornaments to give, creating a new flower arrangement, making a new digital ad, coloring or drawing, the list goes on.

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    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Yes, exactly!

      Maybe the divide is over how we define the term. Writing is my side-job. It has to take a backseat a lot of things in my life. And when those things require attention or distract me or demand the concentration and creativity I need, writing has to give. I’ll get back to it, in my own time. When the well is filled again.

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    • I’m with you, Jen. If the words aren’t flowing then there’s something else happening in life and it bleeds over to my writing.

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  2. Tamara Hogan says:

    Thanks for this important post, Beth. For me, when writing isn’t going well, it means other things going on in my life are probably a little off-kilter, too.

    I find it helpful to think about this using a computer and web browser analogy. When writing is difficult, it’s usually because I have too many mental browser tabs open simultaneously, too many things competing for my time and attention. When my CPU is pegged, it’s difficult to think at ALL, much less think CREATIVELY. It’s difficult for creativity to feel like priority when all those other browser tabs are open, running unexamined, and gobbling up more than their share of the resources.

    Every day, we’re all performing a balancing act, with families, with jobs, with finances, with self-care. Most of us run at 100% capacity as a matter of habit, and it doesn’t take opening too many unexpected browser tabs to slow things down, or bring the whole thing crashing to a halt.

    One doesn’t have to hang out on “Writer Twitter” very long to realize that a lot of us have found the last few years extremely challenging, with the cultural and political climate sometimes making each day feel like a fight for survival. #MeToo, while an essential and overdue reckoning, has resulted in some of us with assault or abuse in our backgrounds feeling triggered on an almost daily basis, bringing anxiety, depression, and PTSD roaring back with a vengeance.

    This is survival stuff; our brains give these browser tabs priority. In this situation, it makes complete sense to me that I might need to put writing on the back burner while I take care of other things. That doesn’t mean I won’t beat myself up about not working on my WIP. I’m working on that. 🙂

    So, I see writer’s block as being less about writing, and more about mindspace, capacity, and mental health. If I’m having trouble writing, I see it as a sign that I need to examine those open browser tabs, shut some stuff down, and free up space for creativity to flourish again.

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    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Thanks, Tamara. You’ve captured what I wanted to say. Writer’s block might be better called “Life Block”. It’s the rest of my life overwhelming me–and something has to give.

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  3. I definitely have periods when the words don’t flow and it’s usually because of something else going on in life. I like to step back during those times.

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  4. Darynda says:

    What a fantastic post! I was just on a panel and the exact same question was asked. It was also fairly evenly split. I think it’s our own definition of what, exactly, writer’s block is.

    I believe true writer’s block stems from what is going on in our personal lives. Family trauma can stop a writer in her tracks and I don’t care who does or doesn’t believe in it.

    I am fortunate enough to have never experienced what I consider true writer’s block. But when I am blocked, I know that something has gone wrong with my story. I have to step back and think about it. Or even take a walk. Or a shower.

    This is such a great post!!!

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    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Thanks, Darynda.
      I’ve had the same kind of thing where I get blocked and it’s because I’m sensing something wrong with the story. Immersing myself in someone else’s story works for me. Or walking. I have this “magic loop” around my neighborhood that can break the spell.

      So, yeah, it may just be that our definitions are different. And if we could agree on it, we’d see that we were closer to the same answer than we thought.

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  5. Patty says:

    When I can’t write I go back a chapter or two to get inspired. And when that doesn’t work I start at the beginning and edit. That always helps me. Great post.

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    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Thank you. I’ll have to remember the idea about editing. I actually love editing (way more than the first draft.) That could give me something ‘writing’ to do.

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  6. This is such an interesting post, Beth. It makes me wonder how each person would define writer’s block. I don’t believe in it – as I define it. Because the way I think of it is as an excuse to give up – an external force we can’t control that stops us from writing. Not my fault, I had writer’s block. But I also don’t believe in muses because I don’t believe in external forces that enable us to write either. It’s always about knowing myself and knowing my process.

    When I’m stuck, sometimes it’s about something that went wrong in my book that I need to find and fix. Sometimes it’s about creative fatigue (especially if I pushed too hard for several days prior). Sometimes it’s low confidence in my writing (and then I need to just push through). And sometimes it’s about other things going on in my life that are draining my mental energy and leaving none left over for other things.

    But I think of it as ME being STUCK and never as the external force of writer’s block being imposed on me, if that makes any sense at all. Because I can work to fix my book and fix my mental state (even if that means taking the time to heal after something big), but if I believe I am “just blocked” then I would let that stop me. And I refuse to do that.

    Great topic, Beth.

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    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      My best metaphor for how I view it would be to say writer’s block is like a migraine. (And this is not a perfect metaphor.)

      Mine are usually a reaction to stress (good or bad), and that’s an internal force. But they can also be triggered by external forces: food triggers or thunderstorms. Either way, they stop me in my tracks and indicate that something is wrong. Something that needs to be addressed.

      I could power through the migraine, just continuing what I’m doing (after popping a pill or two). And sometimes that works. But most of the time it makes things worse.

      Or I could just take a day or two off. Stop everything. (Pop different pills.) And wait for my functionality to return.

      I wouldn’t wish a migraine on anyone, but I also see it as (almost) a gift. My stress is overwhelming me. I could make it worse if I don’t take care of myself. So I take a break from my daily life until I’m okay again.

      I kinda view writer’s block the same way. It’s the strong sense that something is wrong. And I choose to take a break until I know I’m ready to press on. Since I never really have deadlines, that choice is fine.

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  7. xctechs says:

    Elizabeth Langston, thanks a lot for the article post.Much thanks again. Fantastic.

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  8. Rita Henuber says:

    Thank you for this. Too many people think the definition of writers block is one specific thing. I will say I’m with you on the block coming from my writers subconscious brain telling me something isn’t right.

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    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Now that I’ve read through the responses to this post, I think that’s really what the underlying theme is. I found this definition: the condition of being unable to think how to proceed with writing. If we believe in it, then we just need to be honest with ourselves about the reasons–and how we intend to deal with it.

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