Writer’s Block and What Causes It

This entry is part 1 of the series Writer's Block
Writer's Block: Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo   Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you believe in Writer’s Block?

Famous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway have all admitted they’ve struggled with writer’s block. They obviously found a way to deal with it, or we wouldn’t have the books they are famous for.

Other writers say there is no such thing. I did a Google Search on “Famous writers on no such thing as writers block” and found pages and pages of articles.

Writer’s block is just another name for fear.” ― Jacob Nordby, author of many self-help books.

I was never sure what I believed as it was not a problem for me. I think I bought into the idea that “Writers write” and the cure to “Writer’s Block” was to sit down and write! I have often made comments like, “If you’re a nurse, you don’t just decide one day you’re not going to look after patients for a few days. You may not feel like nursing. But you’re paid to nurse, and so you nurse! If you’re a secretary, even if you don’t feel like taking minutes, if that’s part of your job you have no option. You take minutes. If you are a . . .  You get the picture!

So if you claim to be a writer, you must write. If you are busy on a project, you keep working on it, whether you feel like it or not. And very often the result is every bit as good as it would have been if you had felt like it. That was my thinking.

Until the last couple of months.

A change of thinking

Two months ago, I had scheduled surgery for a total knee replacement. (a.k.a. TKR) All went well. It’s an extremely painful procedure, but my orthopaedic surgeon was more than happy with my mobility, and I was on the road to recovery. The week after surgery, I managed to do an urgent writing task for an editor in the U.K., and I was anticipating a return to my Work in Progress (WIP) in the near future.

Then suddenly, I became very ill. I’ll spare you the details, but I ended up being rushed to hospital on a Saturday afternoon to have my gallbladder removed. Another three days in hospital and another pile of drugs landed in my already-overworked system.

The surgeon appears to have removed my creativity at the same time. I discovered I didn’t like my WIP (which was almost finished). I knew no one would want to read it. I couldn’t think of anything else to write. My websites (both of them) sat in cyber-space mocking me. I was devoid of any inspiration. What could I write?

After a week or two of struggle, I realised the horrid truth.

Writer's block was for real, and I had it! Click To Tweet The double anaesthetic, together with all the drugs, seems to have caused mine. But as I researched, I discovered there are many different causes and just as many suggested cures.

Never one to avoid problems, I decided the best option was for me to work through the causes of writer’s block and write about it. That way we can all learn together. (Sounds like something the Muppets would sing!)

The problem of writer’s block was first documented by a psychoanalyst and writer named Edmund Bergler in 1947. It was thoroughly researched during the 1970s and 1980s.

What are the symptoms of writer’s block?

Writer’s block has many symptoms of which the following are just a few:

  • Frustration: which in turn causes stress.
  • Brain Fog. The challenge is to find what is causing this.
  • Mental Shut-down: You may have no ideas on what to write, or you may start and then go blank.
  • A.D.H.D.: Your mind shoots all over and won’t stay on the article you’re trying to write. Once you learn to focus, your writing is likely to come back into gear.
  • Lack of ideas: If you lack inspiration for what you’re writing, you may have to actively seek ways to get re-inspired before you continue.
  • Too many ideas: Each time you start working on one, you decide another one is better. You need to choose one and stick with it. Perhaps instead of being a book it can turn into a short story or article. But work at it until you’re finished.
  • Too little time: This is one of the most common reasons people don’t write. They believe in order to write they need the perfect office and a large chunk of time.  Many famous writers wrote their first books in evenings or in snatched minutes. Decide on a time you can squeeze in 20 minutes each day. You can do this! By the end of the year you will have written 72,300 words, a good-length novel.
  • Stress: This goes hand in hand with #1 on this list. You may be stressed because you aren't writing. Or you may be not writing because of stress caused by another factor. Click To Tweet Dealing with the stress will remove the writer’s block.

Causes of writer’s block and some suggestions

David Taylor, in Writing World has this to say.  

[Writer’s block] is like “dyslexia” and “backache” – terms so general as to be almost useless when it comes to trying to help someone. . . . Here’s what I do believe: The persistent inability to begin or finish writing projects has at least four origins, all of which are remediable. 

Okay, so maybe it’s a general term, but it’s real. (So is dyslexia and backache!) Whatever we want to call it, let’s take a look at some of its causes. We’ll look at David’s suggestions first.

  • You may not be ready to write. You don’t know what to write. David suggests that’s like someone wanting to make a chair when he doesn’t know what it looks like. If this is you, try getting a pen or sitting at your computer with a new Word document and free write. Write about the topic you have in mind. Vent about the people or experience you think caused your block. Add why you don’t think it’ll work.Then argue with yourself. What do you think would be good about this topic? See which side wins. At the end of the exercise you may be ready to get back to your writing.
  • You may be afraid to write. Perhaps you’ve had a previous bad experience, tough critique, many rejections. Or perhaps you have had a success, and you are scared you won’t be able to do it again. Think about this:
    • If you had a success in the past, who wrote it?
    • You can’t have run out of words.
    • Your previous success didn’t arrive by magic. You had to work hard at it.
    • You probably had times of self-doubt when you were writing.
      You need to sit down and write. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s any good. Finish it, then let it stand for a week or two before you take another look at it. 
  • You may over-think your project. Do you try to express it correctly the first time through? Do you have your internal editor running alongside your creative draft writer? That doesn’t work. By all means, read through what you’ve written to bring you up to date, but don’t stop to critique it and decide it’s no good, and don’t edit it. Keep writing!
  • You may spend too much time on the first paragraph. We all know the first paragraph is important, but it’s possible to spend far too much time on it, only to discover the story or article should start at a later point. Remember the old days? You had to literally cut and paste the work you printed out, then retype it. Thanks to computers, once you’re ready to edit, it’s a simple matter to move paragraphs around. Don’t even try to get it right the first draft.

Next post we will take a look at some advice from famous authors who have successfully conquered the malady known as writer’s block. How about you? Do you believe there is such a thing? Why, or why not? How do you avoid it or deal with it? Leave your suggestions in the comments below. I’d love to learn from you.

Next in the series: 12 Ways to Deal with Writer’s Block.

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18 comments on “Writer’s Block and What Causes It

  1. Thanks for a great post, Shirley. I’ve never really struggled with WB until now … in the middle of the manuscript and trying to push through to the end. But, after facing the brick wall (and tackling other things, ignoring the wall), I’ve come up with some ideas so I’m hopeful that I can break through and get this end done.

    • Thanks for the visit Marion. I must admit with the wealth of ideas you come up with, and the amount of published books you have produced over the past of year, I would NEVER have associated you with writer’s block. LOL! Just goes to show. I’m sure you’ll soon be back on track. Your mind is so creative.

  2. This was an encouraging post, Shirl. I’m trying to start a new project and am finding it hard just to stop and write with everything that’s been going on this year. But you’re correct. Writers write. And that’s exactly what I need to do. 🙂

    • Sometimes it’s not that easy though, is it? After all you’ve been through Lisa, I’m not surprised you’re finding it difficult. Thanks for your visit and comment, and all the best for your next project.

  3. You have had a tough time but judging by the way you have written in this post you are well on the way to overcoming your writers block.

    I find it difficult to start writing, but once started can carry on.

    Wishing you all the best

  4. I find that sometimes if I just start writing without thinking about it – just the mundane things, for about five minutes to get things flowing. I find that helps!

  5. This is a great post, Shirley. I just finished a book with all kinds of advice and wisdom from writers and one section was devoted to writer’s block. There are as many opinions about that as there are writers to offer one. I think (for me at least) it’s a very real thing for many reasons, depending on day and circumstance. Several (OK nearly all) of the ones you have listed are ones I’ve experienced, at least to some degree. Right now I’m stuck in “too many ideas” (not a bad thing, right?) and find I’m starting and working on many pieces, but not getting much to the point of finished. I just keep plugging along, though. I’m excited to have so many in my head right now!
    Sometimes writing through it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Probably the best thing any writer can do is work through it in the best way for them.
    Love this – saving, sharing, coming back to read again!

    • Thanks so much for the visit, Lisa. Yes, there’s a lot said about this topic. I usually have plenty ideas but for the past weeks there has been this awful pit every time I tried to get moving. When I ventured to write A POST on writer’s block I soon realised this needed to be a series. YAY! So now I have the next few posts planned out. Yes, I love this FB page.

  6. Been there, done that! I can attest that every word you’ve written here is true. At the moment, my WIP is languishing simply because I’m overwhelmed with real life at the moment. Nothing drastic, just a lot of little niggles.

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