Recently, I found myself in tears on the kitchen floor. I thought I couldn’t write. Every word I’d typed over the past several weeks had been sterile and lifeless. I wanted to quit. I wanted to walk straight to my boss’s desk, reveal myself as a fraud, and hide in my parents’ attic.
However, I tend to emotionally overreact to bad situations. And I thought maybe, just maaayybbee, this was one of those times.
As I wiped my dripping nose on my boyfriend’s sleeve, I asked myself some questions:
Had I ever written well before? Yes. Yes, I absolutely had. Many times, in fact. I was a writer. That had not changed. So why couldn’t I write anything good now? I’ll be honest with you. I’ve never really believed in “writer’s block.” Maybe I’m weird, but brute force usually gets me through my dry spells. Don’t want to write today? Too bad, I will anyway.
However, my recent Kitchen Pity Party threw me for a loop. For once, “just write” wasn’t enough.
While your experience may have (hopefully) been less dramatic, anyone who writes has to deal with writer’s block. Why? What causes it? And does it have a cure?
What is Writer’s Block?
Writer’s block—true writer’s block—isn’t an airborne virus you just catch. I think writer’s block is more like depression. It’s most often caused by problems and imbalances in your day-to-day life.
In my estimation, your ability to write is directly related to your own well being.
So in the interest of being well, let’s take a look at the fundamental issues that might be causing writer’s block in the first place.
Here are five areas you’ll need to cultivate if you want to be healthy writer (or person, for that matter):
- Your body
- Your mind
- Your vision
- Your discipline
- Your courage
To keep things simple, I want to focus on understanding each of these areas and how they can affect your writing.
This blog post is not “the way” to overcome writer’s block. My goal isn’t to cure you. My goal is to get you thinking about your situation so you can find the answers you need to cure yourself. If you want to get better, you’re gonna have to put in some effort.
First and foremost: your brain is a muscle, and it works like one.
Would you run 10 miles on an empty stomach? Of course not. And you shouldn’t start a writing marathon on one either. Your body (i.e. your brain) needs energy to function at peak capacity.
How do you gain physical energy? Eat. Sleep. (Two of my very favorite things.) Any effort to subvert these biological needs is a waste of time.
I know this sounds like the most basic advice I could give, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t understand why they don’t have energy, only to admit with their next breath that they stay up until 3am for [INSERT REASON] and only eat 1 meal a day.
For some reason we Americans glorify hurting ourselves. Be it competing with your classmates in a “who got less sleep” contest, crash dieting for swimsuit season, or chugging copious amounts of coffee to make it through biology… unhealthy habits are often the main culprit of apathy.
Eat. Sleep. It’s not rocket science.
Note: this is a broad topic than can (and does) fill thousands of blog posts across the internet, because it’s so. Dang. Hard. While caring for your specific needs will likely take hours of research, months of trial and error, and a lifetime of “getting back on track,” I can promise you it will be worth every ounce of effort you put into it.
Ideas for helping your body:
- Work to identify your physical needs and come up with new ideas for meeting them. Keep trying new ideas until you find something that sticks.
- Pre-prep healthy snacks to nibble on through the day.
- Set a bedtime (and stick to it).
- Get up at the same time every morning to help your body develop a sleep rhythm.
Your mind works much like your body. It needs energy to function properly. If you’re not surrounding yourself with experiences and ideas that inspire you, you’ll have no interest in writing anything, much less that 5-page report on The Great Gatsby.
There’s a concept we creatives call “filling the well.” The idea is that you have to get inspired before you have the capacity to create.
The easiest, most common advice given to all writers who need to “fill the well” is to read other writers you admire. But “read more” isn’t a complete answer for everyone.
Take me for example: I’m an extravert. That means I tend to gain energy from things outside of myself. People, new experiences, beautiful sights, even a quick jog will all make me feel incredibly energized and excited for whatever I’m about to do. “Introverted” activities, like reading and writing, are how I spend the energy I gained elsewhere.
How can I expect to have the creative energy I need to write if I’ve just spent it all by sitting still in a room by myself reading for hours on end?
This most recent bout of writer’s block inspired me to begin looking into what gives me energy and inspiration. And you can do the same thing. There are endless ideas for ways to inspire creativity. It’s important to remember that your solution will be unique to you.
Ideas for getting inspired:
- Think about what has inspired you in the past. Do that.
- Spend 15 minutes coming up with as many fun, new ideas as you can. Why are those exciting to you?
- Create something with no expectations (it doesn’t have to be written—film, paint, dance—just make something for yourself and nobody else).
- Get excited about your topic! What’s cool or fascinating about what you’re preparing to write about?
Though writing is my profession, I spend relatively few hours of my day actually typing words. That’s the easy part. But figuring out what to write in the first place? That’s the magic sauce. Pretty words can’t cover up poor research.
Remember when your mom taught you how to write an outline? Dust off those Roman numerals and use them. This is especially important for college. Preparing an outline is how you will know whether you have all the tools you need to make the grade before you write the paper. Whether you go for a full-blown outline or not, you’ll want to at least know: your objective (why you’re writing this), your audience (who will be reading it. How should you write for them?), your facts (what you’re going to say).
Ideas for finding your vision:
- Ask questions. If you’ve been assigned a topic and are coming up dry, ask the assigner for a starting point.
- Begin a free-write session on your topic and see what pops out.
- Try writing the opposite of the point you want to make (think up the best counter-arguments you can).
What about those times when you’ve gotten plenty of sleep, mental stimulation, and you’ve even cultivated an amazing outline with buckets of research to draw from… but you still find yourself scrolling Facebook every 2 minutes without prompting?
That’s a discipline problem. Lack of discipline is simultaneously the easiest and hardest obstacle to overcome in your writing. It’s easy because cultivating discipline doesn’t necessarily take some innate fundamental shift of who you are. It’s hard because it means writing when you don’t want to.
If you actually want to be a productive and efficient writer, you’ve got to spend the time exercising those writerly muscles.
Ideas for cultivating your discipline:
- Write 1,000 words of anything. Do it every day (whether you feel like it or not).
- Start small. Practice writing in 20-minute chunks, take a break for 5, then get back to it. Over time, you’ll build endurance be able to increase writing time between breaks.
- Remove temptation. Close Facebook. Put your phone on airplane mode.
- Get accountable. Have someone set a deadline for you and meet their expectations by that deadline. No excuses. (This is how professionals do it.)
This is the secret admission of every writer in existence: we think we’re bad at writing. Cheats, hacks. We fear that someday someone will sniff out our lies and relieve us of our pens and keyboards! It’s universally acknowledged at this point.
Occasionally we writers can look back at our work with a glow of pride. But more often, we see comma splices and ugly metaphors. There’s only one way to deal with this particular problem: get over it. (Ouch. That didn’t feel very good, did it?)
Unfortunately, it’s just that simple.
You don’t think you’re a good writer? That may be true, it may not. Either way, the only way to prove that asserion wrong is to write. One of the most powerful things you can do as a human is act in the face of fear. So act!
Leaping over this hurdle time and time again is the only way to build courage. Over time, you will become less afraid and more confident. You’ll be able to know deep in your heart of hearts that you don’t suck. That you’re actually pretty good at this! (Even if you still need an editor. It’s okay. We all do.)
Ideas for developing your courage:
- Write a bad first draft. Good writing is actually revision, so you have permission to write the first draft poorly!
- Get feedback. Once you’ve cleaned up your first draft, ask a friend or mentor for their honest thoughts. What did they like and what can you improve?
- Edit someone else’s stuff. This will give you an entirely new perspective which will make your own writing better. (Also sometimes it just helps to know other peoples’ first drafts are just as bad as yours.)
In case you haven’t guessed the end of my story, I ended up finding my mojo again.
Picking myself off the kitchen floor, I went to Target and bought a notepad and sparkle pens. I decided to cultivate my discipline and inspiration by picking prompts off Reddit and handwriting a 3-page story every day for a week.
I also had several encouraging talks with my writer friend, my boss, and my boyfriend. They helped me work through the myriad of deeper mental and physical issues which had begun my recent downward spiral.
Your journey probably won’t look anything like mine. (And be glad—the kitchen floor is actually rather cold and hard.) Everyone is different. We have different needs requiring different solutions. And no blog can tell you exactly what your perfect solution is.
That’s why the point of this post is not to tell you how to fix your problem. The point is to help you think about where your problem stems from so you can find the right solution for you.
A former student counselor and Unbound student, Abigail is passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not dreaming with her friends, you can find her reading or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.Read more by Abigail