Writers Block Isn't Real

Remember in the Matrix where Neo goes to the Oracle and he meets the child with the spoon in the waiting room? The child says, "There is no spoon. …it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself," then precedes to bend the spoon at will with his mind. Well Neos of CC, there is no writer's block, there is only writer's avoidance.

M. A. Swaim
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Remember in the Matrix where Neo goes to the Oracle and he meets the child with the spoon in the waiting room? The child says, "There is no spoon. ...it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself," then precedes to bend the spoon at will with his mind. Well Neos of CC, there is no writer's block, there is only writer's avoidance.

Often times as writers, we can feel that no matter what we do, no matter what we try, we're blocked. Blocked off from all that amazing content in our brains that we know is stuck in there. Yet, no matter how much we want to get these great ideas out onto a page, we don't. We tell ourselves that it's not our fault. The words just won't come like they used to. It's an off day, week, month, or even year. The truth, while not always an easy thing to accept, is simple. It's us.

The truth is, writer's avoidance is real and only we have the power to fix it.

But what is writer's avoidance?

Writer's avoidance is whenwe don't write because we don't want to experience the negativity that we've come to attribute to the writing process. I've had some writers tell me they stopped writing after a particularly nasty review. Others have told me they stopped because the last time they wrote it was unproductive. I've even shied away from writing on a particular story when I'd been writing it for so long and it just wasn't as fun as it had been in the beginning. All of these experiences are unpleasant. So ask yourself, have you ever done something unpleasant and then done it again? Sure, the answer is probably yes, I have a 9-5, too. But if you didn't have to, would you?

That's the thing about writing, especially when many of us are not fulltime authors. We don't have to come back to the work. It's only if we want to. It's a labor of love, as they say.

So what are some practical ways we can overcome avoidance?

The first step is realizing that this is a mental issue and so it must be overcome mentally. Our brains are tools, but it's our job to program them right.

Time Blocking

Many writers set up a specific time that they write. I write every day between 9pm-10pm at the very least. My wife knows I'm busy during this time. I often write beside her on the couch or in our office. Even still, she knows not to ask me to do anything during that time unless it's an emergency. Having a specific time helps to train our brains that this is what we do every day from this time to that time, there is nothing else so get used to it squishy. After 30 days, the habit is formed and you'll sit down to write on auto pilot. Like when you arrive at the office and realize you don't remember driving at all.

Story Swapping

Finding yourself in your seat might not be your issue. You might find yourself sitting down only to stare at the blank screen for your entire session. This is when we need to address the reason we are avoiding. If we're bored of our current story, a great way to get out of avoiding is to write a different story. We stay writing and we learn new things so that when we go back to our main project, we're better than when we put it on hold. This can also be done in reverse when we're getting bored of the new story. Once we've been on the new story long enough, we might run into the same problem. That's okay, I have ADHD, too. I bounce between three projects when using this technique to keep the projects feeling fresh and exciting. Be careful with this technique as it can lead to story abandonment. Make sure to check back in with the other story from time to time. If the joy doesn't return after a decent break, then maybe it wasn't meant to be.

Character/Scene Swapping

I find that when I have unproductive sessions, a great writing exercise that gets us around avoiding the project is to write the same chapter from another character's perspective. Taking the spotlight off our main characters and giving it to a side character can help, not only in getting through the scene that's been trapped in our mind's eye for days or years, but it also allows us to dive deeper into our secondary characters and get to know them better. It doesn't even need to be a character that is there in the real story. The main character is being harassed by an old lady but we just couldn't get the old lady to sound right? Drop our goofy sidekick in there and see how the old lady handles him instead. Or maybe drop the villain in to see her reaction. Even taking the old lady and writing her in a different scene helps. This way, we're still working on the same project, but we're tackling it from a new angle, one that hasn't left us with a bad taste in our mouths before.

The Final Hurdle

The last thing to train your brain on is the simple reality that no matter what our job is, the work will always push back at some point. This is natural. This is our brain saying, "I'm bored. I want something different." But we know better. We know we want to write. This is where our passion lies. This is where we want to be. Our brains are like five-year-olds, they don't know. They just think they know. "I want to be an astronaut." Yea? Well that's not happening, pal. I'm thirty and barely passed high school math, nobody's sending me to space. Accepting the reality that the work is going to feel like work sometimes is just another step in the amazing journey that we decided we wanted to take. Don't shy away from it. It means that you're doing it! You're on your way to becoming an author.

 

Happy Writing-

M. A. Swaim

19+ Comments

Botanist

I wrote a booklet about writers block a few years back. You’ve hit on a number of good points here, and some techniques to get past that “staring at a blank screen” feeling.

When I find myself stuck, I’ve had a lot of success looking for blind spots in my understanding of the story. Can I describe the scene in front of me? Do I know who’s present and what they are doing? Do I understand why they’re here and what they want? Do I know how this scene ties in to the story around it? I like your categorization of avoidance, and I believe the “blank screen” feeling is usually my subconscious avoiding putting words down because there’s something vital missing.

Aug-10 at 03:14

Leglessme

Two of my favorite authors got writers block. I don’t understand how people can say this doesn’t exist. They blew by deadlines which became years. I think there are methods that can work for some people, but nothing is a universal panacea.

Aug-10 at 06:49

Attaree

Writer’s block is real in my case. Lucky you if you’ve never had it.

Aug-10 at 07:14

Ajaker

I’ve come to be sceptical of writer’s block advice because there’s as many causes of writer’s block as there are writers. It’s all helpful advice, but it might not be the key that particular writer needs to help them. I think every person experiencing writer’s block needs to find out what’s causing it for them and then tackle it. For me, it was laziness - writing is hard. As soon as I realised that, just after finishing my first novel, that was that. No more writer’s block, and now I can write at any time (but certainly practice has also helped me get there).

The only two exceptions to this are burnout and anything involving mental health.
Don’t mess with your mental health, guys :slight_smile:

Aug-10 at 07:28

Maswaim

How so? I’ve experienced many reasons that caused me not to write. I’ve just never had the issue where, despite putting forth effort and having the will to write, I can’t seem to put words to a page (even if they might not be the best of words). I’m genuinely interested in hearing about what it’s like to experience writer’s block that isn’t writer’s avoidance.

Aug-10 at 14:10

Maswaim

So my question about these authors would be; was their imagination blocked to where they couldn’t think of what to write, or was there some other issue that cause them to avoid engaging in their writing? I whole-heartily agree that some methods work for some while not for others, but there are other methods to work for others. I’m just of the belief that there is no mystical problem called Writer’s Block, but there are other issues that writers experience that keep them from writing. Rather than throw up the defense that we have writer’s block, it’s more helpful to look at what is causing us to stall out in our writing, and address that issue to get past our problem. The first step is admitting we have a problem while claiming writer’s block is a denial that the issue is something that we have control over.
I hope that helps clarify my view on writer’s block. Let me know what you think.

Aug-10 at 14:25

Leglessme

I wasn’t personally acquainted with the two authors, so their exact situations were never known to me. I just know they were churning out books until suddenly they weren’t anymore.

I know many people who advocate working through “writer’s block” yet they do not tell people “It’s not real” either. I suppose I’m not objecting to saying “look for the cause” as that’s always a good step to solve any and all problems.

It’s the statement that it’s not real that bothers me.

I’m old enough to remember a time when people with excruciating back pain were assessed by medical experts and told the pain is “all in their head.” The doctors couldn’t find the cause as the back actually isn’t an area where injury is easy to see. Injuries can be very small, hard to catch. So, these sufferers, in the main, were given a blanket statement by the experts–their pain didn’t really exist. Ditto with depression, as well.

The psychology branch of medicine has been working for decades to see what writer’s block is and how it can be combated. Psychology Today posted an article that’s very saavy and helpful, suggesting it’s a treatable condition. In no way shape or form does this expert using other experts’ research tell writers “it isn’t real.” Oddly enough, here is an interesting article mentioning a medical treatment for anxiety/depression sufferers for whom pills do no work. It’s a magnetic stimulation of the brain and has also been used by the military to help G.I.s be more aware in battle situations, as well as to treat Traumatic Brain Injury. It’s also being studied as a cure for writer’s block based on the experience of a award winning writer who had the treatment and mentioned it during a public talk. He said that after the treatment he wrote three novels in a six month period. He also said he’d never done that before. That article is here. What I feel it suggests is, like we now know about back pain and depression/anxiety, as well as TBI, that writer’s block is in fact real and there’s a cause for it in our brains. It is a condition, not writing avoidance, unless left untreated.

Aug-10 at 16:10

Maswaim

I think see what you’re saying. Denial of an issue is not the right answer. My opinion that writer’s block is not real is invalidating those who are experiencing difficulty in getting their thoughts onto a page. That’s fair, and you’re right. Denial of an issue is unhealthy.

Let me try to clarify, and I’ll use the articles that you linked. They were interesting reads that I think are very helpful. Let me also just add that I am not trying to be combative. I love that we are having this discussion, and that I hope it helps people with their struggles in writing.
In the first article linked, they list four things that cause the block, Fear of Failure, Rejection and Success and then plain lack of motivation. Those are all specific issues which are very real. What’s happening is that to hide that fear of failure, a person put’s up something less scary, or less difficult to admit; Writer’s Block. ‘It’s not a big deal, I’ll get over it soon enough, I just have writers block. I’m not scared that if I finish writing I’ll be rejected or that people won’t be interested in my work, I just can’t write because I’m blocked.’ That’s why I’m saying it’s not real. It’s a catch-all statement that hides the real issue. If a person has anxiety or depression, those sound like much more serious issues than simple writer’s block, and that can be scary to try to tackle. Imagine if I had two broken hands and I claimed writers block. That would be ridiculous. My hands don’t work, I can’t write. It’s when we get into mental issues that we use the catch-all of writer’s block to hide behind.
The same thing happens in the second article. In that article there’s another link to the story behind the treatment. In that they say, “A lot of things can block you. People are most often blocked by negative criticism. […] Some writers get anxious. They set unrealistic deadlines for themselves, or they feel undue pressure with their work. And those worries block the creative process.” Those are the real issues, the fear of criticism, the pressure of the work. One of the people who went through the treatment stated, “Forrest was able to direct me to the exact issue[…] The next day my mind came up with more answers as to what was blocking me.” He had an underlying issue, as he called it, an “exact issue.” He wasn’t just blocked by nothing.
Writer’s block isn’t a medical condition on it’s own, it’s the symptom of a condition. Fear, anxiety, stress, depression.

What my post saying that there is no writers block is meant to get at is, writers block is the safe, easy to face excuse for not writing. There are real reasons a person can’t write and those are the issues that need to be addressed, but the first step in doing so is to face the fact that something real is in the way, not a nebulous excuse of writer’s block.

Aug-10 at 19:30

Leglessme

This goes for myself as well. My husband, brother, stepdaughter, father-in-law, two best friends all struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD and various forms of panic attacks. I’ve seen how hurtful it has been when people say, “Just cheer up!” or something similar. It actually is something they cannot help unless treated. Which leads me to this other statement.

All of those are contributing factors to not being able to do a lot of things. They are real in the sense they are psychologically impactful. Some people cannot even get a job, or clean the house, or take care of themselves due to those factors listed. Yes, it is not a medical condition on it’s own. However, I think what you might have said is that Writer’s Block, while real in many cases, also is a victim’s cry of “I can’t do it! I’m broken!” which becomes the crutch/excuse that’s easy instead of rooting out the issues underlying the problem. I suggest that, if you’d stated it as this distinction, you would have allow those who read your article to feel validated in what they feel is Writer’s Block, also taking hope that there’s something they can try to get out of it.

Aug-10 at 19:46

Attaree

According to you, you’ve never had writer’s block. Therefore, based on never having had it, you’ve decided there’s no such thing. Let me see if I can describe how it feels, not entirely but a glimpse of the issue. I want to be clear this is not how the experience works; this is how the experience feels:

Imagine you’re a hummingbird caught inside a Mason jar. You’d desperately like to leave the jar. No nourishment, no hydration, limited oxygen. But guess what. There’s a block.

Aug-11 at 03:35

Botanist

I view writers block not as the malady but as a symptom. Just like a high temperature can be a symptom of many different illnesses, you need to diagnose the illness in order to treat it. I believe it’s the same with writers block.

Ajaker is right to say there are many different causes. I also wouldn’t try to say it’s not real. The symptom is very real. My position is that if you can figure out the cause then it is usually treatable.

Aug-11 at 04:18

Alhambra

Since I don’t have enough writing experience but have a lot of experience with motivating others to do their job, I’d address the issue on a more general level of the loss of motivation.
I’ve seen way too many cases where talented and capable people lost the ability to perform adequately. I’m talking about paid jobs that they needed in order to provide for their families. They were procrastinating beyond deadlines or not able to start a project etc.
Loss of motivation is very difficult to deal with. Usually, it’s caused by burnout or by other commitments that are more important / interesting at the moment, insecurities, feeling their skills are no longer relevant. Depression, middle-age crisis too.

Surely, there are parallels to writing.

Aug-11 at 11:46

Shanima

But this is precisely the problem with the term “writer’s block”. It implies that it’s a phenomenon only experienced by writers (and therefore non-writers would not understand it). All creatives and people of all professions struggle with their work from time to time.

If it is burnout, fear, depression etc., call it for what it actually is instead of using a scapegoat.

Aug-11 at 12:18

Maswaim

Thank you for sharing that, I see what you’re saying there. That’s an excellent metaphor. That would feel like a horribly helpless situation.

In your metaphor, the writer is the bird and living free outside of the jar is writing. But what is the jar? Is the jar fear? Is it stress? Anxiety? Perfectionism? Depression? There is something blocking us, but it’s not ‘Writer’s Block,’ it’s something real and manageable. It can feel like being trapped in a jar with no way out, that’s extremely true. And we may not be able to open the jar on our own, we might need a friend or a professional to come loosen the lid. But it is up to us to ask for help, to recognize what the jar is, and to push the lid off. If we sit in the jar and say that there’s no way out, we’ll wither and die.
That’s our dream of completing a book/becoming a novelist dying in there. We need to do everything we can to get out of the jar, but when we imagine that the jar is just something that happens from time to time, I’m flying around and then suddenly I’m locked in a jar with no way out and there’s nothing to be done, we are slowly killing our dream. Each time we’re stuck in this impossible situation, we build these mental blocks that say, ‘Writing isn’t fun. I get stuck and it feels terrible.’ Eventually, we quit. By dropping the idea that writer’s block is to blame, we unshackle ourselves from the helplessness. And by identifying what the jar truly is, we can start the process of getting out.

I say writer’s block isn’t real, because it’s just a mask for some other issue that’s causing us to stop forward progression. Hiding behind it is a coping mechanism so we don’t have to face the larger root issue, whatever it may be.
I hope that helps clarify my view point on that.

Aug-11 at 15:08

Leglessme

Um–I’m glad you aren’t in the same room as my hubby.

Remember where you said it’s unhealthy to invalidate people’s experiences? Here, allow me to quote:

Now, I’m not so sure what you’re saying. Or that I believe you. What you’re saying is “this isn’t real” when it would be better said, “it is real, but can become a crutch if the root cause is not addressed. XYZ can be a start in addressing the underlying issues.” Why can’t you say this? Is there some reason you admit to me saying writer’s block is not real is invalidating those who are experiencing “difficulty getting their thoughts onto a page,” then tell me I’m right, yet, you continue throughout this thread to tell people “writer’s block is not real”? This makes your statement that you are invalidating those sufferer’s experience meaningless and, frankly, tears them down instead of building them up to get the help they might need. Right now, in my eyes, you are every bit as bad as the people who say to men suffering from clinical depression, “Just cheer up. Be a man!” Men with depression are committing suicide in record numbers. Is this healthy to invalidate them? If so, it’s unhealthy to invalidate anyone with writer’s block.

You owe people an apology.

Aug-12 at 06:25

Attaree

I’m not hiding behind writer’s block, which in my case is real. I’m not totally blocked, but my production is not what I’d like for it to be, and what I’m producing is not typical. The way I understand this, once I recognize my underlying issues, I should be able to analyze those issues and thus eradicate my symptom.

Let’s have some fun. I’ll tell you what I THINK my issues are, and those of you who say there is no writer’s block can tell me how to fix the issues.

I believe these are my issues:

Covid, followed by Long Covid, including a heart attack. Extensive brain fog, with some improvement after vaccination. Fatigue, weakness. Low stamina.

Recent loss of family members to accidental death in separate events. No condolences, please.

Loss of work during the pandemic. Really miss my job, but getting back on the road is too risky. I’m in the most vulnerable group, over 80. No financial issues.

Serious insomnia, which leaves me perpetually dazed.

I am reclusive and have a lifelong fear of success.

I dread publishing, either traditionally (hate the idea of losing control) or Indie (hate the idea of having to learn the system.) See no desirable choice.

What I understand is that now that I’ve identified my underlying issues (and I believe that I have) I should be able to address these issues and put them to rest, thereby eradicating my symptom, which I call writer’s block. I’m open to all practical suggestions.

Aug-12 at 08:01

Glitterpen

I hope you don’t mind me chiming in. Have you found any fun activities to replace it? Maybe yoga on Zoom? Or just pleasure reading? I’d take it easy and let the body rest. It sounds like you’ve been through hell.

I know you’re not published, but your writing is so good that I always considered you a success (I’d love to have half your writing skills). I read that success could trigger similar feelings of any trauma that you might have gone through. I’m not not sure how that’s treated…I don’t know much about the phobia.

I could see your work being picked up by someone like Penguin. Instead of thinking of the loss of control, maybe focus on what working with other really good people can do for you. If you focus on doing what’s best for the book, the fear of success for yourself might diminish. Make it all about the book.

Aug-12 at 08:55

Maswaim

I’m very glad to see that you’ve taken a serious look at yourself and identified the issues that are holding you back.

According to what you listed, it sounds like you have fear, depression and brain fog. These are serious issues that people of CC are probably only going to be able to tackle your fear issue. Depression needs professional help. Brain fog also requires professional help, if there even is any, I’m not even sure if there’s treatment or medication for that. I have no idea, ask your doctor about that. So I’m not going to sit here and tell you what I think you could do for your depression or brain fog. I’ve never had brain fog, and depression requires that we get to the root issues, which would not be something I’m able to do.

Fear, however, is something I can speak on. Fear is a natural response but it’s only meant to be a warning. We associate fear with negative responses, which is understandable. When we’re afraid we often make poor, rash decisions in situations that have high risk/high reward, and we end up getting hurt one way or another, and that reinforces the idea that fear means we’re in for a bad experience. The old quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt of ‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself’ changed my perspective on dealing with fear from a young age. Another quote that I really identified with came from a terrible movie. It said, ‘Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice.’ It’s the end that I really agree with. Fear is a choice. When we’re in the fear, clouded by the emotion, it’s very easy to let that fear dictate our actions and hide the our avenues of choices. When we’re able to step back and move outside of the fear, we’re able to make choices that may not have been clearly available while we were in the fear, feeling it.
I also have the fear of losing control over my work. And while that might hold me back from traditional publishing (I’ll cross that bridge when I reach it) it doesn’t stop me from writing. I have multiple books planned and framed out. If I let the fear of publishing get to me, that doesn’t mean I can’t have those 12 book fully done on my computer. I can still choose to write. I’ve also kept writing even when I had fear about the ending of a book. At the end of one of my stories, I grew worried about how it was going to be received by readers so while I held off on the ending, I still wrote other chapters of that story. I went back over written chapters and did edits while I worked out the issue of my fear about the ending.
Fear can be a real hindrance, but it’s manageable. Even if we don’t overcome the fear, if we step back and look at the issue, we can compartmentalize that issue, put it to the side and deal with it later while we continue to proceed with other parts of the writing process.

I hope this helps some. Best of luck in your writing.

Aug-12 at 14:25

Maswaim

That is not what I’m saying at all.
There is no writer’s block, there is clinical depression. There is no writer’s block, there is fear of success. There is no writer’s block, there is the choice to avoid. Writer’s block is used by writers as a crutch to hide their true issue. That is miles away from saying ‘Just cheer up. Be a man.’ I’m not telling people their problems are not real, I’m saying that the diagnosis of Writer’s block isn’t real. If anything is close to ‘Just cheer up. Be a man,’ it’s ‘Don’t worry, you just have Writer’s Block,’ because supporting the belief that writer’s block is a real diagnosis of the issue, that is a failure to truly address the issue.
Last time you had writer’s block, did you go to the doctor for it? Did they write in your medical sheet that you were suffering from writer’s block? No. No doctor has diagnosed a patient with writer’s block, they drill down and they find out what causes the writer to avoid sitting down and writing.

If it helps anyone to tackle the issue by saying writer’s block is a symptom of a deeper issue and therefor it is real but they understand that the only way to address the symptom is by dealing with the true issue, that’s fine. Whatever helps people deal with their issue. It helped me to disregard the cliched idea that as a writer, I’m prone to some strange block that could strike at any time, so I say writer’s block isn’t real. If someone comes to me and says I have writer’s block because I’m suffering from depression, I say, no, you have depression, talk to a doctor. If someone says they have writer’s block because they XYZ, I say, no, you have XYZ, talk to you doctor/family/help group. I skip the step of blaming writer’s block because I see it as a waste of time and energy. My opinion of saying there’s a deeper issue so just skip writer’s block is not a dangerous opinion like disregarding men’s mental health. The reason it’s not the same is because I’m not saying, ‘Writer’s Block isn’t real, get over it.’ I’m saying, ‘Writer’s Block isn’t real, it’s something else and much worse and much more serious that you need to address, so get on it.’

The comment that you’re glad I’m not in the same room as your hubby was extremely aggressive and not appreciated. You might not agree with what I’m saying, and that’s more than fine, but that kind of veiled aggression shuts down conversation/debate.

Aug-12 at 15:07
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