Forgive me, I can’t remember what writer I heard say this or the essay I read, but someone asked them about writer’s block and they responded, “It’s not a thing.” I scoffed. Not a thing? What do you mean not a thing? I thought about all the times I’d sat in front of my laptop for hours willing the words to come, nearly in tears from frustration, the screen just as blank as it was when I began my endeavor. Not to mention this is one of the top questions writers get asked during their Q&A following a reading (right up there with, “How much of this book is based on your real life?”). Writer’s block is totally a thing.
I became a full-time writer and realized writer’s block is definitely a figment of our imaginations. My first writing gig was writing about teeth 40 hours a week for a startup. We’d write several 700 word blog posts about essentially the same topic for different dentists everyday. And nothing would get you fired faster from this job than plagiarizing yourself. To hit my quotas for the week, I had to constantly invent new ways to say “Veneers will give you a flawless smile.” One day, I did the math. I was writing about 10,000-15,000 words per week about teeth. What if I’d been knocking that much of memoir out each week? I’d have written like a gazillion books by now! And never once did I ever go to my boss and say, “Sorry, I just can’t today. I have writer’s block.” Writer’s block wasn’t covered under our benefits package.
I took on other content writing clients, writing monthly and weekly columns for different papers and freelancing – not once did I ever encounter the kind of writer’s block that made me miss my deadline. Money was at stake. Bills needed to be paid. So, basically what I learned was a surefire way to overcome writer’s block:
For me, desperation came from my need to not to have my car repossessed or find myself without health insurance or not wanting to subsist on Cup-of-Noodles. If you’re not a working writer, another way to look at the desperation that will drive you to write is accountability. This accountability can come in the form of:
- An accountability partner – Another writer you create deadlines with to swap work.
- A writers’ workshop or course – You know you have to produce work by a certain date, if you want feedback.
- Submitting – Choosing a journal, residency or contest to submit your work to by a certain date.
I know it’s easy to say, but I believe the truth is, you will write when you want to write. When you’re ready to write. When the urge and the need become too great to handle – You will write. Until then, beating yourself up for writing or moping around, doesn’t really accomplish anything. Either you don’t have anything to say yet or you’re still in the thinking part of writing.
Here are some tips to help you figure out whether your writer’s block is really a case of the not-ready-yets or if you just need some help getting your mojo going:
- Set a timer. A dear friend bought me a 15-minute sand timer for my birthday. Whenever I don’t feel like writing, I can usually coax myself into flipping the hourglass and saying if nothing comes to me by the time the sand has trickled through to the bottom of the glass, then I can quit writing. It feels a lot less overwhelming to know that I’m justing committing to writing for a very small window of time. Usually, the words won’t come until right before the time is done, but that’s enough to get me started and I tend to keep writing once I start.
- Get out of your element. If you do most of your writing at home, try going to a coffee shop. If you usually go to a coffee shop, try the cafe at your favorite museum. Switching things up can sometimes knock loose a new idea.
- Read something crappy. I bought the memoir of a professor at a noteworthy university and I hated it. I just couldn’t believe anyone had published such a poorly written, uninteresting book. While reading it, I often thought, “I can do better than this!” And now, when I sense my writer’s block comes from the fear I can’t write so good – Generally this happens in the revision process – I pick up that book. I read a few pages and get an instant confidence boost. I know I can write better than that, and if that got published, then surely I can write something worthy of being published too. This tip probably means I’m an asshole, but hey, it works!
- Do your research. Depending on what you’re trying to write, the words might not be pouring out of you because you don’t know enough about your subject to write about it properly. Do more research. Even if you’re writing personal essay or memoir, you can learn more by interviewing other people in your life or looking into what was happening nationally and globally at the time that might have influenced your circumstances. If you’re writing sci-fi fantasy, the problem could be you haven’t done enough prep work to envision the world you’re writing yet.
- Get rid of distractions. Throw your phone under your bed, cut off the wifi on your laptop, find some place quiet and focus. It’s hard to know whether you have writer’s block or an attention span issue until you’ve blocked out all of your distractions.
If none of these methods work for you, the issue could be you’re just not ready to write yet. As disappointing as this can be, there’s no point in putting yourself down over it. Because guess what? Feeling shitty about yourself doesn’t make it any easier to sit down and write. Instead, get out there, see your friends, participate in hobbies and activities you enjoy and then try again. When you’re ready to write, you will. And when you’re ready to get that writing edited? Penmob will be here for you.