Monday, August 20, 2012

Conquering Writer's Block II: What Flavor Are We Talking About?

Last week, I presented the general cognitive-behavioral model that I'm using throughout this series, so if you find yourself lost in these next few posts, you might want to refer back to it.

Awhile back, I asked you guys to tell me about your experiences with writer's block, and you really came through for me. I also asked the folks over on the Absolute Write boards to share. I compiled those results and came up with this:

It's a summary, of course, a sampling. But I noticed a few things--the responses had a lot in common. Based on my informal poll, I'm going to suggest that writer's block seems to come in three (very)general "flavors."

Broader life/mental health issues: I read a few accounts where it really seemed like life got in the way. That makes sense, right? If you've got a lot going on (general stress, major transitions, disappointing events, intense experiences that might be good but are still draining), or if you have depression or anxiety, you might have writer's block that's more driven by those things rather than the experience of writing. Sometimes writing is a refuge--but it doesn't go unaffected by our every day experiences.

Brain clog: This is a highly technical term that basically means you're STUCK. Either it's a scene, or the plot, or how to get from point A to point B ... you're having trouble solving the problem, no matter how much you think about it!

Avoidance: A very common flavor, judging by all of your responses! Here, we're talking about sitting down to write and having an unpleasant thought (one you *might* not even know you're having, but in the diagram above, "I'll still be far from the finish line" and "I'm going to have to rewrite the whole thing" and "I'll never be as awesome as so-and-so" are examples), and it feels bad! So you ... avoid it!

And guess what? You know all those fabulous tips out there for dealing with writer's block? They won't necessarily be effective for you unless you know what flavor of writer's block you have. Because the ways you deal with each flavor are pretty different from one another!

I'll be back on Wednesday to talk about the first two flavors, and next Monday I'll talk about the third. Next Wednesday, I'll wrap up the series with a discussion of the phrase "writer's block doesn't exist." But I'm certain you've never heard anyone say that, right? ;)

Let me know if you have any questions or think I've missed a flavor!


  1. I think you've covered most of the flavors, and I am really glad to see your approach here. It's tough to read "just do it" about writer's block when mine is often caused by a ton of work travel, or not feeling well... I'm looking forward to reading more.

  2. What's it called when you're experiencing all of those things at the same time? Because that's me.

    1. In that case, it pays to pull them apart a bit! I don't know anything about your sitution, but I'll tell you how I'd do this with a client or a supervisee:

      I'd sit down and put the writer's block in the middle (like in the diagram), but I'd make it specific. Like, whatever you as a writer are having trouble doing (like, getting a certain amount done, or failing to make time in the schedule for writing, or whatever it is--and if there's more than one thing, I'd do this for each one).

      Then we'd build a model of what's causing the block, just like in that diagram. But for an individul person, it would be more specific. We'd think of as many causes, no matter how big or small, and write them around the problem.

      AND THEN: We'd make some choices and prioritize specific causes (in my work, we call them "drivers", as in, they drive the problem). We'd prioritize them according to several criteria:

      1. Which one do YOU think would make the most difference, and which one(s) are you willing to work on?

      2. Which one(s) would give us the biggest bang for our buck?

      3. Are there any practical, quick and easy fixes? We can tackle those--as long as we're also tackling more fundamental ones as well.

      4. Are there any drivers that have to be addressed before we can get to some of the other ones?

      5. Are there any that have been proven to affect writer's block?

      6. Are there any that are tightly connected to the problem, and happen right before the problem crops up?

      7. Which one(s) are happening right now, as opposed to being historical causes (things that might have happened a lot time ago--usually those historical events/causes give rise to drivers in #6, so that's how those are addressed)?

      So--the drivers we choose to tackle wouldn't have ALL those characteristics, only one or two of them, but based on your priorities, we'd pick one or two, and then we'd develop a specific intervention to address them. We'd reassess frequently to see if the intervention is working, and if it's not, we'd analyze why.

      Not a perfect process, or an easy one, but complex dilemmas require thoughtful intervention!

    2. Oh my goodness, thank you so much! That is extremely helpful.

    3. And just for the record, Lydia, you do write as well as Awesome McAuthorpants. :-)

  3. Great diagram! I think I have a problem opposite writer's block -- in that I get obsessive about writing and can't think about anything else. But it's caused by the same things, mostly. Especially all those negative statements.

  4. This is wonderful. Looking forward to the next posts! Re: this one: anxiety? Are there writers who don't have anxiety? Ok, I may be projecting here. But it does seem to me virtually all writers I know experience anxiety in one form or another. Are we talking a broad, debilitating level that affects daily life in general?

    1. Great question and good point of clarification: There's a difference between anxiety that doesn't affect daily functioning and anxiety that cripples. When I say anxiety, in this case, I'm talking about a broader clinical disorder that affects more than just writing.

      You're totally right--writing, and particularly sharing writing with others, is naturally anxiety-provoking for any self-aware individual. But if you're anxious about other things in life, and if that anxiety is reducing your enjoyment of life and your ability to engage in tasks in which you would otherwise participate, it's time to take a closer look at it!

    2. Ah, that makes sense to me, thank you. And I'm so glad to know writer's anxiety is related to self-awareness--makes it less upsetting.

  5. For me, life gets in the way so often, I don't have the luxury to allow the other two types to ever slow me down. If I did, I'd never get e thing done.

  6. Wow, I think you hit all the salient points. I love your graphic. I like neat, tidy ways to compartmentalize my pathologies.

  7. This graphic says it all.

    Yep, avoidance is big for me.

  8. Sarah, what a great idea for a series of posts!

    I finally got back to my WIP this weekend after avoiding it for a couple of weeks. And I really want to get it finished, so I haven't been able to pin down why I wasn't working on it. I did fast draft it in June and ended up with a very rough, sort of narrative outliney draft, but it's been a lot harder than I thought to go back through it and flesh out the chapters so they're presentable.

  9. Thanks for putting it in terms that make sense. I belong to the avoidance camp, but I admit to the others as well. I look forward to the rest of your posts on this subject.

  10. Cool... That's a good chart!

    I have experienced all of those before, I think.

    I can get past most of them by ignoring them. For example, if I'm being TOO ambitious, it's my own fault. Keep it simple. Can't be James Joyce? Neither could he. Write what you CAN write.

    The "I don't want to write this next scene" problem? It's usually imaginary. if I know what I want to happen in it, I can (9 times out of 10) SKIP the scene entirely. For some reason, my stuff is always better if I let the audience figure out what happened "off camera"...

  11. Spot on! I've experienced all 3 flavors of writer's block! A lot of times it's just avoidance, but life and plot problems do also get in the way sometimes.

  12. 2 flavors of writer's block... Mmmm. Now in the mood for ice cream...

  13. I don't suffer too much from writer's block. I usually go for a run and that unblocks things. The solutions to my problems hit me and I can't get home fast enough to write them down. :)

  14. Ew! OK! I have had that intimidation block before. After I read The Help, The Hunger Games, and Daughter of Smoke & Bone (all at different times, mind you), I sat on the couch and wept because I would "never write something that moving and strong as long as I lived."

    So I kind of flailed around and was all depressed for a few weeks until I got over it and then sat down and started writing again. LOL!

    Isn't that silly? ;p