Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Conquering Writer's Block III: When life gets in the way.

My previous posts on writer's block, wherein I introduce the model and then discuss the various "flavors" (based on a completely unscientific poll) are here and here, respectively.

If you read Monday's post, you'll recall that I said I was going to discuss the first two flavors today, but then I realized there was just too much to tell you, so I'm going to do a post on the second flavor (brain clog) on Friday, and I'll focus on only the first (broader life/mental health issues) today.

Now, it would be kind of flip of me to say to you: "If it's broader life/mental health issues, just go deal with those and come back when you're done. Then your writer's block will be gone!"

I would suck if I said that. It doesn't work like that. Sure, there are transient life situations, like moving apartments, or starting college or a new job, or having any kind of illness that is treatable and goes away. Sometimes you can just wait things out. But if there's something chronic, if you are a typical adolescent or grown-up who is juggling multiple roles ... telling you to go "deal with that" so you can get back to writing is pretty laughable. It's far more complex than that. You do have to deal with it, though. Every day. But it's probably more of a management process than a "clear the decks so everything else is perfect" thing.

Now, if you think you might have a clinical issue, like depression or anxiety, that is affecting your ability to write, it's worth taking a look at. I won't go into too much depth here, but I would say that it would be worth it to consult with a competent professional to see if you can get treatment to improve your ability to manage those symptoms across settings and situations.

But as for the other "chronic life stuff" issues ... you'll get back on track quicker if you take the time to figure it out and sort it out. On Monday I responded to a comment by Lydia Sharp, soon-to-be-published author and blogger extraordinaire. She basically asked what to do when there are multiple life-and-other-stuff causes for writer's block. It reminded me that ... this is usually the case, actually. I responded to that comment with a (kinda long) comment of my own, which I present again today. Only with pictures. And no spelling errors.

[By the way? This? This is how I work with clients. No magic--just systematic approaches to complex problems...]

If you were to come to me and say, "Help! I haven't written a page in over a month!" ...

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

Then we'd build a model of what's causing the block, just like in that diagram. But again, for an individual 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.

Here's what one of those diagrams might look like:

After we make our map (it might be more complex than this one), we know the things that *could* be targeted to get you writing again. We could target some of the different thoughts, or the structure of the schedule, or the supportiveness of the partner and other natural supports, etc. But there's no way we can tackle all of them at once! We have to prioritize.  So we would consider a few questions:

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? Like, are there any that could have a big, quick impact or affect several writing problems (or problems in other areas of your life)?

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. These would be things like finding a way to get the computer fixed or finding a way around that.
4. Are there any 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? (like, research shows that thinking you're a failure can really decrease mood and productivity)

6. Are there any causes that are tightly connected to the problem and happen right before the problem crops up? (again, often the thoughts)

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

The causes 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. What would YOU choose? Should we design an intervention to address some of those negative thoughts? Should we discuss how to restructure your schedule? Should we talk about how you can ask your partner for some mutual support?

We'd reassess frequently to see if the intervention is working, and if it's not, we'd analyze why (using the same process as above!)
And ... that's it. It's not a perfect, simple process, but it organizes something that can often feel unmanageable and therefore undoable. I promise you--mapping it out instead of letting it stay big and hairy and overwhelming ... it will help you feel better and more in control. And that is an excellent first step.
I'll be back on Friday to talk about BRAIN CLOG.


  1. Brain Clog. That sounds like my problem!

  2. I'm so lucky. My kids are old enough that they let me write in the kitchen at night with headphones on while they watch TV or do homework. I have no idea how I would have made it work if I'd tried to be a writer back when they were younger.

  3. This one is perfect for me right this very second. And you know why. :-)

  4. Right now my only problem is time, which there is never enough of. But I remember when a lot of those things were in my way. It wasn't fun.

  5. This is a very scientific approach to writer's block. I bet you're helping loads of folks with it... I do sort of a clock-style read when I approach circular diagrams like this one. So I got to the end... "something's wrong w/my computer," and I confess. I LOL'd. :D

    Good stuff here, Sarah!

  6. Thanks you so much for this info, Sarah! Priceless.

  7. This is me right now, especially "too tired after work." This is also probably because I went to Vegas twice in less than a month...

    Looking forward to brain clog! This happens to me often. :P

  8. That diagram makes so much sense! What a great way to target specific issues---and just visualizing it that way (instead of as a numbered list, for instance) makes it more relevant to the central problem. You've got my brain working (I don't have writer's block, but there is something else I'm dealing with) and I bet this will help me bring some things into focus. Thanks!

  9. LOVING this series of posts!!!!!