Monday, August 27, 2012

Conquering Writer's Block V: THE CYCLE OF DOOM

Whoa. I have never done a blog series this long. For those of you who are just tuning in, here's what we've done so far:

Part I: The basic (cognitive-behavioral) model. Helps you understand where I'm coming from.

Part II: The three flavors of writer's block (based on an informal poll of writers).

Part III: First flavor: When life gets in the way. A process for determining how to take EFFECTIVE action against writer's block.

Part IV: Second flavor: Brain clog. What to do when your brain is stuck on the hamster wheel.

And today ... today we talk about something powerful and fascinating. Many, many writers I polled (and commenters since this series has begun), have indicated that one of the primary drivers of their writer's block seems to be avoidance. There are myriad thoughts that could lead a writer to develop this type of block, but some examples are:

  • Not wanting to write a particular scene for whatever reason (not fun, emotionally draining, etc.)
  • Being REALLY aware of how far you have to go before you finish the book.
  • Knowing you have to go back and rewrite huge swaths of story to get it right.
  • Thinking about how likely it is that you will "fail" (however you define that--not getting an agent, not getting traditionally published, not getting positive feedback)
  • Thinking that you're not very good at this whole writing thing ... so why bother.
All those thoughts can cause intense internal squirminess. THIS IS THE CYCLE OF DOOM (start at the bottom with "You sit down to write":

Does this look familiar to you? If you think about it, you can probably substitute A LOT of things for "you sit down to write." Avoidance is a powerful and fairly universal behavioral process. The feeling of relief when we avoid something that makes us feel yucky is called "negative reinforcement." You've probably heard of "negative reinforcement" before, but I have to tell you, most people don't know what it really means. But now you know! It STRENGTHENS a behavior by removing something that feels bad.

In this case, it's the process of sitting down to write that feels bad, because it is associated with those uuuuuuuggggghhhhh thoughts.

Would you like to know what strengthens avoidance more than anything else? Would you like to know what will drive you into a deep, deeeeeep bout of writer's block?

Um, avoidance. Avoidance leads to more avoidance. The more you avoid, the more you avoid. Yeah.

This is how anxiety disorders are maintained, too, if you're wondering. Panic attacks, for example. Obsessive-compulsive behaviors as well. And the most effective treatment for them is the same:

Exposure. For anxiety disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy that includes an exposure component is considered a first line treatment. YES--not medication. Not simple talk therapy. Not visualization or deep breathing alone. Facing one's fears is effective if it's done the right way.

Exposure is the opposite of avoidance. And pretty much the only thing that can defeat it.

Exposure is not fun. We avoid stuff for a reason, right? BECAUSE IT FEELS BAD! Exposure involves sitting with whatever makes us feel that way and not running away from it. Not distracting ourselves from it. In other words, you have to ...


It might look something like this:


Or, hopefully, this:

When you're dealing with the avoidance flavor of writer's block, there is only one way through it, and that's ... to go through it. To confront it head-on. That DOES NOT mean you ignore the thoughts that are making you avoid. It means the opposite! You have to acknowledge the thoughts, feel the feelings, and write anyway.

BICHOK, of course, means: Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard.

Typing your way through a block is not the solution to all types of writer's block, but if you've contracted a severe case of avoidance, it's really the only way through.

A few caveats, though!

Don't set yourself up to fail. This is actually one of the biggest mistakes I see when people decide to change. They set BIG goals because that's what they want to achieve. But successful change plans always do a few things:

Set the bar LOW. Start where you can succeed for sure. A chapter feels overwhelming? Start with a page. Is that too much? It's okay! Start with a paragraph! Still too much? No problem. Start with a sentence. Yeah, I'm serious. Early success is key to a successful change plan. Overambitious plans fail. I've seen it over and over again.

Reward, reward, reward. But make it small and manageable. Something you like to do every day. Don't go for a long-term reward at first. Don't do something like "if I write 20k words by the end of this week, I'll take myself out to dinner and a movie." It's too easy to fail early and give up completely. Instead, do something like, "I will write this paragraph, and then I will allow myself five minutes on Twitter" or whatever the small, daily (or hourly) reward is.

Rinse, repeat. You have to do this over and over again. Until you can sit there and think, "yes, I have a long way to go, and that feels UGH, but each step brings me closer to my goal." When you can do that, your writer's block will most likely will be gone.

Do not condemn yourself for failure. If you mess up once, you can't throw up your hands and say, "Oh, I might as well go back to my old avoidance habits." You have to shake that off and keep engaging with the ICK. Otherwise it will eat your brain. Really.

BUT--though you shouldn't be too hard on yourself, you also shouldn't set yourself up for it, as I said. Please trust me when I tell you to start out easy and move on from there (I'm serious--this is where I live professionally. I do know what I'm talking about). Remember that avoidance breeds avoidance, so if you make it too hard and end up avoiding to cope ... you've just made your problem BIGGER.

And that's it! Please let me know if you have questions about how to deal with the avoidance flavor (mmmm... bitter!) of writer's block.

On Wednesday, I'll tell you what I think of the phrase "Writer's block doesn't exist."


  1. I don't have this behavior for writing. But vacuuming, weeding, and grading papers ... yup, that's me all over!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I would've enjoyed my psychology course a lot more if they'd used such terms as blarg, ick, and the CYCLE OF DOOM. (Think I just found a title there.)

    Avoidance is a big thing for me, where one's comfort zone can get smaller and smaller as you give into it, and gradual exposure is definitely the way to go.

    I once saw an HBO documentary on panic disorders, and it showed how a therapist guided a house-bound woman to her door, and the next day they took a step outside, and then to the sidewalk. She was trembling, but after a couple weeks she got halfway down her block, and it was so empowering to see someone reclaim their life by not giving in to their fears.

  4. You are such a wonderful resource for us all, Sarah.

  5. While I suffer from all those thoughts, my love of writing stories keeps me from having writer's block. I remember why I write (for me!), and that's all it takes. I knew when I started this journey that there is a good chance I'll never be published. I write because I can and I want to, and that takes the press off me.

    Great series!

  6. Yep, this pretty much sums me up. BUT. Today, you'll be happy to know that I started a new project that's a little less daunting in subject matter, and easier for me to write, to get myself back into the rhythm of things. I think it's going to work. I feel motivated again!

  7. Ah! Now your expression has context. ;)
    Have to go back and read the other posts. I'm catching up because I just got back from vacation.

  8. Brilliant. I am very good at avoidance. It's like my part-time job. Loved this post Sarah!

  9. BICHOK rules. I'm doing it right now. Though it should be BICHOKIF.

    Butt in chair, hands on keyboard, internet off.

  10. Love this blog post series, Sarah. Your insights and terminology :-) always hit home.

  11. Wonderful post, thank you! What a great reminder that small steps are so important. One sentence a day for a week or a month or more would be a huge victory over full-on writer's block. I'm bookmarking.

  12. I hear you on this. I have this problem with my WIP the big self doubt demon. Will it be as good as I really want it to be ...

  13. Wow. It was like you were inside my head or something!

  14. Excellent post and something I seriously recognize. I think I'm totally in avoidance about one of my WIPs, and I know better, but it's the actually getting through it part that's hard. Wish me luck!

  15. YES! Now I know what BICHOK is! LOL! :D I think if this is considered "writers block," I deal with this all the time. But it's more from a position of, "this is going to consume my brain for X amount of time, and I'm not sure if I'm ready for that again." LOL!!! :D But you're right. The best way to conquer it is to BICHOK! I did that in the spring when we did the 30K in 30 days challenge. It SO totally works. Thanks so much for these, Sara! They've been fun and interesting--not just for writing! :o) <3 (look at your cutie face!)

  16. I may be cheating, but I often have a couple of projects on the go at the same time. When one trips me up, I skedaddle to the other one for solace.

  17. This is kind of like the whole "a body in motion stays in motion, a body at rest stays at rest." The more I write the more I'm able to write and the ideas really flow. As soon as I push writing to the back burner for a few days---ugh!---starting up again is so hard. And once again your visual aid was like a good whap upside my head...turns out I avoid all kinds of things! In fact, I'm a master. *sigh*

  18. OH MY GOSH. I was going to write this post.

    No, really -- my day job is in behavior, too. (Recent status: "You might be a behavior nerd writing fiction if your first chapter contains redirected aggression, opposition reflex, affiliative overtures, and resource guarding.") This is exactly how I approach revisions, with lots of fine task-splitting and positive/negative reinforcement. We don't let avoidance self-reinforce, we pay big for small tasks and bust through it! :D

    This post will be linked from my own blog -- just as soon as I get around to it. ;-)