Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Conquering Writer's Block VI: "Writer's block doesn't exist."

We have reached the final post in this series! I know many of these posts were long, but it was my sincere hope to create a resource for writers experiencing the frustration of writer's block. To recap:

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.

Part V: Third flavor: The cycle of doom (AKA: avoidance).

And today, I want to tell you how I think about a statement I've seen in many places, from many writers:


I've seen established professional writers say this, usually in the context of explaining that writing is a full-time job for them, and they simply can't afford to not do it. I've seen not-yet-established writers say this, as well. When I asked about writer's block over at the AbsoluteWrite forums, the folks there urged me to include this particular saying in my discussion of this topic, because many of them had been told "writer's block doesn't exist" ... while in the midst of a bout of writer's block.

On the one hand, I think, frankly, that this is a crappy thing to say to someone experiencing writer's block. If someone tells you that he/she is depressed, are you really going to respond with, "Oh, hey. Depression doesn't exist. Pick yourself up by your bootstraps and cheer up, dude." That would make you ... well, insensitive would be a polite way of putting it.

Basically, if you say this to someone who is dealing with the very problem you're claiming doesn't exist, you are telling them that their experience of the world is invalid.

On the other hand ... I totally get what the "writer's block doesn't exist" crowd is saying, and I would like to offer a positive reframe to the rest of you. I have never seen a case where someone made that statement with malice on his/her mind. Rather, it's often made with helpful intentions. Unfortunately, saying it in that invalidating way makes it highly likely that those good intentions will fall flat, but that is a pitfall of being human instead of a robot. We communicate imperfectly.

Here's the reframe: "writer's block doesn't exist" ---------> "you can do something about writer's block. You are not helpless against it."

"Writer's block doesn't exist" is based on the assumption that, when someone says she has it, she believes she can't do anything about it. That assumption is sometimes correct. It's easy to feel helpless against something that is often nebulous and hard to figure out (which is why I did this series!) and blocks us from achieving deeply valued goals.

But the assumption that you can't do anything about writer's block? 100% INCORRECT.

And this is why some people say "writer's block doesn't exist." Really, they're saying you can do something about writer's block.

They're right.

Dismissing a problem as nonexistent is really not a helpful way of dealing with things, for so many reasons. But the belief that one can deal with the problem? Very helpful. Very accurate.

That's the point of this entire series. You can figure out what's behind your writer's block, and you can do something about it. That something will be more effective if you take the time to puzzle out what's going on and design strategies targeted at that cause (rather than embracing a bunch of tips immediately). There are awesome tips out there. Lots of resources. But if you don't understand the source of your particular writer's block, they might lead you in the wrong direction.

Know thyself, and then choose thy tips wisely.

Let me know if you have any questions, folks. Thanks for hanging in there with me throughout this series. I hope it's been helpful.

On Monday, when I'll be featuring Justine Dell here on the blog. Her romance, Recaptured Dreams, will be published in a few days by Omnific Publishing, and she'll be here to answer a few questions about the book. Justine was my VERY first crit partner. She and I stumbled our way through the early days, teaching each other. SO I hope you'll come back on Monday and celebrate her achievements with me!


  1. Hmm? I think a kinder response is to just say, "you can do something about it" and leave off the "it doesn't exist" part. Great series, btw. And me? I don't get writer's block, I get 'writer focus' issues.

  2. It never helps to tell a person that what he/she is feeling is invalid. My husband and I made that pledge early in our marriage. (Of course, that means many arguments involve the sentence opener, "I'm sorry you feel that way, BUT ...")

    It is much truer to say that there are ways to over come writer's block, and then point them right at this blog series!

  3. You are telling them that their experience of the world is invalid.

    This is so key to so many issues. You don't have to agree, but if someone is feeling a certain way, especially something that's tearing them up, it's an authentic feeling and not something to be lightly discarded.

    So thanks for pointing out what that saying really means. And for those who still need some reassurance, here's a quote from a guy you'd never think has any trouble writing.

    "In my experience, writer’s block is very real. You’ll be writing something and suddenly it stops. The characters stop talking. You’ve been happily just transcribing everything they’ve been saying, and suddenly they sit down and shut up. Suddenly, you are in deep trouble. It does happen. It’s very real.

    "It’s not something (in my experience anyway) that happens on everything at the same time. It’s just that sometimes a project needs a little time to think, a little time to breathe. So what I tend to do when that happens is I always have two or three other things that I’m doing at the same time. I can just go to one of the ones that’s working. Which is how I give this appearance of being prolific."
    - Neil Gaiman

  4. Well said. I often say I don't get writer's block (or at least that I've never really experienced it), because when I do manage to find the time to sit down and write I always get something down, but I would never presume to tell someone else it doesn't exist. Especially not someone who was suffering through it.

    Anyway, that's not really your point. Your point is how to reframe that kind of statement into what you really mean, which is absolutely valid. In fact, it's a great way of thinking about communication in general. There are always different and better ways to frame things, not only when communicating with each other, but even within our own thinking.

  5. Very well said, Sarah. This entire series has been so helpful. Forever thanks for taking the time to put this together. :-)

  6. This was a great series, Sarah. I'm the same as Matt. And just because I don't get WB, doesn't mean I never will. Though hopefully I never will. :)

    How is it that I've never noticed your blog tagline before? Love it!

  7. "Know thyself, and then choose thy tips wisely." Best. Advice. Ever. When it comes to personal outlooks and perceptions one-size-fits-all just doesn't cut it. So often we (okay, me) expect everything and everyone viewed through the same lens to come into focus, and it just doesn't happen. Understanding ourselves may not fix everything, but it sure helps in the "where do I start" department. Great series, Sarah. Thanks.

  8. I see their point about writer's block not existing, but I like how you discussed it much better.

  9. Way back when you first asked this question I was one of those people who said I didn't get writer's block anymore. Let me clarify. I don't get the kind where you're stuck because I've figured out a way around and out of the stickiness. But if it's life getting in the way, that's a little harder to deal with, actually, a lot harder. And when I say I don't get writer's block I mean I don't get it, not that you don't get it.

    And Matt made a great point about communication. We often say things that seem perfectly reasonable to us but are sadly not taken how we meant them. Writer's block used to be a real problem for me. Now it isn't. Mostly.

    Really great post, Sarah.

  10. I'd post a comment but my mind's gone blank.

  11. Great series! And yes, thanks for the reframe.

  12. What a terrific series. Thank you so much.

  13. I'm going to have to go back and read the rest of the series, I guess. You always have the best advice! Like, seriously.

  14. Also...I'm totally digging the green. ;-) Oh, and the new background.

  15. :) Great post. And congrats to Justine!

  16. Thanks for the fabulous series, Sarah! I'm a master avoider for sure. I look at ALL THE THINGS I want to include in the new MG novel I'm working on, and I get overwhelmed and have to check out what fun stuff is happening on the Internet. Today I skipped ahead to a scene where I had a better idea of what was going to happen, and it felt good to get something done. I'm working on doing just one scene or one bit of dialog at a time so I can make some steady progress.

  17. Good stuff here! Yeah, never say "writer's block doesn't exist." Clearly it does or so many people wouldn't be talking about it! When others tell me that, I usually give the ole standby "just keep swimming!" (But in this case, just keep writing!) It's so great that you broke all these down, though. Even the one about BICHOK. Who knew that could be a form of blockdedness! :D Running over to see Justine's new book! yay!!! :o) <3

  18. Hi, I find this post very interesting. And when I'm more awake, I will come back and re-read the full series :)
    I actually would love to chat a bit more about this (specifically depression/anxiety and its relation/affect on writing), but I noticed in your contact bio you don't really like those kinds of personal emails/questions (I understand). I've just noticed some writers talk a bit more about it recently (i.e Robison Wells, Natalie Whipple to name a few) and I've been pondering it myself.

    I've just recently rediscovered my writing bug and the amount to learn, do , know is so overwhelming. Still trying to find my voice :) Congrats on your successes, the book description sounds great and I'll be on the look out for it in October.

    ( are fantastically busy...maybe I need to contact you on how to balance that stuff...a stressing job in the day, and somehow being able to wipe the mind clean enough in order to write magic at night).

    Great blog :)

  19. Well now...I am totally looking forward to reading the rest of this series! A fantastic one for me to read. Yes, me who is struggling some with non-existant writer's block, lol!