Adulthood CONFIDENTIAL! How do you fix Writer’s Block? Write anyway.

Man from 1933 studiously filling out an application with a pencil in a classroom, while other applicants write at desks in background.
Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration | Photographer: Lewis Hines

I can’t think of a single thing on this green earth that will make you lose your damn mind faster than a good case of writer’s block.

It is as painful as being punched in the face by karma. It is as profound as a broken bone. It is as pleasant as getting the air slapped out of your lungs.

It’s no fun at all, is what it is, and I’d love to give you some sort of fantastic spell that will make your fingers dance across the page and your eyes light up like slot machines, but there’s no easy way around writer’s block.

You’re going to have to write anyway.

I know it feels like you’re dancing on a broken leg, darlin’. You’re going to have to trust me.

(Write anyway.)

There’s no king-hell pain like writer’s block.

The only way to get through it is. . . to write. And write. And write.

And it will be awful.

And you will not be happy.

And every sentence that pours through your fingers will be a gritty mess that grind that grit right into your palms.

Oh, you’re gonna hate it.

(Write anyway.)

Do you know what I did to fix my writer’s block?

Only all the wrong things!

I met my deadlines, tapered down my freelance life, and, for the next five years, wandered down a labyrinth that starts with “Why, oh, why did this terrible thing happen to me?”

Why did it happen?

(Answer: I still couldn’t tell you.)

(Actual answer: If you’re digging around for a question you’re not writing. Write anyway.)

My grandfather kept honeybees for many years.

His hive produced smoky sweet mesquite honey, a honey so startling in its complexity and honest its flavor that I can taste it while I describe it to you.

I loved this honey, but good grief, I couldn’t stand bees. I’d had one bad encounter with a hive when I was small and that’s all it took.

In order for my grandfather and I to enjoy this honey we loved, my grandfather needed to maintain his hive.

But the bees had to work too.

In order for those bees to make honey, they needed to get out and pollinate the curled, tough mesquite trees spreading in every direction on the ranch like a gnarled dream of paradise.

To keep those bees and my family nice and happy, we needed me to chill out around these bees, who were just going about their business the way honeybees do if you don’t mess with ’em.

My grandfather wasn’t one to dismiss your fears—

but he wasn’t going to play into them either.

This is what he said to me, again and again and again until it stuck: “It won’t bother you if you don’t bother it.”

(Translation: Write anyway.)

I am not an expert on writer’s block.

I am merely a writer who has experienced block.

You can go to better experts than me. In fact, I hope you do. I did.

Writer and researcher Alice Weaver Flaherty wrote the fascinating memoir-cum-scientific exploration of writer’s block, The Midnight Disease, after her experience with block after the birth of her child.

I’ve read this book and other equally powerful books on this subject: Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird; Stephen King’s On Writing. But still, I did not write. Could not write.

(It’s good to read, but write anyway.)

Here’s what finally happened.

I couldn’t stand not writing and I couldn’t write.

My friend Phillip said, “Write anyway.”

It was awful. I complained.

He said, “Write anyway.”

I was scared. And I said so.

He said, “Write anyway.”

And one day I didn’t stop.

The next day it was awful, but I knew if I could do it one day, I could do it another day. So I did.

I kept writing.  And writing.  And writing.

Then I needed somewhere to put all that writing.

I started a blog where I post something every day.

I knew that it wouldn’t all be lollipops and miniature ponies.

Remember, I was working against deadlines for a decade before the block.

Even when you’re riding hot, there will be months where every sentence is like punching yourself in the face.

That’s when you draw on muscle memory, on sheer grit.

It may be terrible.

It may feel awful.

It may hurt like a kick.

But you do it, you hear me?

Write anyway.

30 thoughts on “Adulthood CONFIDENTIAL! How do you fix Writer’s Block? Write anyway.”

  1. I take everything you’ve said here and replace writer with artist – and it applies. I took a three week break from painting. I knew I should be painting, I wanted to be painting, but I was out of energy. I hated it. I know I should have just painted anyway. I finally started again this weekend. What I’ve found, though, is that my break is some kind of an evolutionary process, because when I start up again, my painting is better. And I take another direction with it. The fear is in waiting too long – like months. So, occasionally I allow myself a small break and try not to get anxious about it.

    1. I was wondering as I wrote this about the crossover in other art forms. Since I couldn’t find decent, conclusive knowledge either way, I left it out, and crossed my fingers that someone would stop by and make this exact comment. Thank you!

      I’ve been trying to learn how to draw, again. I drew every day for six months.

      However, at the same time I was trying to work on my writer’s block and I hit a hot streak. Drawing went way on the back burner because writing requires daily time and patience. And I’ve got The Fear now about drawing.

      One of my goals for this summer is to draw a little bit every day.

      I have no mastery in drawing, but I do have enthusiasm, so I’m hoping that will work in my favor. Here is the last big drawing I did before I stopped in January.

      SDS, here’s one thing I know— when you have no energy, it can be really hard to reach down and find that spark. It is important to take breaks. I’m so glad you took three weeks off, even though it made you anxious. I’m glad you were able to work back into your routine.

      I do take breaks now— at least one day off a week. I think one of the things that lead to my writer’s block was old fashioned burnout. I was working seven days a week. What is your usual working schedule for painting and writing?

    2. First of all, love your painting and please keep practicing! As far as a schedule, I can only paint in the mornings, really – and early morning. And not every morning, which isn’t good. I’d like to be at my painting table every morning either drawing or painting. But I can almost never paint in the afternoon or evening. During the week, by the time I return from work, my brain is fried and I need to get out and walk the dogs.

    3. I really dropped the ball after I was Freshly Pressed in January. Yet, I can’t complain— I had so much fun!

      I find it fascinating that early mornings are your best time for painting. The light is different in the morning. I prefer to write in the mornings and early afternoons, personally, because my brain makes easier, quicker connections.

      Alas, my schedule is turned around and I am doing my very best to fix it. I can write in the evenings, but it feels like twice the work. (So copy that, “brain fried” part!)

      What about other rituals? Everybody has working rituals. A certain chair. Music or no music. Coffee, tea, water. Curtains open or shut. I know we’re all flexible because we have to be flexible— otherwise, nothing would get done. So, can we call them rituals of working preference? Preferential working rituals?

  2. When I began to write seriously I drew on my experience of learning/mastering the guitar. When I’m not writing a short story I’m doing drills. I either look up writing prompts online, or from a writing magazine, or from a stash of opening lines I keep on file.

    I’d never exerienced writer’s block until I intentionally tried to write something. Even though it was well within my wheel-house all the ideas which would usually inhabit my brain ran away in a hurry. So I forced my way through it. What I wrote was crap, but then those ideas returned as if they were insulted so I was able to revise it.

    So I learned to power through it.

    It’s like this, everyone has a male part of the brain and a female part of the brain. A lady friend of mine told me her secret to home decorating was to let her husband decorate it first, and then she’d fix it. So I let the male part of my brain force the writing out onto the page and then the female part cleans it up (and yes this is sexist, but it works). This doesn’t happen often, usually both sides work together to get the piece written.

    Writers who stick to a daily schedule seem to do better avoiding the block. The fact they are in a fixed location at the same time every day to write seems to free them. The only other fix I have is to put on the headphones and take a walk for an hour. The first half of the walk I think about bills, pizza, women, or whatever. The last part of the walk always finds my head working on the story. By this time the endorphins have kicked in and the fountain turns back on.

    My .02 on the subject.

    1. I wanted to sit for awhile and think about this comment before I answer you because you’ve brought up some important elements, which will help you become a strong professional writer.

      However, writer’s block has some weird voodoo.

      Consider the following:

      I grew up seriously studying dance and writing at the same time. I am very disciplined.

      Before my experiences of writer’s block, I had written, literally, hundreds of hundreds of stories for newspapers and magazines throughout my late teens and my entire 20s. I was published in fiction and poetry and my first book of poetry came out from a small, but distinguished, press when I was 24.

      For the first six months of the block, I sat down as I did every day, and tried to work. It was as if I had lost some crucial part of my five senses. I wrote anyway, and it was awful.

      Because I was running into a wall for months and I had no major deadlines looming, I decided to take a month-long break one December. (I was, after all working two jobs at the time— freelancing and adjunct teaching.)

      Then, horrible life-type things happened. The worst. My schedule was broken, life things were happening, and the writer’s block soldiered onward.

      I still freelanced, some, during the duration of the block, but it was excruciatingly painful. Broken leg painful.

      So, I don’t know— I think, in retrospect, had I been able to keep to the short break of one month, I might have eventually powered through the block much earlier. (There were, as I said, some rotten big ticket life items going on at the same time, so, this may not have been possible.)

      And I do know that even now, as I mentioned, you will have some rotten months where writing goes PLINK! PLONK! BLAT! SLAM! even when you are muscled and disciplined and a professional. You do it anyway. That kind of block is like a petit mal block. Totally doable. In fact, this last month has been almost exclusively PLINK! PLONK! BLAT! SLAM! writing for me. This, I can handle. It’s frustrating, and everything takes twice as long, but I never did put a lot of stock by inspiration (which some writers swear by— not you, but some do). Inspiration is a fickle friend.

      But big- big writer’s block? Man— that’s a whole other deal.

      Big writers have this fear. Even Maurice Sendak had to deal with this fear. Vonnegut had this fear. Writer’s block is a weird creature. “Midnight’s Children,” a book I mentioned earlier may lend some insight to the variables that go into writer’s block— including damage or a change in the limbic system. El Wikipedia discusses writer’s block and it’s possible causes in an egalitarian way.

      What I like, though, is that you have brought up a strong formula for working in the long-term. You may never have writer’s block. Some writers don’t. But, a portion of professional writers do, and they are so varied in their practices and in their abilities, that I know the only thing to whisper is “Write anyway.” It may work. It may not work. But, it’s a taste of hope. And, boy howdy, do I love hope.

  3. One thing we all forget is that writing is work. Just because we enjoy it and get an incredible buzz out of it doesn’t change the fact that it /is/ work. Sometimes we have to take a sickie away from it. Sometimes we have to take a holiday away from it. But when we come back we have to sit down and ease back into the habit, the mindset, the routine of…writing.

    You may find that you’re out of practice and rather rusty but the ‘write anyway’ advice is the only thing I’ve found that truly works.

    Great post Bluey.

    1. I like to think… that if you are committed to a vocation, it takes a bit of the sting out of the hard days of working.

      Because they do happen. I have days where the writing doesn’t come (write anyway) or it does but it’s awful (write anyway) or I have to go back and slash out everything but a few bits (write anyway) or it’s a wash (I hope I’m not on deadline— write anyway).

      I didn’t take a vacation the first five years of my freelance career. Part of that time, I was still at university. I hadn’t yet started my MFA. For Xmas of my fifth year as a freelancer, I took a holiday to meet my future MIL. She was not very impressed with the amount of sleeping I did. I didn’t realize I was so tired….

      Right before I left, you see, I advance-filed about fifteen stories with various editors. And I had pitched a travel assignment to do while I was gone.

      It’s taken me another ten years to really learn what it means to strike a balance between working and resting. I think this may always be a hard one for me? My MIL’s first impression, though, bless her, was that her son was marrying a girl that slept all the time. 🙂

    2. lmao – tsk tsk lazy baggage :p I hope she realises that first impression was wrong by now?
      I know about how writing can become a massive, ongoing adrenal high. When my daughter was just four I was working on a software manual for one of our in-house packages so the pressure was on. Then something happened and I had to get it finished in a week. Don’t think I slept much but I didn’t feel tired. All of the exhaustion catches up with you later, usually when you finally relax 😉

      Learning how to pace yourself is the hardest lesson any freelancer ever has to learn. I’m really glad that you’re learning how to strike that balance. Life’s short enough as it is without hurrying it along 😉

    3. I think she finally figured it out, but she passed away just after we married. She was a strong lady, that one! She is missed by her family.

      Tech writing on short notice like that takes MUSCLE. I wrote an entire website in under two weeks for some clients. It was a one-shot gig. It was more of a “tech-to-English” translation job. Lots of research. I’ve done a little bit of tech writing and some P.R. I interned every year of college (five total for undergrad studies), so that I’d always have work. All paid internships. One of them was tech writing. I know enough to know this— Meeka, you are tough!

      About a month and a half ago, I had one sustained adrenal high (good choice of words, Meeka!) while writing for BB— boy, was I pushing it. It was like the old days, and I knew I was teetering on the edge. And I paid the price. The last three weeks have been one big crash. Plus, I’ve been having router issues. (My phone company replaced my router, no charge! I plugged it in just last night!)

      So… I think that means I still need to remind myself about pacing. I’m getting better, though. Even when I was pushing six weeks ago, I kept saying, I can’t sustain this, gotta figure out how to set the parameters.

      On a slightly more up note, moments like these remind me to breathe, to consider the world around me, and to appreciate the profoundly lovely level of my interactions, everywhere. Life amazes me, Meeks!

      One more thing— my MIL taught me how to grocery shop, budget for food, and cook. For this, I owe her an eternity of gratitude. Cooking is the gift that gives outward, you know?

    4. I’m going to start by saying that cooking is most definitely ‘the gift that gives outward’ 🙂 My Mum was not a very demonstrative woman and we clashed.. a lot!.. but even in the worst of times I knew she loved me because of the food she cooked for me and the food she taught me to cook. It was her way of giving to those she loved.

      Re the tech writing, I’m not as tough as you think. My ex-husband and I used to own a small software company and ! was the tech support. When my daughter was born I began writing tech manuals for our in-house applications so the pressure was both more and less. However because I had a tiny child to look after I was forced to take breaks and basically work around her schedule. Nonetheless when she was 4 I had to have a partial thyroidectomy. The lump was benign but I learned then that my body doesn’t like pressure. Since then I’ve tried very hard to balance cerebral work with /strenuous/ physical activity – like shifting rocks around in the garden. It really does work 😉

      Is there any way that you can devote just a little time each day to some activity that can give you that wonderful feeling of almost trance-like relaxation?

      For me working with my hands outside always does the trick but perhaps you could do warmup exercises for your dancing? In order to just ‘be’ for a little while?

      I know it sounds insane but I truly believe that we all have to learn how to live as distinct from knowing how to exist. And that involves balance Grasshopper 😉

    5. Balance is the center of all things, Meeka. And your suggestions and ideas are so usable and so thoughtful, I am beginning to remember some lessons I learned (and keep learning!) about balance.

      I’ve got some more thoughts on this subject, but I think I will drop you an email! Meeks, you are so, so, so considerate. Thank you so very much!

    1. I’ve been trying to figure out which Neil Gaiman book to start with as a first read. I’ll put “Neverwhere” on my list! The BBC did a much beloved miniseries of Neverwhere, which I couldn’t quite get into for some reason.

      Thanks for this!

  4. Loved this and loved that you posted the Gaiman speech. Writers block for me is the most profound and sneaky method of self-sabotage. If I really get tripped up about it, I’ll never get anything done but if I like you said–write anyway, I’ll move past it. Anyway, great blog and great reminders. I’ve forwarded it to everybody in my writing group.

    1. I’ve been hedging around writing about writer’s block because my own experience with it really blindsided me. I thought I was protected because I did all the expected things at all the right times. (Can we call it a youthful sense of “this cannot happen to me because _______.”) But, fear is potent, as you know. Thank you so much for sharing this with your writer’s group and on Twitter, Sean Paul! You made my day!

      (The Gaiman lecture is fantastic. I’m so glad Hera sent it to me. Good for the soul.)

      One more thing. When I think of writer’s block and the fear and bad self-criticism, I think Waldorf and Statler fit the bill nicely



      UPDATE: I’ve added a different clip! That last one didn’t work. I thought you, especially, would like this, Sean Paul!

  5. Okay, Ms. Bluebird, here’s the thing: you absolutely must, and I mean don’t write it on the fridge or in your calendar but pick one up RIGHT NOW and do it, read Neil Gaiman. ‘Kay?Start with his blog, if you like:
    You’ll wonder how you ever got this far in life without him.
    I’d write more, but I’m behind on my Dune in June reading.

    1. You will laugh, but as a matter of fact, I am reading Neil Gaiman right now. So… I watched the commencement address, and a couple days after, a friend suggested “Nevermore,” and I met a librarian who really knows Gaiman’s stuff.

      But! Guess what! I have NEVER READ HIS BLOG!

      How is Dune in June going? I bet you’re kicking down doors and taking names!

      TL911, you are so great! I am smiling and smiling right now!

  6. Thank you for sharing this speech by Neil Gaiman. I confess I have not read any of his writing, although I read an article about the film version of Coraline. My “to read” and “to do” lists continue to grow.

    1. I just finished reading the book that Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett (writer of the Discworld series)— “Bad Omens.” That was a fun book— the jokes felt a little familiar, but some of the ideas were interesting. I had never read either Gaiman or Pratchett before seeing this same speech!

      I also have Coraline on my list! Do you want to synchronize our reading experiences of this book, maybe?

      Re: to do/to read lists— Me too, YS!

    2. Gads, Courtenay, I have been using the notification list and even click on the “View All,” but I have never clicked on the “Unread,” which takes me pages backward.

      Here was your invitation to read Coraline together. I would love to (if you haven’t already read it). Of course, I must find a copy first. Let me know.

    3. I still would like to read Coraline with you!

      This summer so far, I have read one Gaiman book, one Gaiman/Pratchett book, and one Pratchett book this summer.

      Do you know that I didn’t start using the “Notifications” thingy until July? No idea it existed. Now we know all the WordPress secrets! Or something.

    4. Do you have a copy already? I will need to get one.

      I found a book at the Little Library down the street that I am currently reading (Father Joe by Tony Hendra). It’s great.

      School starts soon, but I plan to carve out more reading time as well as more writing time, but not necessarily more blogging.

    1. I need to listen to this speech again— there’s so much to it, and yet there’s simplicity in Gaiman’s language.

      I was juuuuust coming out of my block when I started my blog, also! And I am so glad I decided to write a blog— there’s nothing like it, is there?

Hey there, Cupcake! How are ya?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s