Commanding Writer’s Block

There are many things that I enjoy about writing, but staring at the empty computer screen isn’t one of them. That white page surrounded by a sea of blue is intimidating and the “page 1 of 1 with the word count at the bottom left bellows my lack of words.

Sigh. Writer’s Block.It isn’t pretty.

All that being said, I am in good company. Some of the best loved writers throughout history have been plagued by this affliction. What makes Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf different from other writers? They didn’t let the Block paralyze them for any length of time. They figured a way around whatever it was keeping them from producing pages of writing. If they can do it, so can you. So can I.

What is this mysterious thing called Writer’s Block? I found a working definition on Wikipedia:

Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work. The condition varies widely in intensity. It can be trivial, a temporary difficulty in dealing with the task at hand. At the other extreme, some “blocked” writers have been unable to work for years on end, and some have even abandoned their careers. It can manifest as the affected writer viewing their work as inferior or unsuitable, when in fact it could be the opposite. The condition was first described in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler.

Here’s a definition, but that still doesn’t help me with what to do while I’m lost. Why does this happen?

A grammar website named it the “Censor” that resides in our brain. Little voices inside our head tell us that we have absolutely nothing worthwhile to say, nothing that we’ve experienced would be interesting enough for others to read. The Censor skillfully takes these voices and tears them down only to build them back up brick by brick until we have a wall so tall and so wide that we couldn’t possible find a way around it. Maybe the Censor was created because an English teacher told you that your poem was drivel in 7th grade, maybe an agent told you that what you were working on wasn’t politically correct or maybe you just had a traumatic potty training episode- it doesn’t matter why it’s in existence- it just is.

An American poet, William Stafford, states, “There is no such thing as writer’s block for writers whose standards are low enough.” WHAT?!? Are we supposed to create crap? Are we to be satisfied with the mediocre?

What the man is trying to tell us is that we need to lighten up. Stop taking ourselves so seriously. If you sit down with the sole intention of writing the best thriller, the most profound poem, the scariest horror novel, then you’re screwed. (Pardon my vulgarity-but it sums it up so succinctly.) Give yourself permission to write whatever flies from your fingertips. The point is to not write another great novel right off the bat, the point is to simply write. I highly doubt William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in a single take.

Joanna Penn (The Creative Penn) has a wonderful list of suggestions to push back the Censor creating Writer’s Block in your head.

  1. Rid yourself of the genius curse– everything that comes from our brain does not have to be brilliant!
  2. Don’t be married to results– most folks have to write pages and pages of “stuff” before something good bubbles to the top.
  3. Don’t compare yourself to other writers– your talents are unique. We don’t need another Stephen King, we need you!
  4. Remember rejection letters are made of paper– they can be disposed of quite easily.
  5. Write ahead of yourself– we’re all walled in by our own habits- break out!
  6. Cannibalize your older writing– don’t be afraid to chop your words, but keep them in a separate folder. There might be glimmers of brilliance.
  7. Break old habits of voice and style– if it’s stale to you, it will be stale to your readers.
  8. Break your assumptions– If you are writing a light hearted comedy and get stuck, bring in a killer and see what happens. You can always change tone in a revision.
  9. Write every single day– we all know this rule.
  10. Join or start a writing group– I get by with a little help from my friends.
  11. Combine all of these approaches– nuff said!







17 Responses to Commanding Writer’s Block

  1. Neeks says:

    All very good ideas! Just to write is the main thing, write something. Anything! It’s the easiest cure. Once you get started it’s hard to stop.


  2. Thanks for the pep talk!! How come the best advice is always the simplest on the surface yet so hard when you try to put it in practice??!? This is precisely what we need to do.


  3. Tess says:

    Great advice…I usually work on something else…I have two or three manuscripts going at once…If I hit a wall with one…I go to another, then come back and can usually jump over the wall easily after thinking about the other ms for a while.


  4. I wish my brain was as agile as yours!!! My brain works on the premise: One brain, one story. Sigh….it can be so frustrating sometimes.


  5. There isn’t a writer born who hasn’t suffered writer’s block. I have it this time every year, as winter comes on and the days grow shorter. Fifteen minutes out in the noonday sun helps me sometimes.
    It may also be boredom, If I plot too closely ahead, there is little surprise in the writing. I’m a pantser, which has served me very well in the past: but this time I know everything that will happen, except for the atmospheric details and character interactions ~ and the only surprises I can have are the unexpected little things that my characters pull off as I write to the outline.
    As Neeks said, “Just to write is the main thing.” I plonk myself down in front of the screen and write one sentence at a time, one word at a time; and that is one word and sentence more than yesterday.
    The interesting part is that, later, when reading back, I don’t really see any difference in the quality of work between the free-flow and the block writing.


  6. Hi Lyn- Welcome back!!!
    You are so right when you say that every writer suffers from this dilema- even the great ones like Hemingway! The difference is what we do with it. Do we find a way around it or bulldoze through it or do we let it win? Unfortunately, there are many that have been defeated by this beast of their own making. I think that the root of it all is fear. We fear that we aren’t the brilliant gods that we’d all love to be. We forget the joy is in the process of creating- we need to let the perfectionism and eye on marketability go out the window to free us from the Censor.
    I also find that when I’m truly stuck, getting up from my computer and taking a walk will help clear the path for new ideas. Thanks for the tip.


  7. Ah Tracey, I’m only back because of the block. It’s the most insidious problem.
    I’ll have to go to handwritten legal pads with my favourite pen, because paper is not able to access the internet!
    Don’t you find, in days of block, you check your email hourly? Surf the net every few minutes? Answer blogs like this? Anything to fill the vacuum of not writing freely.



  8. Boy, does this hit close to home! Hoping to work through the blockage real soon!! LOL Great post, Stacey! 🙂


  9. It hits all of us when we least expect it! I had to ponder one particular scene for more than 2 weeks because I just couldn’t write a single word- it ALL sounded like junk to me. When I finally started (which happened to be NaNo) I knew I had no other excuses. I punched keys, held my breath and words came out! It started ever so slowly and then picked up speed! I had to have the blessing of NaNo before I allowed myself to simply write whatever came to mind. Now, isn’t that ridiculous???!!!???
    I’m going to try being in NaNo for the month of December too. The funny thing- it turned out to be some of my best writing. Go figure.


  10. jeff7salter says:

    Great column, Stacey.
    I find this quote especially on-target:
    “Little voices inside our head tell us that we have absolutely nothing worthwhile to say, nothing that we’ve experienced would be interesting enough for others to read.”

    Fascinating how humans can let those voices ‘enter’ … and (at times) let them get louder and louder.
    We have 2 dogs and a cat. None of them EVER seem bothered by destructive, depressing inner voices.


  11. Ahhhhh to be a dog…I think they have the secret to a happy life. Humans tend to over-analyze every little thing. Dogs just accept and move on or take a nap. Yep. They’ve got it right!!


  12. jbrayweber says:

    Writer’s block? What’s that? Ha! I get on the elliptical machine when I’m stuck. Why, just last night I figured out what was going to happen in the next scene. Curse of the pantser, I guess.

    Great post, Stacey.


  13. Did you read the bit about being politically incorrect…hmmmmm wonder what I’m talking about. 🙂


  14. Still in writer’s block, I may as well give air to another interesting concept that I haven’t seen in this discussion.
    Left brain vs right brain.
    Yup. Two sides of the same animal.
    The pantsers like me usually sit down with a character at a starting point, and we write like crazy unfolding a story that we haven’t planned, have only half conceived, but which leads us to the end in a fairly pain-free process. I happen to be pretty good at first drafts this way. At the end, I leave it for a while and then come back; and in the second draft tidy up the pieces into a fairly decent novel with beginning, middle and end, and characters who live through significant stories. (my opinion – open to criticism).
    The first draft is almost 100% right brain working. The right brain is your inner self, your uncensored self, your artistic voice, and it needs to be let loose, unfettered.
    The second draft is your left brain coming back over the material to craft it into a shape that will appeal and make sense to others. This left brain is your inner critic, the one who inserts that comma in the morning and takes it out in the afternoon.
    I thoroughly believe that writer’s block is a result of inappropriate left-brain interference in the first draft. This is your nasty side which tells you that you are writing crap, that the story sucks, that nobody wants to read it anyway, so why bother.
    Left brain should only kick in AFTER right brain has finished the first draft.
    Today, last week, last month I have been wrestling with left brain.
    Does anyone know how to kick right brain back into gear?

    Yes, walking the dog helps too.



    This is a great point- I’m a pantster as well and you are so right when you say that it’s that pesky analytical, critical side that wants to kick in before you’re ready for it that messes it all up.


  16. this was a good exchange for me today, gave me a vent, but I added maybe 500 words to the ms and didn’t get past the block. Maybe tomorrow


  17. Hey- 500 words is 500 words! Celebrate the baby successes too!!


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