Why the phrase “writer’s block” is holding you back, and what to do about it
Have you ever heard of Plumber’s Block? Or Doctor’s block? Or Taxi Driver’s Block?
Writer’s Block is a lie we tell ourselves to get out of doing the work. I know I’ve used it as an excuse countless times.
“Oh, I have writer’s block, so I’ll go and watch ten hours of Buffy The Vampire Slayer under a blanket and wait for inspiration to strike.”
Funnily enough, inspiration never did strike when I was procrastinating magnificently.
You may be reading this and cursing me, declaring that I’m a snarky bitch who knows not of what she speaks, but stick with me. I’m hoping that by the end of this article you’ll be persuaded you don’t suffer from “writer’s block” — and you’ll have what you need to overcome any big hairy writing challenges.
Don’t Give Away Your Power
The thing about believing in writer’s block is it implies an external cause; a problem caused by someone or something else.
It becomes something you can point the blamethrower at and absolve yourself of responsibility.
And the problem with that is, when you wash your hands of the responsibility, you give away your power to some nebulous, wraithlike phantom condition.
When the problem is external, your ability to solve it is weakened. You make yourself the victim, and that’s not a comfortable or strong position to be in.
The truth is, our inability to write — our blockage — comes from within, and the only person who can fix it is ourselves.
I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker a while ago about writer’s block. In it, I learned that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writer of The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan and many other classic poems, suffered from the first recorded mention of writer’s block. He experienced a total shutdown and all-but stopped writing in his late 20s.
After that, ambitious writing projects inspired what he called “an indefinite indescribable Terror” (I know what that feels like, ay) and he wasted most of the rest of his life in an opium haze.
Is Writer’s Block A Modern Affliction?
I reckon writers have probably struggled to prise words from their heads since the beginning of writing, but “writer’s block” only became a Thing during the early 19th century. When the early Romantic writers were lounging around and bending their brains.
Around that time, the idea of writing as an art form changed. In earlier times, according to The New Yorker, writers thought of writing as “a rational, purposeful activity” which they controlled; but the early Romantics saw writing as external, and somehow magically bestowed.
In fact, Shelley once wrote: “A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry.’” In his mind, poetry came from “some invisible influence, like an inconstant window”, which kind of blew the words and ideas into the poet.
He or she just had to sit and wait for it to happen. The poets were mere conduits for art.
Those flaky Romantics and their opium-fuelled ideas…
I agree with the earlier writers: writing comes from inside me. My ideas and inspirations come from everywhere — but the act of writing and composition is my responsibility. If I sit and wait for the words to come, I’ll die of old age first.
Layers Of Fear
Writer’s block isn’t a condition to be cured or something that happens to us from outside. It’s layers of fear, anxiety, and dread because we are all terrified of looking stupid, terrified of failing and, sometimes, terrified of succeeding.
We’re afraid to just “ship it”, as Seth Godin would say.
Writer’s block is an excuse.
Writing is often hard. Anyone who claims it’s always easy is lying or not an actual human.
Creating anything is hard, whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, a poem, an article, a book, solving an engineering problem, or winning an argument in a courtroom.
The act of creation requires effort, and it requires a little tiny piece (and sometimes a giant chunk) of yourself in sacrifice.
When the going gets tough, and we can’t seem to think of anything, though, we blame a lack of inspiration.
We blame writer’s block.
We blame anything rather than sit down and do the damn work.
But a funny thing happens when we sit down and make words appear on paper anyway: inspiration strikes. Ideas start to flow. Motivation rises.
Because action doesn’t come from motivation; motivation comes from action.
Inspiration doesn’t appear from nowhere and create beautiful writing; inspiration comes from thinking, scribbling, observing, reading, listening, and learning.
Professionals don’t sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. They roll up their sleeves and get on with it, even when it’s the hardest thing in the world.
And so can you.
Here are more articles about beating the Blank Page Of Doom:
How To Beat “Writer’s Block”: 3 Fun Exercises To Get You Writing
Don’t fear the Blank Page Of Doom — choose your weapons and wrestle it into compliance
How Talking To Your Clients Helps You Beat The Blank Page
Conversations with your ideal readers…
And if you’re ready to take your book-writing to the next step, you can pre-order my new book How The Hell Do You Write A Book from here. While you’re waiting for it to arrive, you’ll get access to a juicy pile of free resources to get you started.