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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Five Stages of Writer's Block

When writers aren't writing, they hurt.  They may not realize that they miss writing, but their behavior speaks volumes.  Often, writers will go through a series of stages of writer's block before they reach the other side ready to write again.

(1) Denial: 
"I don't have writer's block, I'm just really, really busy.  So busy in fact, that I just can't seem to find time to do all that writing that I know I should do.  But just you watch: as soon as I'm not so busy, I'll be writing up a storm."

There's a reason why denial is the first stage of writer's block.  If you're going to get a writing impasse, you first have to identify that it's there.  The sooner you realize you have writer's block, the sooner you can get over it and start writing again.


(2) Anger:  "Why can't I think of any good ideas?  Clearly there is someone at fault here because I'm supposed to be writing the greatest story/novel/poem EVER, but instead I'm here busy with this job/family/life that is taking all my time.  It's so horribly unfair."

Anger is often a defense mechanism writers use to avoid writing.  It's easy to get angry at the world around us for not letting us write, but the truth is, if we want to write, we find the time.  Getting angry is just a way for writers to mask the truth: that they're not writing.  The cure is simple.  Just start writing.  Heck, write right AT the people or things that make you angry.  Before you know it, the anger will be gone and you'll be writing.

(3) Bargaining:  "OK, I've got it all figured out.  If I don't write today, but I write doubly much tomorrow, it will even out, right?  And if I don't write tomorrow, then I'll just write a triple dose the day after.  Easy-peasy."

Bargaining is a fancy technique but really what it boils down to is denial.  When you start making rationalizations about why you're not writing or why you can't write right now, you're simply denying the fact that you need to write.  The truth is, paralysis breeds more paralysis and the more excuses you make for not writing, the harder it becomes to start writing again.  Don't let the cycle pick up momentum.  Instead, nip this sucker in the bud.  No rationalizations.  Just sit down and write.

(4)  Depression:  "What's the point?  Everything I write is lousy so why bother?  I only had one good story/novel/poem in me anyway and I've already used it up.  I'll never write again."

This is probably the darkest stage of writer's block because it is at this point that the writer begins to doubt his or her actual ability.  Up until now, the focus of the writer's inability to write has been external, but now the focus becomes internal.  Freud said depression was anger directed toward the self, and I think there is some truth to that.  The depression phase of writer's block happens when writers let their frustrations with a certain project become personal.  I was once given a fantastic piece of advice which I'll share with you now:
"Don't say 'I failed,' say 'this failed' and then move on."
(5)  Acceptance:  "Maybe I have writer's block and maybe it's awful and there's nothing I can do about it.  But that's OK.  I can still sit down and write through it."

The reason writer's block is so painful is because writers really do hurt when they're not writing (whether they're cognizant of it or not).  Writers need to write the way most other people need to breathe and when they are not writing, writers grieve.  They mope.  They wallow.

Oftentimes, all it takes is one small step, one tiny push in the right direction to get a writer back on track.  I've found that for me, the best cure is acknowledging and then moving on.  Sometimes the trickiest part of writer's block is actually identifying that we're hurting.  Once we identify the pain behind the writer's block, it's just a matter of finding the cure.  After all, if writer's block is nothing more than pain from not writing, then the easiest way to get rid of it is to... write!

Today's Task:  Today's task is a choose-your-own-adventure.  If you are currently experiencing writer's block, go to choice A.  If you are not currently having writer's block, choose B.

(A)  If you chose this task, it's because you're currently experiencing writer's block.  Good for you for being aware and identifying the problem.  Now as best you can, try to identify which stage of writer's block you're at right now.  Remember, recognizing the problem is half the battle.  As we mentioned previously, writer's block is often recycled pain from not writing, so our task for today is gently coax yourself into writing a list.  This list should contain baby steps you can take to break out of the clutches of whatever writer's block stage you're in.  Your tactics will be different depending on the stage, but whatever steps you choose, this task should end with you writing (even if it's just this list).

(B)  You lucky writer, you.  If you chose this task it's because you don't have writer's block right now.  You may want to refrain from sharing that fact with the rest of us, lest we get jealous. :-)  Seriously, though, while you may not have writer's block right now, I'd be willing to be that you've had it in the past and that you will experience it again someday.  That said, choose the stage where you often find yourself "getting stuck."  Now make a list in your notebook of things you can do to prevent yourself from falling into that stage's trap.  This list might contain activities that help jump-start your creativity.  It could also include writing prompts you can use to shake up your ideas.  Depending on what stage you choose, your list could be dramatically different.  (If you like, you could make a list for each of the stages.)  The goal here is to make a preemptive strike against writer's block and be ready for when it rears it's ugly head.

9 comments:

Janice said...

I'm going to make a list of what I can do to stop my inner saboteur at each stage.

A few weeks ago I reached the depression level. I deleted my blog without saving the template or content and closed my twitter account. I gave myself a kick a few days later and forced myself out of it – still working on it.

I’m not a muse kind of girl. For me it's just a matter of doing it. I’m a bum-in-chair kind of writer, but the longer I leave it the harder it gets.

Moan, moan, grumble, grumble ;)

gabi said...

I can understand that impulse to delete your writing. Deleting work hurts, and when writers reach the depression stage, it's not uncommon for them to try to hurt themselves by harming or destroying their valuable work. It's kind of like the "kill your darlings" impulse but on steroids.

Here's a trick that might help in the future. Save a back-up copy of your blog content or novel or whatever big projects you're working on and put it on a flash drive. Then if you catch yourself spiraling, give the flash drive to someone you trust for safe-keeping. That way if you do something drastic, you'll still have a back-up copy saved away.

just-cassie.com said...

I've certainly hit these points at time, but for me it always comes back to 'just sit down, and write'. And once I start, things always feel better :-)

gabi said...

Cassie, I totally agree. BIC (butt in chair) is often the best method for curing writer's block.

Candyland said...

I love this post! Writer's block is my biggest problem. So I guess now that I've "accepted" it, I'm well on my way to beating it!!!

gabi said...

Candyland - Glad you enjoyed! And you're right, accepting it is the first step to beating writer's block.

kathanink said...

I'd say that I am having a minor phase of WB (does that mean I am in denial? LOL). I wrote some pretty good things last mont

h, and now I am stuck. Part of my problem is I do write, but I never go back and rework or submit anything. So I am feeling frustrated with myself that while I may have written something decent, I can never get the courage to do anything with it.

So is that depression?

gabi said...

Kathanink - Not sure if it's depression or just a healthy dose of fear. Maybe a little creative blockbusting will help?

Sounds like you might need to take a few risks with your work and just revise and submit it. After all, what's the worst that can happen? Whenever I get nervous about submitting, I say to myself: "Remember, small children will not die, if this gets rejected." I also find it helps to get support from fellow writers when I'm submitting stuff. Takes the edge, off... ya know?

a.m.harte said...

A lot of this list rang true to me. I often fall into the "too busy!" stage, then realize what I'm doing and begin bargaining with myself, then fail to meet those targets and get depressed.

Eventually I go off somewhere and scribble by hand and something clicks and I get that beautiful rush of creativity. :-)

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