Note from Jane: Today’s post is an excerpt from Fire Up Your Writing Brain by Susan Reynolds (Writer’s Digest Books).
We’re going to go there, right now, even though it might lead to automatic resistance: Writer’s block is a myth.
It is not something that always existed; in fact, the concept originated in the early 19th century when the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first described his “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. Romantic English poets of the time believed their poems magically arrived from an external source, so when their pens dried up and the words did not flow, they assumed the spirits, the gods, and/or their individual muses were not visiting them with favor.
French writers soon latched onto the idea of a suffering connected to writing and expanded it to create the myth that all writers possessed a tortured soul, unable to write without anguish. Later, the anxiety (the artistic inhibition) that often accompanies writing was blamed on, or turned into, neurosis, depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction. On good days, writers suffered for their art, and never so much as when they allowed psychological issues to thwart their ability to write.
Here’s the simple truth: The very nature of the art of writing incorporates uncertainty, experimentation, and a willingness to create art from the depths of who we are. Writing is a mentally challenging occupation which requires more hard-core, cognitive expenditure than many other lines of work.
Here’s another truism: Lots and lots of adults don’t like to think; once they have an occupation that provides a living and keeps them relatively happy, they prefer to live in a mentally remote world where they have a job they can do, sans hard-core thinking.
But writers have to think and think hard—and we have to think beyond mastering craft into creating works full of meaning, purpose, and nobility—and then editing and selling them. So, to even assume that this should go smoothly—particularly in the slogging middle—is to be misguided.
Writing is not for sissies, and if you intend to write novels, screenplays, or plays, it will not be easy, and you will often come up against a wall of resistance. Just don’t call it “writer’s block,” call it what it is: not being prepared to move to the next level.
That being said, a discouraging loss of steam strikes even the best and most prolific writers. Even though it’s natural, and fairly predictable, one must never linger, which is why this chapter will offer a spate of ideas to break the spell and get your writing brain back on track. But we begin, of course, with reasons why all writers get stalled.
1. You’ve Lost Your Way
All writers reach a point when they lose their way, their work veering off into unforeseen directions or experiencing a surprise (like when a character you didn’t anticipate shows up). Rather than permitting this to sabotage your momentum, take a day or two to rethink your story (or project). Identify the holdup, and loosely dance around it a few days. If it’s a character issue, go to the library, pull some of your favorite books off the shelves, and see how writers you admire dealt with similar problems. If it’s a setting issue, visit the place in question, or a similar site, and spend some time absorbing elements that you can weave into the story.
If you’re stalled because you lost your way, try the opposite of what you usually do—if you’re a plotter, give your imagination free rein for a day; if you’re a freewriter or a pantser, spend a day creating a list of the next ten scenes that need to happen. This gives your brain a challenge, and for this reason you can take heart, because your billions of neurons love a challenge and are in search of synapses they can form. You can practically feel the dendrites fluttering their spiny little arms.
If you’re having trouble identifying the problem, your perspective may be too constricted. Try pulling back. Think about how the story is working on a larger scale, give yourself credit for getting this far, and then hone in on what you think may be the hitch. Maybe you think your character has turned into a caricature or the plotline is too weak. If that’s the case, look through the previous fifty pages for ways you can tweak it to achieve what you want. Often the brilliance is right there, just waiting for you to claim it.
2. Your Passion Has Waned
It happens. Because writing a novel requires immersion—thinking about it, crafting it, dreaming about it, obsessing about it—your brain may be on overload or just bored. It doesn’t mean that your writing is boring; it means that you’ve worked and reworked the material so much that it now feels, sounds, or reads boring—to your mind.
A pair of fresh eyes would likely have a more objective opinion, though it’s not time to ask for outside eyes. Asking now may invite uninformed opinions (no one will have invested as much as you have to date) that make you question everything, and editing while writing can stifle creativity. Wait until the first draft is complete and it’s time to edit, before allowing yourself, or others, to question your creative decisions or, worse yet, to nitpick.
Lots of writers discard projects at this stage, often lamenting that they just lost the juice they needed to keep going. They chalk it up to choosing the wrong project, the wrong genre, the wrong topic, the wrong characters, or whatever. That may be the case, but if feeling bored about a third of the way in becomes a pattern, it’s likely more about you than about the story, characters, or subject matter.
Remember, your writing brain looks for and responds to patterns, so be careful that you don’t make succumbing to boredom or surrendering projects without a fight into a habit. Do your best to work through the reasons you got stalled and to finish what you started. This will lay down a neuronal pathway that your writing brain will merrily travel along in future work.
If you’ve lost steam and fear it’s because you’ve chosen the wrong subject, take a day or two to do, read, or think about something else. Before you go back to the manuscript, ask yourself these three probing questions to reveal the real reason you chose this topic, these characters, this storyline, this theme, and so on:
- What drove me to write about this in the first place?
- Why did I feel that this was worth a year of my time?
- What is it that I wanted the world to know?
If your reasons remain solid, true, and important enough to you, you’ll likely spark a few “grass fires” into your neuronal forest, which will send you rushing to your desk to get words on paper.
3. Your Expectations Are Too High
A mistake many novice writers make is in setting their sights too high, expecting perfection when they have yet to write a complete novel or screenplay. The best advice anyone can give inexperienced writers is to write a first draft as quickly as possible, as good books are not written, but rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. Once you have a first draft, you have a solid base on which to build, and all the “problems” you anticipated will work themselves out as you massage and craft your raw material.
What stops many writers midway is attempting to make the first draft the best they can write. Some believe it’s the way real writers write, which is generally not true; and some believe that perfecting each chapter will relieve them of the need to rewrite, which is also not true. Imposing this unreasonable need for perfection is bound to cause anxiety—and a great deal of frustration.
The more pressure you put on yourself, the higher your anxiety level rises and the more writing becomes a signal of danger, which transmits a message straight to your limbic system, triggering fight-or-flight reactions. When that happens, the limbic system stops forwarding messages to the cortex, which is where conscious thought, imagination, and creativity are generated. Instead, your amygdala releases stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, and soon, your heart rate is skyrocketing, your ability to feel emotionally safe enough to write is eroded, and your ability to concentrate vanishes. Who wants that? Who wants to re-create that? Small wonder that you are feeling a resistance to writing.
Instead of setting your sights too high, give yourself permission to write anything, on topic or off topic, meaningful or trite, useful or folly. The point is that by attaching so much importance to the work you’re about to do, you make it harder to get into the flow. Also, if your inner critic sticks her nose in (which often happens), tell her that her role is very important to you (and it is!) and that you will summon her when you have something worthy of her attention. That should divert her attention and free you to dive back into the writing pool.
4. You Are Burned Out
It is quite possible that you’ve simply tapped yourself out. We all have our limits, be they physical, mental, emotional, and all of the aforementioned. Eventually your body, brain, or emotions are going to rebel and insist on downtime, which may come in the guise of what you may call writer’s block.
But keep this in mind: You aren’t blocked; you’re exhausted. Give yourself a few days to really rest. Lie on a sofa and watch movies, take long walks in the hour just before dusk, go out to dinner with friends, or take a mini-vacation somewhere restful. Do so with intention to give yourself—and your brain—a rest. No thinking about your novel for a week! In fact, no heavy thinking for a week. Lie back, have a margarita, and chill. Once you’re rested, you’ll likely find the desire to write has come roaring back.
Have you ever wondered why ideas seem to come easier when you’ve stopped concentrating and gone off to rest, shower, or mow the lawn? When you’re working on a task that requires higher level cognitive functioning, like writing, which requires intense concentration, your brain focuses like a laser on the task at hand, blocking out distractions and relying on existing neuronal connections. But when you break concentration and do something that doesn’t require focused cognitive functioning, your brain is more susceptible to distractions and thus “lets in” a broader range of information, which can lead to imagining more alternatives and making more diverse interpretations—fostering a “think outside the box” mentality and creating the milieu for an aha moment. Scientists have even found that when your brain is a little fuzzy from exertion, it’s a lot less efficient at remembering connections and thereby may be more open to new connections, new ideas, and new ways of thinking.
5. You’re Too Distracted
Few of us have the luxury of being free from distractions. Most of us have jobs, spouses, kids, and responsibilities that occupy a huge amount of our brain space. If your productivity has stalled, or your frustration level has peaked at a new high, it may be that too many other things are on your mind. For many, bill paying and prior commitments begin to nag. There’s just too much on your desk—and in your brain. When those distractions mount, it’s often easier and more productive to just stop writing and go take care of your life, to do whatever it is that is causing you to feel pressured.
Take note that, unless you’re just one of those rare birds who always write no matter what, you will experience times in your life when it’s impossible to keep to a writing schedule. People get sick, people have to take a second job, children need extra attention, parents need extra attention, and so on. If you’re in one of those emergency situations (raising small children counts), by all means, don’t berate yourself. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to put the actual writing on hold. It is good, however, to keep your hands in the water. For instance, in lieu of writing your novel:
- Read novels or works similar to what you hope to write.
- Read books about the setting or historical context of your novel.
- Keep a designated journal where you jot down ideas for the novel (and other works).
- Write small vignettes, poems, or sketches related to the novel.
- Whenever you find time to meditate, envision yourself writing the novel.
Instead of feeling like a failed writer, be patient and kind toward your writing self until the situation changes. The less you fret and put a negative spin on it, the more small pockets of time might open up. And, since you have been wise in keeping your writing brain primed, you may find it easier to write than you imagined.
For more about sparking your creativity, check out Fire Up Your Writing Brain.
Susan Reynolds has authored or edited more than forty-five nonfiction and fiction books. She has a B.A. in psychology and has often written about psychological concepts. Susan also edits and coaches other writers in pursuit of happiness through publishing.