Today’s post is by author and writing coach April Dávila (@aprildavila).
Earlier this year, I took a week-long writing retreat at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in Temecula, California. I had an idea for a new project and had written about 10,000 words, but I wanted some focused time to dive in and figure it out.
The week started off well. I wrote 13,000 words in the first two days, exploring characters and drafting scenes that had been percolating in my head, but on the third day everything slowed down. I simply couldn’t think of what else to write.
In the past I would have called it writer’s block, but I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore. In fact, in my coaching program, I devote an entire hour-long lesson to dismantling writer’s block because I believe fervently that it’s not a thing. It’s just a catch-all phrase we use to describe other things that keep us from writing.
But sitting there, staring out the window of my cabin in Temecula at the unusually verdant valley below, I began to worry I had been wrong. What if writer’s block really IS a thing? Not only was it a concern for my immediate circumstances, but it seemed to me that if writer’s block really was a thing, I would have to write a letter of apology to every writer I’d ever worked with. Had I really been wrong all along? In my mind, a spiral of darkness opened like a gaping mouth.
But wait, I thought, I had never, in all my years of coaching, failed to help a writer get unblocked. I just had to coach myself a bit. I mentally stitched up that pit of despair and instead imagined the conversation that might take place between April Dávila the frustrated writer and April Dávila the writing coach.
Frustrated April: The words just aren’t coming.
Writing coach April: Is the material too fresh? Maybe you need to do some more research.
Frustrated April: No, I know what I want the story to be. I’ve been outlining for months.
Writing coach April: Are you maybe feeling overwhelmed, burned out?
Frustrated April: Are you kidding? (gestures at gorgeous view from my cabin that I have all to myself for a whole week) The words should be flowing like vodka at a Sean Combs party. (bangs head against the desk)
Writing coach April: Maybe you’re not writing what you think you’re writing.
Frustrated April: (lifts head) Wait… what?
As soon as I had the thought, I knew it was spot on.
One of the things I explore with blocked writers is the question of whether, perhaps, they’re writing in the wrong format. For instance, they think they’re writing a short story, but it’s really meant to be a poem. Or they’re writing an essay that really should be a memoir.
Turns out, I’m writing a novella. I googled the word count range for novellas (it’s 10,000–40,000) and was flooded with a mix of relief and excitement. Am I really writing a novella? I think I am. I knew this project would be short (it’s political satire), but realizing it’s a novella suddenly made the whole structure fall into place.
I spent Thursday and Friday reorganizing what I had into a new structure, writing some scenes that suddenly needed to be written (no more “writer’s block” here), and then BAM, I had a first draft. Oh, the satisfaction!
What’s more, I felt a renewed sense of confidence in my assertion that “writer’s block” is not a thing.
If you’re feeling blocked and think you might be writing in the wrong format, take this handy little quiz and tally up your score as you go.
Why did you choose the format you chose for your story? That is, if you think you’re writing a novel, ask yourself: why a novel?
- It’s what I’ve always written: 1 point
- The story I’m telling is well suited to this format: 0
Have you considered other formats (poetry, essay, memoir, novella—even if you’ve never written them before)?
- It never occurred to me: 1 point
- Yes, I’m genre-fluid: 0
Are you currently reading a lot in the format you’re trying to write (for example: you are trying to write a novel and are reading a lot of novels)?
- No. I’ve been really interested in (fill in style of story you don’t usually read): 1 point
- Yes: 0
If you scored any points at all, you might be writing in the wrong format. Take some time to explore other styles of storytelling. Give yourself permission to grow and change as a writer. Consider the possibilities that could await you as you embrace a new style of writing.
This is one of those rare times in life when realizing you’ve been wrong is actually really exciting.
April Dávila is an award-winning author and writing coach. Publisher’s Weekly called her debut novel, 142 Ostriches, a “vivid, uplifting debut” and the book went on to win the WILLA Award for Women Writing the West. Writer’s Digest listed her blog (at aprildavila.com) as one of the Best 101 Websites for Writers. She is the creator of the Sit Write Here writing coaching program and co-founder of the online writing community at A Very Important Meeting. She is a practicing Buddhist, a half-hearted gardener, and occasional runner. Her second novel is forthcoming.