This post is a summary of a presentation I gave at LTUE 2015. I find that posting it right now is particularly apropos because I’ve got two writing projects in process and I’ve made little progress on either one lately.
I am a writer of picture books, blog entries, essays, and children’s fiction. As my day job I run the publishing house for my husband’s comic strip, Schlock Mercenary. This means I do graphic design, marketing, shipping, inventory management, store management, and customer support. I have a house that needs maintenance and I have four children, three of whom are teenagers. My life is busy. In fact when someone who knows me in one of my non-writing capacities finds out that I also write, the question that they ask is “where do you find the time?”
The truth is that I spend a lot of time not writing. Even with my busy life, time is not the problem. I have the hours, I just find myself reaching the end of the week and realizing that I’ve spent them all on non-writing things. This post/presentation lays out some of the reasons writers get blocked, or otherwise don’t write. It also offers some solutions for the problems.
Pretty much every creative person I know has an inner critic who tells them they are terrible and that there is no point to spending time creating. In my head this voice often tells me that my writing is a waste of time and that I should be spending that time on more important things.
How to counter it: Recognize that the critical thoughts are there. I often personify them a little bit, calling them the voices of self doubt. This small separation is useful, because once I see them as separate from me, it is easier for me to choose to ignore them. Sometimes I even mentally address them. “Yes, I know you think this isn’t worthwhile, I’m going to write anyway.”
Important reminder: These voices of self doubt are lying to you. The act of creation has value, even if the only person who is ever changed by it is the creator.
There may be people in your life who feed the self doubt. They may be deliberately undercutting you for reasons of their own, or they may be doing it unintentionally. It is important to recognize which people make you doubt yourself. If they are unimportant in your life, perhaps remove them from it. If it is a loved one, then spend some time figuring out how they are adding to your self doubt and try to re-structure your relationship so that they have less power to make you doubt yourself. Be aware that this is not simple and the other person may react poorly to the process.
Perfectionism / The editor within
This is also an internal critic, but it is slightly different from the self doubt voices. This internal editor constantly tells you you’re not good enough, but it is more specific. The existence of the internal editor is actually an indicator of writing growth. New writers think everything they write is wonderful. Then they learn more and realize that everything they’ve written is terrible because they’ve acquired knowledge and skill to recognize the flaws in their own writing. Your internal editor is extremely valuable when you need to revise, not so much when you’re trying to draft.
How to counter it: When you’re drafting you have to give yourself permission to write something terrible. You will fix it later. Some people need to have some sort of timer or incentive in order to force themselves to draft quickly without worrying that it is bad. Examples of incentives are Write or Die programs, Written Kitten, or participating in NaNoWriMo. If you are editing you need to distinguish between the useful editor and the mean editor. The useful one says “Wow that sentence is terrible. We need to write it better” The mean one says “Wow that sentence is terrible. You are a terrible writer. Why do you do this anyway?”
When you know other writers or read about how they work, it is very common to come to the conclusion that you’re doing writing wrong. You feel like if your process isn’t like [famous writer] then that explains why you fail to write. I’ve seen people contort their lives and writing trying to be someone else.
How to counter it: There is no wrong way to create. Anything that allows you to get writing done is better than a system that does not. Feel free to learn how other writers approach their writing. Experiment with their methods, but if their methods don’t work for you, discard them. Keep what works for you and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong. (If they do, then they fall in the category of people who feed your self doubt.)
Fear of Failure
No one wants to be rejected or to fall short of their dreams. Sometimes writers will subconsciously sabotage their own writing because if they never finish the book, then they never have to face the rejections that come with publication. Rejections and criticisms come not matter what publishing path you choose. Sometimes writers learn too much about publishing before they’ve finished writing. The whole process can feel futile if no one will ever read your work.
How to counter it: First remember the act of creation has intrinsic value no matter what happens to the creation once it is done. Second, focus on the work that is in front of you instead of on your fears about what will come in the future. If you’re drafting, then fully enjoy the process of drafting. No matter what comes afterward no one will ever be able to take away the experience you had with writing your book. Then you can focus on the experience of editing. Then on publishing or submitting. Each step is its own process. Do one at a time. All the other steps will be there later. Worry about them when you get to them.
It may be that how you’re managing your time is causing you to be blocked. This is not the same as not having enough time. The time is there, you just need to figure out how to arrange it so that writing fits. You may not have a large block of time or you may be trying to write during the wrong time of day.
How to counter it: Learn to work in small chunks. Sometimes it feels like you can’t accomplish anything unless you can free up an hour or two. But I know writers who create whole books by snatching fifteen minutes here and there. You just have to train your brain to hold the story ideas and percolate them while you’re doing other things so that when you sit down to write you can pour words onto the page. A notebook is a very useful tool for training your brain to do this. Carry one with you. Scribble notes as thoughts come to you. This teaches your brain to hold story thoughts until you need them. Also learn your biorhythms. Some people are most creatively energized first thing in the morning others late at night. I know that my body wants to take a nap around 3pm. I should not attempt to schedule my writing time for when my body wants to nap. My brain is all fuzzy and not good at writing during that time.
The Story is Stuck
Sometimes you’ve arranged the time, cleared everything else from your schedule, but then you sit down to work and you can’t put words down. There are several reasons this can happen. 1. You honestly don’t know what comes next. 2. Your subconscious knows that something is wrong with a thing you wrote previously and is not letting you proceed until you find and fix it. 3. The story needs skills you don’t have yet.
How to counter it: If you don’t know what comes next, then it is time to step back and take a broader look at your story. You may need to brainstorm or re-outline. This is also a solution to the subconscious blocking you problem. You need to recognize where your story deviated from what it needs to be. If the story needs skills you don’t have, then you may need to step away from it an practice that skill. With practice you’ll begin to develop a sense for which sort of problem you’re having. Sometimes the right solution is to plow forward, just keep putting words on the page even if they’re the wrong ones. Other times you have to step backward, get outside your box and look at the whole thing differently.
This is particularly a problem for people who have ADHD or similar distractibilities. Sometimes you’ll be writing and then between one sentence and the next your brain says “We should check Twitter!” So you click over and it is twenty minutes before you’re back to writing. Often what is happening here is that your brain is getting micro-tired. Writing is hard work, and the brain wants to jump to something easier or more soothing.
How to counter it: Turn off or remove your typical distractions. At the very least, make them harder to access so that you have time to realize “Oh I’m getting distracted.” The moment you realize you’re distracted, bring yourself back to the writing. Also control your environment. If you sit in a particular place with a particular drink, these things can signal to your brain that you’ve entered writing time. You can train your brain that writing time is for writing and not for Twitter. Some days will still be easier than others, but physical signals and practicing coming back to writing focus will help.
Often people have plenty of time to write, but by the time they reach that hour, all they want to do is relax and watch TV. This is usually the case when they’ve used up all of their creative energy on something else. Parenting is a huge cause of this. Daily parenting requires huge reserves of creativity. You’re expending creative energy just keeping little ones alive, teaching them, entertaining them. As they get older, creative energy goes into helping them with projects, helping them problem solve, and figuring out how to effectively communicate. There are also many jobs that use up all the creative energy.
How to counter it: First determine what you are spending your creative energy doing. If that thing is more important to you than writing is, then you don’t actually have a problem. The writing will wait until your life shifts in a way that you have energy for it again. If the other thing is LESS important to you than writing, it is time to take steps to rearrange your life. Most of us can’t afford to quit our jobs and be full-time creative. But we can be budgeting, paying down debts, and saving money so that someday that dream becomes possible. Parents can hire babysitters once per week so that there is a day with some available creative energy. The solutions are as varied as the problems. The key is to analyze why you’re too creatively tapped out to write and make a small change toward fixing that problem.
I know these are not the only things that can cause a writer not to write, but it is a useful jumping off place for writers to figure out what is going on inside their heads that prevents them from reaching their writing goals.