Facing the Terrifying (un)Reality of Writer’s Block

The inability to put words to page – whether through pen and paper, a word processor, or, if you’re a weirdo iconoclast like Doctor Gaines, a typewriter – is an existential crisis of the first order. If you’re a writer, you write. It’s self-evident. It’s what you do. In many cases, it helps define you in a professional, artistic, or even personal sense. It’s a sacred act. Literally. God’s a writer, after a fashion. He created the world with words.

So what is a writer – maybe someone like you – to do when afflicted with the dreaded disease of writer’s block?

To be frank, writer’s block isn’t a problem.

Writer’s block doesn’t even exist.

You can hide behind the excuses of schedule, work, family commitments, gruesome industrial accidents – but when it comes right down to it, nothing is restricting your ability to write.

Motivation is another animal altogether. Sure, you can wait until the muse strikes. You can also wait until the muse strikes before you go back to work. That’s how you go to your job, right? When you feel like it? When you feel inspired to sell grease-slimed hot dogs and chicken fingers to sticky-fingered children at the Big Box Store food café? If you didn’t feel inspired, you wouldn’t show up, obviously.

I’m being glib, but the analogy stands. Writing is fun and personally fulfilling – at times. But mostly it’s work. Hard work. Hard work that requires time, energy, and patience. Human beings are naturally lazy animals – the invention of the television remote is evidence of that – and it takes a lot of motivation to get our butts out of the warm cave to go slay a wooly mammoth. But if your drive to write is akin to hunger, you’ll do just that. If you don’t show up to work, you don’t get paid. If you don’t go out to hunt the big hairy elephant tusk-monster, you don’t eat. If you don’t sit down to write, you’ll never get the euphoria that comes with knowing someone read your work and liked it.

Don’t have the time to write, you say? Sure, neither do I. As a writer, I also don’t have the time to sit on my hairy butt and watch Netflix for 20 minutes every night. And yet, one of these two things will happen, no matter how busy I am. You always have time to write. You might be tired. You might be covered in industrial sludge. You might be recovering from animal wounds. But you have time – five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes – to write something.  A few sentences. A couple of paragraphs. A couple of pages. It doesn’t matter how much you write at one time, it matters that you write the same amount (or more) consistently.

Now that we’ve poked some holes in your excuses, let’s examine the real culprit behind your self-imposed self-pity.

Self-doubt. It is your greatest adversary – but also your greatest ally.

Every writer worth his or her salt steps back and, taking in the breadth of his or her work – a single story, a long-form project, a career – wonders: Is this all crap?

That questioning can be very, very empowering. It moves you to strive for perfection, to hold your work to high standards, to be humble, to appreciate the successes that come. But it can also be restrictive – driving you to stare at a half-finished story, an aborted novel outline, a collection of swears written in ALL CAPS filling up your alcohol-fueled Twitter or Facebook timeline.

I’m an artist! you scream at an uncaring, gibbous moon. What I’m writing isn’t art! It sucks! I’m paralyzed!

Believe it or not, you’re on the right track. You just gotta get that train moving again.

Recognizing that your current project (or all of your ideas) sucks is the first step toward liberation from your self-imposed literary exile.

If you’re writing crap, keep writing crap. Embrace your crap.

No, seriously. Keep churning it out. Muddle through, and figure out how to fix it later. Editing and perfection are not your concern when you’re writing. Editing should be a separate process that comes later. Otherwise you keep re-writing the same paragraph, over and over again, until the words have lost all meaning and you start to fail all your sanity checks.

Can’t figure out that turn of phrase, that plot point, that character arc? Write a bunch of poopywork, add a big fat sticky note that says FIX THIS GARBAGE LATER and keep on moving. You’ll get into a rhythm, your writing will improve, and, most likely, when you return to those troublesome passages, chapters, or first half of your opus DOCTOR ACULA’S HOUSE OF BLOODY TERROR, those writer brain-gears will start turning again. Don’t stress on getting it right the first time. You rarely will.

Still not working for you? Out of ideas? Copy someone else’s style.

Hunter S. Thompson claimed to have re-typed, word for word, The Great Gatsby. He said it gave his mind and body a sense of the flow of words – a way to channel and understand Fitzgerald’s greatness. Now, I’m not suggesting you do something that extreme. Perhaps, however, you could simply write a pastiche – a tribute piece – to a particular author or style. Ever read someone’s prose and then find your own writing influenced by it? Embrace that. Put yourself in the chair of a great writer. Write a story they would write, as cheesy and derivative as it may be. You may not want to show anyone the work, but it’ll get your brain cells dancing.

I better slow down before this rant turns into a book. The last thing this world needs is another book about writing written by someone who doesn’t know a lot about writing. But I do know this:

Writer’s block isn’t real. Your excuses aren’t sufficient. Sometimes you’ll produce nothing but crap.

And your self-doubt is never going away. If you want to be a good writer, you’ll deal with it. You’ll embrace it.

Now go get sober for a couple of days, sit down in that writing spot of yours, pour a gallon of coffee, and put some words to the page. And stop telling people that you’re a writer.

Go be a writer. And don’t ever tell me you have writer’s block. I’ll start ranting at you, and make you re-type The Great Gatsby.

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