In this episode, I talk about some of the causes of the dreaded writer’s block, and possible solutions.
Welcome to Empty Pages, which chronicles my journey from first draft to published manuscript and beyond. I’m your host, Ian MacTire.
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On this episode, we’re going to talk about how to deal with writers block. To be perfectly clear, I cannot give you a magic wand that will solve this most pernicious of writing dilemmas. If I had the perfect cure for this, I’d be rich and no longer need my day job to pay the bills. All that I can do is start the conversation, give you some ideas and tips, and hopefully you either find something helpful in what I offer, or it springboards you into finding your own way around it.
So what exactly is writers block? It’s basically a condition, usually experienced by writers, in which a writer is unable to come up with new stories, or continue a current work in progress. It doesn’t mean time passing without writing, but instead time passing without any productive writing. And unfortunately, every writer will experience it at least once in their writing lives.
Let’s first examine what the possible causes of writer’s block might be. Every one of us experience different roadblocks in our writing journey. Some are external to ourselves, such as lack of time, or receiving rejections. Some are internal, such as self doubt, a desire to make our work perfect, low motivation, or even stress or being extremely tired. Each of these can block our ability to write, and thus create that dreaded writers block.
I believe the first step to dealing with this is simply to do things that stop it from happening in the first place. Make sure you are eating properly, drinking enough water, getting some exercise, and getting enough sleep. All of this is good for your health in general, but by trying to follow this, you will be giving your body the fuel it needs to perform better. This includes writing.
To help myself in this regard, I have a 40 oz water bottle that I fill with ice water every day and don’t drink anything else until I’ve finished the bottle. Things like Mountain Dew and Gatorade don’t count, even though water is one ingredient. If you’re someone who is going to tell me “but I don’t like to drink water”, I’m going to tell you to get over it. Being properly hydrated keeps the elasticity in our skin, and it helps us to think and function more clearly. This is definitely helpful for writing. If you don’t like just water, you can do things to help, like add a slice of lemon, or throw some fruits into a pitcher of water to give it a little flavor. Or just keep it ice cold. I had a hard time with being consistent in drinking water until I got a water bottle that keeps it cold. It made all the difference for me.
Another thing you can do is show up and write every day. We humans are creatures of habit, and our brains and bodies will adjust. In previous episodes, I talked about things like finding the best time for you to write and setting up a place that is conducive to writing. By sitting down to write in the same spot and at the same time every day, you are rewiring your brain and teaching it to be creative at that time. If this isn’t something you’ve done, do it! At first it will be hard, and it will seem like it’s not working. You will also need to experiment to find what works for you. Give it time though, and you’ll see it pay dividends.
Getting enough sleep is also important to staving off writer’s block. With the way things are today, we really don’t get enough sleep to begin with. We have jobs, families, pets, and a myriad other things that take our time. So we wake up, already lacking in sleep, and we’re off to the races, and as we do each thing, our energy slowly drains, until we reach the end of our day, and are so tired that all we want to do is sit on the couch and zone out to some mindless drivel on tv. And this is if you’re perfectly healthy. If you’re someone who struggles with a mental or physical illness, well, then it just gets worse.
As someone with a chronic pain condition, depression, and PTSD, I’m lucky to get that rare night where the stars align and the gods bless me with a night of sleep fairly uninterrupted. Most nights are restless and difficult, so I pretty much exist in a state of perpetual pain and fatigue. Still, I try to go to bed around the same time each night. Much like writing at the same time, going to be around the same time will also help train your mind and body that it’s time to go to sleep. You might have to watch a few less shows that everyone else is watching, or play video games a bit less, or whatever. In the end, you have to decide how important writing is to you, and what you’ll sacrifice for it.
And finally, one last way to try to avoid writer’s block to begin with, is to nip any negative self talk, which is easier said than done, yes. One of the things that gets us is when we start having self doubt, we start to wonder why we’re bothering to write, and who do we think we are to call ourselves writers, etc. You very likely can relate. If you start to get these thoughts, your job will be to figure out what you can do to stop it. Along the way, I’ve gotten good feeback and compliments. I keep these in an easily accessed place. If my brain weasels want to start in on their shit, I just say “oh yeah?” and I whip those out and re-read them, and along the way, remind myself that I do have the talent, and it’s only a matter of time before I get published.
Now even with these, it’s still possible to experience writer’s block. You could run into a situation where you feel motivated, but you feel uncreative. This could be the result of being confined to the same familiar spaces. Doing the same routine, at the same places, day in and day out can tend to train our brains to go on autopilot. When this happens, you might need to vary your routine, if possible. Or build in to your day time to just sit and daydream, and not worry about the real world. During this time, put the phone on silent, put the phones and tablets down, and just stare at the ceiling or the wall. You can even go to a park and just watch people. Anything that allows you to just be, untethered to the mundane.
I’ve built into my weekly schedule going on daily walks, and hiking on the weekend. It’s good to get exercise, but I also let it be the time I let my mind wander. My dog and I head out. He gets to sniff different stuff, I get to stop thinking about work and bills and such. A lot of the time, I allow myself to think about whatever the current work in progress is. By the time I sit down to write that evening, I’m oftentimes ready with a fix, or the next scene, or even a new story.
Writer’s block can also be caused by feeling creative but lacking motivation. If this is what is happening to you, again, creating a space and time for writing will help you train your brain to be creative. If you’re already doing that, and still lacking the motivation, then ask yourself why you’re not motivated. By examining that, you might discover the root of it and then be able to take steps to rectify it.
I recently hit a spate of time where I lacked motivation. It took me a little bit to realize that I was in the middle of a depressive episode. Thanks to therapy giving me the tools to deal with this, I’m usually pretty good at spotting when I’m about to get hit with one, but this time, I didn’t see it coming because I’ve been so deep in trying to get some projects done to meet deadlines. Once I recognized what was happening, I took the steps I needed to deal with it, and eventually was back to writing. To be clear, a lack of motivation could be a sign of depression, but not necessarily. If you’ve been feeling a lack of motivation that has been going on longer than usual, then I recommend that you get in to see a therapist and do NOT self diagnose. If you self diagnose incorrectly, you could end up causing yourself harm down the line.
There are times when I get off of work and I’m tired, and I lack the motivation to write, and it’s not due to depression or a pain flareup. In those cases, I sit down and write anyway. More often than not, by sitting down to write, my brain recognizes that it’s time to get busy being creative, and we’re good to go. Other times, my brain does its level best. In this situation, I usually write a good chunk, but there are times when I don’t get nearly as much done as I’m used to. If that’s the case, then OK. The important thing is that I showed up.
Stress can also contribute to writer’s block. It’s really hard to be creative when you have bills that are coming due, your job is kicking your arse, kids are sick, your cat is throwing up a copious amount of hairballs, the latest season of your favorite show sucks! Ok, maybe that last one isn’t stressful, but you get my point. When we get stressed, the human brain is designed to shift control from our cerebral cortex (the part that contributes to our creativity), to our limbic system (which is where our instinctual processes, like fight or flight, resides). We are rarely, if ever, aware of when that change occurs. But when it happens, that’s when you become creatively blocked.
If you find that you are experiencing a lot of stress, then you will want to look into ways to alleviate it. This is a topic that is far too broad for me to cover in this episode. I might cover it down the line, I might not. In this case, I would recommend that you do a google search for ways to reduce stress. There is a lot of useful information that you will find helpful. Whatever you choose to do, make sure that it will help and not cause more stress.
Another huge reason for writer’s block is not having an idea, or having ran out of ideas. Here you are, ready to write. You’re well rested, hydrated, energetic, ready to go, and…nothing. You haven’t a clue what to write. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot think of an idea. Or maybe you’ve had ideas, but you’ve dismissed them for one reason or another.
These days, lacking ideas isn’t nearly the problem it used to be. I spent a few decades with writer’s block because of a combination of self doubt, toxic people, and dismissing any idea I came up with as being unoriginal. During most of this time, I didn’t have access to the internet due to either it not existing or being too expensive. Even when internet access began to become more affordable, most of the tools we take for granted these days simply did not exist. Lucky for you, this isn’t an issue these days.
In a previous episode, episode 5 I believe, I discussed how and where to get ideas for stories. If you haven’t listened to that, I highly recommend you do so. In the interest of not making this episode far longer than it already is, I won’t go over the tips and tricks I covered in that episode.
When it comes to ideas, a good thing to do is write them down as they come to you. As of the time I’m recording this, I currently have around 200 story ideas. If I should end up in the situation of not knowing what to write, I only have to look through that list until something strikes my fancy. By writing down your ideas, you are basically preparing for a literary drought. No matter what the idea is, write it down. Don’t discard it just because you think it won’t be good, or it won’t work, or it won’t be original. You never know what you will be bringing to the table when you revisit it down the line.
I have an idea for a story that started with nothing more than a title and some vague notion. There was a time I would have discarded it because there was no further substance and I couldn’t figure out what the story was about, so I would have assumed no story was there to begin with. But, it was an idea and I jotted down what little I had. About a year later, I was working on something completely unrelated when BOOM!, I suddenly knew what that story was about. I revisited the idea, and fleshed it out a bit more, and now it’s one of the stories that’s in the chute to get written.
As for originality, if you don’t know by now, then let me explain something to you: every idea there is to have, has already been had. Nothing is wholly original. Vampires? Werewolves? Murder mysteries in cozy villages? Murder mysteries in cozy villages featuring vampires and werewolves? Yeah, it’s all been done about a million times over. It’s not about finding an original, never been done story. It’s about finding a story that interests you and putting your own spin on it. So don’t let the “I need an original story” stop you from writing. The world might have already heard a bajillion cozy murder mysteries, but they haven’t heard your cozy murder mystery. What sets your story apart from others is your authorial voice, but that’s a topic for another day.
And finally, there’s the good old fashioned advice of just write something. Your staring at a blank page or blank screen and not sure what to write? Give yourself permission to write whatever, even if it’s ridiculous. You can always trash it, or maybe you discover something interesting and you can later fix it in editing.
I’m sure there are other things that cause writer’s block, and other ways to cure it. This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor is it a one size fits all list. But again, hopefully this either helps by giving you some useful tools, or at least a springboard to finding tools that work for you.
Whatever you do, make sure that you are taking care of your mental and physical health, and give yourself grace. Sometimes, you’re just not going to be able to write, no matter what you do, and that’s ok. When that happens, give yourself permission to put writing off to the side and go do something else. It’s not going to help your writer’s block if you’re stressing that you can’t write. It will only make it worse.
So reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you do for writer’s block, and what you do for self care. You never know when your suggestions are going to help someone else out who is currently struggling.
Stay classy, and keep writing those stories!
This has been another episode of Empty Pages. If you enjoyed what you heard and want more of it, you can follow me at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts from. Please leave me a review, as that really helps me out, and if you do, you might find your review featured in a future episode. You can find me at ianmactire.com, as well as on Twitter and Instagram as @ianmactire. Until next time, I’m Ian and this is Empty Pages. Stay classy and write those stories!
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