First, there is no such thing as “Writer’s Block”. There’s no diagnosis, a brain scan won’t reveal the blocked area and a doctor can’t un-block it. What we are feeling is fear. The exact fear is individual, and usually begins when doubt creeps in.
For the beginner, it can be as simple as reading the book of an idol and hearing the ego announce: “You could NEVER do that!” For the experienced writer, hear Maya Angelou’s words: Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.
A story about the late novelist Kobe Abe describes how he went into a deep depression after reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. He couldn’t write for years.
All of these stories have a connection. The writer is comparing his or her work with an icon and coming up short. Let’s imagine a woman in the 1950s studying her reflection in the mirror. She’s forced to acknowledge that she is not, and never will be, Marilyn Monroe. Regardless of the fact that she may be beautiful in her own way, she can’t get away from the comparison that signifies she is being judged as not good enough. Many plastic surgeries later, she is still comparing and coming up short.
We can’t even comprehend Maya Angelou believing she was not good enough, but the ego—or past criticism—can be amazing persuaders.
Sometimes what we perceive as a block is a gift. Our literary angels may be trying to tell us that we have embarked on the wrong project or that we have not completed the necessary research for our book. Sometimes we are so trapped in self-judgment that we are being shown our own personal fears and wounds, which we can then address. Our ego, if we allow it, hovers over us, saying terrible, negative things about us and our abilities. What an opportunity to heal those feelings of perfectionism, comparison and accusations of flaws and defects. The first thing to do when we are experiencing this affliction is to breathe and show ourselves some tenderness. If you already meditate, go to your guidance and imagine you are being held in love and understanding.
It is your soul that gently holds who you really are and are meant to be. Ask what you should do next. Try walking in nature, praying, listening to music or putting aside your current project for a full week to try something completely new. Go to a workshop on anything but writing or see a therapist who understands the creative process. Ask yourself what subject matter really interests you at this time—research it and write an essay. See if you have been fluttering around the wrong topics. It’s always informative to look at what you have preferred to read your whole life. If you say, as one student of mine did, that you don’t read—forget about writing! Writing is a craft.
Joan Didion saw her early writing in this way: I knew then what I wasn’t, and it took me years to discover what I was. Which was a writer. By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.
Never say: “I know it’s hard, but I have to finish. I’ve worked too long on this to quit!” The best writing is done in passion and joy, not obligation.
Stephen King has been asked if he only writes for the money. He acknowledges that the writing pays his bills, and more, but knows he would quit if it didn’t give him joy. He is certain writing is his passion. King reads constantly—even in line at the grocery store. He’s famous for saying if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. It’s as simple as that.
The creative world is full of surprises. So-called “writer’s block” is one of those. When we use our creativity to explore what this block is covering, the excavation will surprise us. The ego or learned behavior that created the darkness between us and our creativity can be tunneled through to reveal the light shining on our most important writing. And wouldn’t that be a great gift?