writer’s block – causes and treatment


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Let me preface this by saying I just liked the medical sound of that title. I’m not a writing doctor. However, I am an expert in getting writer’s block.

Writer’s block seems to arrive on my doorstep with such regularity that I’m much calmer about it these days. Instead of freaking out and thinking ‘I’ll never write another decent story again’, I now sigh with recognition and say ‘Heyyy, maaaate’ as writer’s block pushes past me and into the house.

I’m currently stuck mid-story (what a surprise and how unusual), so I decided to brainstorm all the reasons I know for writer’s block. I hope you’ll find something here that helps.

Reasons for writer’s block/Possible solutions:

Our health needs attention.
We need sleep, food, exercise, or fresh air. We need to take time off until we’re over an illness or injury. We need to slow down because of a chronic illness or disability. We need interaction with others, for our mental health. We crave the comfort of writers who understand and can suggest solutions.

We’re distracted.
We’re scrolling this, skim reading that. We sit to write and then get up two minutes later for a snack, a toilet break, anything but keeping bum on chair. If we don’t focus on our work for a decent amount of time, we can’t explore the work in depth.

We’re too impatient.
We want the entire chapter/poem/story/essay to emerge in two or three sittings. But our minds don’t always work like this (mine almost never works like this). A piece must unfold at its own pace. It might reveal itself day by day—as we shower, walk, sweep the kitchen floor. Contemplation is writing.

We’re trying to shove a pumpkin into a cocktail glass.
The fit isn’t right between idea and form. That powerful blast of emotion might be a poem, not an opinion piece. The space station comedy might be a novella not a short story. A painful memory might be best expressed through fiction.

The idea needs more.
It needs strengthening, modifying, layering. We’re writing about an older woman who keeps 33 cats and plays Elvis Presley all day but it’s lacking something. We haven’t revealed her hidden past, or introduced the young neighbour blasting Amyl and the Sniffers, or sent a flood that isolates the woman and her cats.
I sometimes use paper and pen to write a question in big letters, then draw arrows from the question, spouting multiple answers. Outrageous, sensible and plainly stupid answers. Just lots of them is key. One will often point the way forward. (Credit for this strategy goes to Jaclyn Moriarty, who described it in a workshop I attended a few years ago)

We don’t know our characters well.
What are their quirks, how old are they? What’s their occupation? Who are their loved ones? And of course the big questions—What’s their secret fear? and What do they desperately want?

We don’t know the setting well.
This is one is easy to neglect. When I need clarity, I use Google Earth, read about the place, look at images online. For places that exist in my imagination, I might draw mud maps and sketch floor plans so I can ‘see’ the places as my characters move about.

Our self-critics are poking up their ugly heads.
It’s important to banish that tall, sneery, pasty-faced inner critic (okay that’s my inner critic, feel free to picture your own) as our first draft emerges. We need to tell our inner critics to piss off (a technique I first heard from Edwina Shaw at a QWC workshop). For now, we’re just getting down words. We can add, cut, rearrange and refine later.

Forgetting joy.
We write because we love it. We choose and order words and ta-da!—we’ve created a poem, an essay, a novel, a play. A short story, screenplay, memoir piece or work of non-fiction. What a magical and powerful act.
It helps to remember joy. ❤️


16 thoughts on “writer’s block – causes and treatment

  1. So many excellent points (symptoms?) here that I can directly relate to: sleep , eat well, exercise, keep bum on chair, turn off screens, kill off the sneery critic (yes, yes, yes…), and some great writing tips BUT I love your final point the most – remember the joy. So important to be reminded of this. Thank you! x

  2. Great article Fiona. So hard to keep going sometimes. Sometimes I just need time off too – just not too much because then I start to get very grouchy! Thanks very much for the honourable mention. I’ve recorded my deep relaxation fo quieting the inner critic at one of my retreats if you want to have a go with that before you write to help unblock.

    I love your stories and can’t wait to read a new one! xxx

  3. Very helpful, thanks so much. I like the idea of the question with the arrows, stealing that one. I love the idea of the visual maps etc too. Maybe I’m not crazy drawing them after all. I need to ‘see’ the story. Remembering joy, what a gem! Thanks again.

    • Hi Rhiannon, thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you could relate to some of these tactics, too. Writing is such a tricky business (at least it is for me!) so I figure it’s worth sharing anything that works.

  4. Ah for me its usually either the inner critic or a knotty plot problem .Or that mindless busyness when I will do anything but write. Remembering the joy isn’t easy when all you can see are problems! But we have to do something or remain stuck.

    • Hi Sonia, yes, I often succumb to plot issues or that sneery man who tells me I’m no good. Oh yes, and procrastination, too!
      Wishing you more joy and less hassle in your writing life 😊

  5. Honestly, why do characters have to have occupations? This is something that trips me up again and again, when I want to write a story but then I have to give my character some kind of occupation. Such a bother, really. ;-D

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