Writer’s block isn’t what you think. It’s not a medical condition afflicting writers everywhere. It’s not a disease preventing you from doing your best work. And it’s not a virus that takes control of the creative process, rendering you useless.
What writer’s block is, then, is an excuse.
Ever wonder why other people in less creative careers don’t experience blocks the way we writers do?
Cubicle dwellers may lament the Monday Blues or the 3PM Slump, but in no other industry do professionals speak of being prevented from their work by an invisible and all-powerful force beyond their control.
As Liz Gilbert says, there are no engineers suffering from engineer’s block.
Why is that?
Few professions require the honesty and self-reflection that writing does. Few vocations demand the constant mining of one’s life experiences, and even fewer allow you to spin this information into beautiful prose for public consumption.
Writer’s block is an excuse. Nothing more.
In that respect, writer’s block makes sense. It is a creative person’s pre-emptive defense against judgment. It is a wall between ourselves and the public. It’s what we say when we don’t want to answer any more questions about that book we haven’t written. We’ve got writer’s block.
People nod understandingly, almost empathetically. Oh, yes. I’m so sorry. That must be hard. I hope you get well soon.
Here’s the truth: writer’s block doesn’t exist. Not really. It’s a condition that exists entirely in your head. That wall you’re building is made of air, not bricks. But when we believe this lie we tell ourselves, it becomes real.
When we think we are blocked, we become blocked.
The concept of writer’s block has so infiltrated our daily lives that it gets a pass in nearly every creative conversation. We do not hold ourselves to a standard of daily discipline, and therefore, neither do others.
But this is a problem. When a toxin to our productivity gets into the creative bloodstream, it must be flushed out. The way we do this is not by treating the symptom, but by acknowledging the real disease.
The real cause of writer’s block
If you’ve ever felt like you have writer’s block, here’s what you actually have:
- High standards (which is basically fear of failure)
- Imposter Syndrome (fear of rejection)
- Perfectionism (fear of not being good enough)
- Busyness (fear of not having enough time)
- Laziness (or is it really fear?)
- Lack of structure (fear of not knowing how to start)
Look: I don’t mean to impose my reality on you because every writer is different. But, for me, what almost always prevents me from writing is fear.
To help me understand what’s going inside of me when I feel blocked, I take the following three steps:
1. Acknowledge the resistance
First, I acknowledge the resistance I feel as a sign that I’m doing something right. I must be doing something important if an unseen force is trying to stop me from finishing, even if that unseen force is myself.
Writer's block is a condition that exists only in your head.
Subconsciously, I must recognize that this is important work, hence the need to self-sabotage. So, when I realize this, I am encouraged. Excited, even. Because it means I’m doing something that matters.
2. Identify the root problem
Second, I ask myself what’s really going on. Not, what’s preventing me from finishing? But rather: why do I feel stuck?
Am I afraid of failure? Of rejection? Of not being good enough?
Do I feel like I don’t have enough time? Enough talent? Enough grit?
Or, am I just tired?
Depending on the situation, my step three varies. But unless I’m tired, in which case I take nap or do some exercise, it’s most likely fear that I’m having to overcome.
I’m scared to publish because I feel like my best work is behind me or that I’ll never finish it. I’m scared of what people might think, or that I’ll somehow get pigeonholed into some role I don’t want for myself. I’m scared it’ll fail, and therefore I will be a failure.
So, it’s just easier to stare at the screen or procrastinate and find something else seemingly more important to do. Then, when the writing time is over, I play the martyr, pretending like I didn’t have “enough time.”
3. Ask what's the worst that can happen
Three, once I’ve determined what’s actually wrong, I do a worst-case scenario. Could I fail? Sure. Would that destroy my career in a single stroke? Not at all.
Your output depends on having a system in place that makes productivity not probable, but inevitable.
It would take multiple failures all in a row to take me out of the game. That’s not impossible, of course, but it’s certainly not likely. And that takes away the pressure of this one creative act, which frees me up to do what is mine to do, today.
We must acknowledge the true cause of our writer's block. Then, we must find a practical solution so we have a shot at getting back to work.
Start with structure
A quick word on writing structure: If you’ve balked before at structure as something that would limit your creativity or even induce writer’s block, that’s fear talking.
Your output depends on having a system in place that makes productivity not just probable, but inevitable.
That’s why my friend Tim Grahl and I recently worked together to develop The Productive Writer course. We designed this course to help you find the time to write, overcome your fears, and finish your book in the next 90 days.
You are not merely a vehicle through which writing flows (or doesn’t) despite you, which means that the thing you’re perceiving as a creative block is just you getting in your own way. This is why it's important for you to use proven strategies to help you remove the obstacles that stand in the way of your writing.
Step aside, define the thing you’re actually experiencing, and try out this proven system to get real traction as a writer.