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One of my favourite comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes, features a strip where Calvin proclaims his latest invention, “a writer’s block – you put it on top of your desk and then you can’t write there anymore.”
Writer’s block has taken on an almost mythical quality, and the image of a writer staring at a blank page is a familiar trope. Perhaps writer’s block is created from a sense of false expectation. Even though we know it’s not true, there is still the image of a writer being visited by a creative muse.
In a study by Yale University in the 1970s, psychologists found that there was more than one type of writer’s block, there were four general types, with different dominating emotions of anxiety or stress. However, the common thread was that they were all rooted in a deep sense of unhappiness.
Writer’s block is a type of creative paralysis. It goes beyond procrastination or distraction. It’s what happens when creativity feels tapped out, when writing itself feels like a struggle. Writer’s block is a mental impediment to the act of writing.
There’s a quote that writer’s block is actually another word for fear, and I think that’s the most accurate way to describe it. It represents the deepest doubts about oneself. It’s a fear of failure, a fear of not achieving perfection.
When faced with these doubts, it becomes easier to do nothing at all.
Writer’s block is psychological. The act of writing, of translating ideas to words on a page, requires permission from yourself. It requires permission to fail. Perhaps the way to look at writer’s block is not to see it as a conflict with yourself, but as a state of mind, an emotion to accept.
Preventing writer’s block
There’s a reason why people like to ask writers about their routines. Establishing a writing routine is one of the best methods to create a writing practice. Develop a writing habit, so that writing feels automatic, without having to utilise willpower. This also means creating the space for yourself as a writer, whether it’s a specific place in the house to work or a certain time of day that is your writing time. Maya Angelou was known to write in hotel rooms with a glass of sherry, while Joyce Carol Oates writes on notepads in longhand.
I’ve heard writers describe writing as being in a trance state. I think that the act of creating requires being in a certain state of mind. A writing routine or an established writing habit means that you can shorten the distance to enter this state. There are things you can do to “trigger” the trance state, whether it’s listening to a piece of music, feeling the weight of a pen in your hand, or taking a walk through a usual route.
Expectations when writing
It’s important to set your expectations as a writer. It is a mistake to expect constant joy when writing. Writing is difficult, it’s challenging. Some days will be better than others. There is no inspirational muse that will bestow its gifts upon you. If you have a difficult day, accept that it’s a difficult day. If you create nothing, find the space to forgive yourself, allow yourself to fail.
Overcoming writer’s block
What if you are in the middle of experiencing writer’s block? The best way to overcome writer’s block is to express yourself in a different way. In the previously mentioned Yale study, the recommendation was to do “low-level” creative exercises to unblock the mind.
Be experimental. Try painting or drawing, make construction paper animals. Try free flow word association exercises, make mind maps of words, keep a dream journal. Write lists for your characters, write letters to yourself from a character, or try writing a letter to a friend in one of your character’s voices.
Try leaving the world of writing for awhile. Take a walk, go for a run, meditate. Listen to a beautiful piece of music, read a great work by someone else. Be inspired.
As a writer, you are an instrument, open to the world. Open your mind to the beauty that’s in the world, pay attention to the details that no one else is paying attention to, unlock yourself, and the words will come.
Catherine Cho’s previous article The Stages of the Writing Process