The two kinds of writer's block

Some days, being a creative and trying to build a career out of it feels like being on a hamster wheel you can’t get off of.

I am a human who happens to produce an overabundance of ideas. I’m good at it. Execution of said ideas? Sometimes difficult. Ideas? I have them for days.

A lot of writers have complained of writer’s block at various points. Treating the term “writer’s block” as a monolith has always sat a little ill with me. I’ve written about this before, though my perspective has evolved somewhat over the years, and I want to talk about that.

The term writer’s block is often used as if there’s a lack of words in the brainpan. While I, too, have sat down at the keyboard and drawn a blank before, more often, I sit down and make the wrong words, a lot of wrong words. In both cases, I almost certainly need rest, and rest is the one thing that we convince ourselves we can’t and shouldn’t need. But in some cases, rest, while it might help, is not the core issue.

For me there are two types of writer’s block. The first is caused by exhaustion. It’s the endless demand to make more stuff, in the hopes that this will be the thing that finally guarantees your security in this business, or at least your recognition by someone besides your cousins and your very cute but illiterate dog. This is otherwise known as burnout.

The second type is more insidious.

I can make words for days but it’s uncertain how much meaning they will have and if anyone will want to read them. And thinking about that last bit is a great way to freeze up. This is the second form of writer’s block – when the editing brain, that critical voice, throws a wrench in the engine.

This happened to me last year, actually. I was writing for an “audience” in the drafting stage of a project I’ve since decided to put aside for a bit – trying to write something that would sell. And part of the way through, I realized that the whole thing didn’t work for me. I’d really enjoyed the idea and the characters starting out, but the farther I got in, the more the pieces didn’t fit together. At 50,000 words of what was an originally-planned novella project, I just wanted to burn the whole thing. I couldn’t shut up the little voice in my head that kept saying that it was bad, and I couldn’t shut up the other voice in my head that kept saying that people wanted to read a very specific type of story and if I couldn’t provide it, I would never make it. I had to take some time away from the story, take some space away from the toxic soup of doubt and self-disgust I’d created around it. I still believe that this story has legs, and I have a new outline that clicks together a lot better, but I’ve stepped away to give myself time to squelch those little voices.

I posted last week about flow, about discipline and intuition and the intersection there-between within the context of aerial arts. Let me add to that now. The second type of writer’s block, the kind that comes from fear? It’s a block because you’re standing in your own way. The moments when I spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not anyone wants to read what I’m writing? Those are the moments the kill the drafting stage. I am standing in the stream, putting my feet down instead of seeing where it takes me. And drafting, creating content of any type, is about leaning back into the water and floating down the river. It’s not something you can do if you’re afraid of the water.

There honestly aren’t any good ways to teach this skill. It’s a letting go, an unfolding. How do you explain to someone how to exhale? I certainly am not sure I could do it. And even once you know how to do it it, that doesn’t take the vulnerability out of it.

So when it’s time to make that new content, to keep moving forward, I sometimes find myself feeling overwhelmed. I think about how much there is to do, and how much I have already done, and how badly I want a break, and how maybe nothing that will ever come out of my mind is original or interesting enough to capture people’s attention. And I know if I start thinking that way then I am in serious danger of destroying my effectiveness as a writer and, more generally, as a human – so I get out of my own way again by taking a break, reading a book, going on an adventure.

The secret is that it’s only possible to stop self-sabotaging if you’re rested and taking care of yourself. The opposite of self-sabotage is self-care. It is self-kindness. It’s important to know when to turn off that critical mind and embrace what moves you.


Photo by lucas souza from Pexels.

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