Blog: Unblocking the Writer

I was involved in a recent writers’ board discussion during which several members declared that writer’s block doesn’t exist. They didn’t say they thought it didn’t exist, or that in their opinion it didn’t exist, they merely stated this theory as fact. It’s difficult to argue when people have such fixed opinions when they openly admit they have not experienced the condition, but I didn’t let that stop me.

It’s not the first time the existence of writer’s block has been called into question by writers and it will not be the last. It is a very tempting thought for writers who have not experienced the condition and cannot imagine not being able to write. “Just write your way out of it,” they say, which is strange advice for someone unable to write. It’s like telling a person suffering from depression to, “snap out of it and be happy.”

I should add that in my experience most writers who have not experienced writer’s block do not deny its existence. They accept that it is real and have a healthy fear of it happening to them. There but for the grace of the writing gods go I.

The problem with writer’s block is that it is invisible. Anyone who has suffered from one of its various manifestations knows it is real, but can offer no proof. There is no blood test or scan that can confirm a diagnosis. And, unless I’m mistaken, no one has ever died of it and caused a coroner an ‘Aha!’ moment during an autopsy.

So, assuming writer’s block exists, what is it?

I’m glad you asked, but I have no idea. I can only relate my own experience.

My brush with writer’s block, which lasted for several months was similar, though nowhere near as frightening or severe, as the anxiety attacks I suffered some years ago, in that minor issues became overwhelming and took on out-of-proportion, life or death importance. I suddenly couldn’t write and although I had a detailed novel fully mapped out in my head, I became frozen.

Suggestions flew in thick and fast. “Just write anything.” “Don’t get up until you have written.” “It’s all in your head, just relax and the words will flow.” Easy for them to say. It was debilitating and frustrating and the harder I tried to bulldoze my way through, the harder it got. Eventually, I just gave up and decided it was pointless trying to write. I quit cold turkey.

That actually released the pressure and over the next few weeks my mind cleared and I worked out what had been happening. I had been sitting down to write with the entire work dominating my thinking. I couldn’t describe someone climbing into a car without the entire novel appearing front and centre, leading me to wonder how this simple action would affect future scenes, upcoming chapters and the entirety of the work. I thought that if I could narrow my focus, I could write again.

I was nervous when I tested my theory, but it worked. I sat down and concentrated on the scene at hand; my character climbs into her car and drives to her destination while conducting an internal dialogue about how she hated her job. Two pages. But I treated those two pages like it was the entire story and suddenly writing was not only manageable, it was thoroughly enjoyable. I got through the novel by skipping scene by scene to the end, never thinking more than a few pages ahead. And I haven’t had a problem since.

I don’t know whether my experience coincides with anyone else’s or my solution would work in other circumstances. From my discussions with other writers, the ways of becoming blocked and the remedies to recover from the condition are many and varied. But, although I hated going through writer’s block, I’m actually happy in retrospect, as it was a very valuable experience in my writing journey.

And if it ever returns, I’ll do the same thing to clear my head by stopping writing altogether. It confuses the hell out of writer’s block!