When screenwriter John August wrote that only non-writers get writer’s block, some readers whined (and personally attacked him).
“But getting blocked does happen to real writers!” they cried.
They cried because they wanted to be victims, instead of responsible for their writing blocks. They whined because it was easier and less scary than facing the facts.
But when your income depends on your ability to write, whining won’t get you anywhere. It will distract you from the golden opportunity that writer’s block always offers: greater clarity and confidence.
When you work it right, writer’s block is your secret weapon to becoming a better and more resilient writer. And when your ability to write is what pays the bills, that’s gold.
How writer’s block can give you more clarity
Writing flows when you are clear on what you need to say, and why you need to say it. Writing becomes a chore when you know what you need to say but are reluctant to do it. And it can dry up completely when you’re not so clear anymore.
Your clarity is directly linked to how convinced you are that you have something valuable to say — and that you can say it.
Both of these require courage to face the fear that any act of writing brings.
So use writer’s block as a signal to stop and reflect on what you fear and why, because if you don’t acknowledge the fear, you’ll never be able to face it. All it takes to move through fear is facing it, feeling it. Saying to yourself, “Okay, this is scary. But it still needs to be done.”
How to start unblocking yourself
If you need some concrete steps to get started on identifying the fears related to your writer’s block, try the “clean-slate” exercise:
- Take a blank sheet of paper and write down a one-line summary of what you think you’re supposed to be writing. Be as topic-specific and categorical as you can. Is it a book review, an online report, a sales page, a newsletter article?
- Write down all the ideas and opinions about that topic that have been passed along to you by other people — things that you’ve read, heard, overheard, or even imagined. Don’t forget your parents, mentors, friends, role models. Record all those voices running around in your head and lay them out on the page.
- Good. Now put that page aside because that’s not the one that’s going to turn your block into a weapon. (In fact, it’s the one that will keep you stuck.)
- Get another blank sheet of paper.
- Again, write down what you think you should be writing in the center of the page. Now, make sure you are alone in your room. There should be no one around to look over your shoulder, judge you, criticize you, or misunderstand you — in physical form or in your head. It’s important to maintain this solitude for the next step.
- Dig deep into what you have to say, what you think, and what your opinion is, stripped away from all of those from the first sheet. Put it all out on the page, and take more pages if you need to. Remember, there is no one to judge you and your task is to write without any reference to the ideas or opinions from that first sheet, but write only from within you.
This second “clean-slate” page will reveal the true reason why you wanted to write in the first place.
It’s a safe place to get some clarity about what you need to say, without worrying about what anyone else will think. Going to that safe place gets you unstuck.
How writer’s block can boost your confidence
Each time you unblock yourself by writing despite your fears, it builds confidence. You realize, “Hey, I’ve got a lot to say! And I’ve got a unique position!”
You teach yourself that even though your job requires you to write to and for other people, you’re really doing it for yourself — whether for income, personal satisfaction, or even good conscience.
You also strengthen your writing so that nothing can faze it. You won’t get thrown off by anyone’s doubts (including your own), negative opinions, projections, or reservations about your ability to perform. Those will only cloud what you know you need to say.
Most important of all, you learn that writer’s block is all in the mind. That John’s whiny commentators missed out on a mother lode of resilience any writer would envy, because they ran away from writer’s block instead of picking it up as the weapon that it is.
To be a resilient and fierce writer, you need to write despite your fears. And you need signals, such as writer’s block, to help uncover your fears so you can face them.
Writer’s block can’t be separated from your doubt and fear. It’s something you are not a victim of, but responsible to. It can, and should, be faced head-on.
Preferably right now, if your next meal is waiting for that last page to get finished.