A Root of So-Called Writer’s Block

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No, there is not a typo in that title – I do mean a cause of writer’s block. I do not presume to diagnose the root for all situations.

If you take a quick spin around the internet, you will quickly find that blogs like this one disagree on whether writer’s block is “real.” In the sense that there is nothing empirical that you can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste (good grief, why are you trying to taste abstract concepts?!?), they are correct. It’s not a disease you can catch, or a barrier sitting on your keyboard. However, I don’t find dismissing the idea outright to be a useful strategy. If you sincerely want to write – you have ideas, goals, perhaps even that ephemeral thing we call “inspiration” – but words just won’t find their way onto the page, then there is something going on that needs to be addressed.

Notice how I phrased that last sentence – it is the words not behaving, not you, right? Well, maybe. Sort of. Words can’t do anything, can they? Not without a reader or writer. I believe the issue of writer’s block usually comes down to what psychologists and educators call your locus of control. Follow those links if you want all the details, but the cliff-notes version is the question of what you believe controls your life – yourself, or external forces. I think most people who stop to think about this will want to jump to defend their subconscious – obviously, we all want to believe that we are in control. But, pause for a minute. Do you act like you believe it? How do you tend to frame your day-to-day problems? Do you get angry, or do things make you mad? Do you have a lot to do, or do things keep piling up?

If you let writer’s block win, and talk as if it has control over your life, you are living out an external locus of control. This is not a useful way to live. So, let us leave writer’s block behind altogether and frame the issue differently.

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There you are, with your laptop or notebook. You want to write, but you find yourself lacking ideas, procrastinating, or just staring at a blank page. What is going on that you can address? I think the problem often comes down to one thing:

Fear.

What fear do you hold so tightly that you allow it to stop your progress towards your dream? What can you tell yourself to overcome that fear?

What if I am not good enough?

We all have room for improvement in every area of life. In that sense, you might not yet be “good enough”… but that’s ok. Keep at it. The only way to get better is to practice, right? What does “enough” mean in this context, anyway? Good enough to be read? Good enough to publish? Tackling those specifics leads us to the two fears below.

What if people don’t like my work?

Well… some inevitably won’t. I am willing to bet that your yourself do not like certain things. Your reasons for not liking them are varied, arbitrary, and subjective, and all of that is perfectly, 100% ok. That does not mean that those works you dislike don’t have value for other people. Furthermore, your dislike does not affect the intrinsic value of the artist who made the thing you dislike. To pick a famously controversial example, you probably either love or hate M. Night Shamalan’s movies (The 6th Sense, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water). Either way, unless you have a diagnosable disorder, that preference should not impact how you feel about the director as a person.

The people who dislike or are indifferent to your work are not your audience. Some people will love it. Your words are exactly what they need. They are your audience. They are your people. Write for them.

What if this piece is not successful?

How do you define success? Whether you hit your target depends on what you are aiming for. If you frame success so that it only means publishing in a prestigious literary magazine or inking a six-figure book deal, then you are likely to consider almost everything you write a failure. Why not measure success by how proud you are of the final product? We know the adages, and we know the numbers. You miss all the shots you don’t take. Find joy in the process – in the writing itself. If you can’t do that, you are setting yourself up for an unending parade of disappointment.

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If you can’t tell by now, I strongly believe that cultivating an internal locus of control is usually the most useful mindset for motivation and perseverance. That said, I believe the trap of over-emphasizing results in writing is an exception to that rule. There is so much about publishing that is beyond your control. There is freedom in letting go and just writing the best piece you can… because that is what you have power over.

So what?

Fear might not be the root of all writer’s block, but I believe that it is a root of many instances. There is power in focusing on what you can control and letting go of what you cannot. Own your power, and don’t let insubstantial things stop you from striving towards your goals.

Thank you for reading, and happy writing.

Post-script –

On the subject of dealing with reader’s reactions to your work, I find this delightful old internet gem very cathartic. PG-level content warning for a naughty word.

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