Does writer's block really exist? Or is it just an excuse for not writing? I tackled this topic on a recent episode of my radio show How to Be a Happy Writer. You can read the text below or listen to the entire show via the show archives.
Is there such a thing as writer’s block?
Every once in a while, I’ll stumble across an article online that argues, often quite passionately, that there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Real writers have the willpower and the discipline to push through and write no matter what, argue members of the “no such thing as writer’s block” camp. They don’t allow themselves—or their writing—to be stymied by a blank screen.
Those kind of posts always strike me as somewhat arrogant. I mean, the fact that a particular writer hasn’t experienced writer’s block first-hand doesn’t exactly stand up as proof that writer’s block doesn’t exist.
I guess this is kind of personal for me. I struggled with writer’s block about eight years ago, when I was having a particularly time with both anxiety and depression. It didn’t help that I was being stared down by a book deadline. That only served to ramp up my feelings of anxiety and depression—which culminated in (you guessed it) an even worse case of writer’s block.
When things were at their worst, writing a grocery list was about the most creative writing project I was capable of undertaking—and even that was a stretch.
That precipitated a crisis in confidence—and identity. After all, if I wasn’t a writer anymore, what or who was I exactly?
It took me a couple of years to emerge from that bout of depression—and to overcome writer’s block. What worked for me, in the end, was to step away from the computer (its flashing cursor and blank screen), and to give myself permission to find my way back to the things I had loved about writing.
I loved the research piece, so I started with that. I began taking notes for my book project, filling hundreds of pages with handwritten notes in colourful pens. For some reason, working with a pen and a notebook felt far less intimidating. And, what’s more, I had given myself permission to jot down notes in point form, if that’s all I could manage. And, as I quickly discovered, I could easily handle that.
An amazing thing happened as I continued to write those notes. I found myself breaking into bursts of writing—real honest-to-God writing—while I was making those notes. When inspiration struck, I would go with the flow and capture the ideas that were starting to flow from my head into my hand.
Then I decided to start trying to make sense of all those handwritten notes. I typed them up and began to drag and drop them into chapters. The skeleton of my manuscript was now in place, adorned with the odd chunk of fully written text plus all the background notes I would need to finish writing my book—which I did.
I have been thinking about that experience with writer’s block a lot over the past year—not because I’ve been struggling with writer’s block, but because my writing life has improved so dramatically. I am highly productive. I am highly creative. I am taking risks with my writing. I have fallen in love with writing again. And all because of the daily (or twice-daily) walks that have become a fixture in my life.
I would not have believed the impact that something as simple as walking could have on my life if I hadn’t experienced this for myself. Both my life and my health have been transformed. I am so much less anxious and so much happier—and that shift in moods has reaped tremendous dividends for my creative life.
If I could re-wind the clock and have a conversation with myself circa 2006—the earlier me who was feeling defeated and paralyzed by that blank computer screen—I would say this, “Get away from the computer. Go for a walk. Don’t try to force the writing. Give the ideas a chance to flow. Be kinder to yourself and to your writing.”
I put this strategy to the test again this afternoon. I was feeling a bit worried and overwhelmed by what I might say to kick off this new show—a show that matters a lot to me. Instead of locking myself in my office and bullying myself into writing something—anything!—as a means of escaping the tyranny of the blank screen, I laced up my running shoes and headed out for an hour-long walk on the bike path.
When I arrived back home, I opened up my laptop, put my fingers on the keyboard, and began to type, knowing that much of the prep work that needed to be done had been accomplished while my feet were pounding on the pavement and enjoying the autumn sun.
Hey, it’s the best cure for writer’s block I know.