Writer’s Block Cause 1: Fear

You’re a writer on a deadline. You know you should be cranking on your assignment, but instead you’re staring at a blank page with your mouth open, your heart pounding, and your mind doing its best impression of a black hole. You have no good ideas. You can’t string together a single sentence. The lifeless forms of impotent words are strewn around you like so much literary roadkill. You’re suddenly sure that everything you’ve ever written is crap. The void of the stark white and oh-so-empty page starts to give you a bad case of vertigo.

Writer’s block – the kryptonite we dare not name. 

Whether writing is how you make your living or how you feed your passion, there are few things more terrifying to a writer than sitting down and finding the words have stopped flowing. But what causes this sudden paralysis? It’s not a virus or a temporary gene mutation. It’s not hereditary or influenced by environmental factors. In fact, there is no clinical proof that writer’s block exists, and yet writers routinely claim their muses are held hostage in its grip.

What if writer’s block is simply a convenient name for a collection of common roadblocks that keep writers from writing? What if, instead of fearing this mysterious affliction, you could break it down to its most basic elements and wrest yourself from its control? I believe that’s not only a possibility, but also our obligation. As writers, we have a responsibility to create. We don’t have time to waste with fabricated demons.

Writer’s Block Cause #1: Fear

Yes, it’s that obvious.

Writer’s block isn’t about some external force sucking your ideas and talent away. Writer’s block is about your own fear taking over your nervous system and depleting your confidence to the point of paralysis. It’s about attempting to avoid pain and disappointment by eliminating risk. Putting your thoughts out into the world requires courage and conviction. When your fears inspire a case of vicious self-doubt and second-guessing, it’s no wonder you end up feeling sapped of creative juices.

The bad news:

You have every right to be afraid. Your fears are not unfounded or irrational.

The most common fear – fear of failure – is totally justified. There’s every chance you might fail. You might find that you don’t have the chops to deliver a particular assignment. You might come under fire for “doing it wrong.” You might find yourself suffering the slings and arrows of self-appointed critics. You might have to endure public exposure or ridicule. Worst of all, you might be awoken one night by the initial tremors of your writing dream’s death throes.

There are so many things that can trigger our fear. Apart from the human impulse to imagine the worst case scenario, writers have a particular aptitude for self-flagellation via comparison. We read the brilliant work of someone else and start to wonder why we even bother. We dread putting our own work out into the world for fear that someone else will make the same comparison and find our efforts wanting. The world is full of heartless assassins who won’t hesitate to put a bullet in our writing.

The good news:

The good news is that your fear comes from love. You love writing. You love story. You love your craft. Your fear mirrors the depth and intensity of your love. No wonder it’s powerful enough to strike you dumb! Your fear is just a normal reaction to your desire to protect something you care about. It’s not unusual for a stressful situation to send even the most rational of us into that fight-or-flight space. And what could be more stressful than risking the survival of something that is such a big part of who we are? Bring on the lizard brain and forget about sticking your neck out. Give in to writer’s block and keep your tender dreams alive, right?


Now What?

You’ve identified and acknowledged your fear. You understand that it’s holding you back. What’re you going to do about it? Fear is a pretty tenacious emotion. It’s not impressed by logic. You aren’t going to argue your way out of this one. Instead, let’s try a story.

When you start to feel the waves of doubt and fear creeping up from your heart into your brain and then down to your fingertips where they rest motionless on the keyboard, tell yourself the story of your journey as a writer. Start with gently reminding yourself that it is a journey. No one wakes up one morning a fully formed writer. The transformation from aspiring writer to accomplished writer requires traveling a usually long and almost always twisting road. Your writer self needs to grow and learn and evolve, just like you do. Be gentle with her. Don’t expect her to be a master craftsman the first time out.

Remember that you are the hero of your story. Guess what – the hero never has it easy. If you’re going to have your happy ending, you’re going to have to go through some stuff. Some of it will be good, some of it not so good. You will be challenged. You will fall down and have to get back up. You will face demons and dragons and bad guys. You will lose your way and find it again. Each time you get derailed or discouraged, remember that this is just part of what it means to be a hero. These are the experiences that will prepare you for later victory.

Accept where you are in your journey. Celebrate your triumphs and embrace your failures.  Know that you must experience both to become the writer you’re meant to be. Count each elated high and each desperate low as equally valuable notches on your literary belt. Remember that your fear comes from love and is a completely normal reaction to the stress of potential failure. Feel the fear and write anyway. Savor the lessons learned at least as much as the outcome of your efforts. You may never fully eradicate your fear, but you will at least learn to live with it and – more importantly – write through it.

How does your fear keep you from writing? What are your biggest fears? How do you push past them? 

This is the first post in a series about the causes of that fictitious condition known as writer’s block. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone who feels they have suffered from this inability to put words down. I just believe that if we can uncover and face the root causes of this uniquely literary affliction, we can slay the writer’s block dragon and get back to the work at hand. Who’s with me?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Darren Hestor

55 thoughts on “Writer’s Block Cause 1: Fear

  1. Fear of failure is a reason for my procrastination. In some ways Writer’s Block is a kind of procrastination too. I am afraid of failing and destroying the bubble; which contains the dream of me becoming a writer. I am afraid that what I write is not good enough. I let that fear keep me from writing for a long time. That is why I started my daily blogging challenge this year. It is meant to stop me from standing in the way of becoming a better writer. I have written a few poems, which in the past I would never have shown to another because of fear of negative criticism. But I was surprised that there were actually people, who liked them These positive feedback have helped me overcome my initial fear of failure. I am far from being totally fearless but I have learned how not to let it paralyse my creativity. Have a nice day! Cheers!

    • Good for you, Irene, to get out there and share your work. It can be such a frightening thing, but there’s no way past that fear except working straight through it. Glad to know you’re keeping your creativity going!

  2. Yes, yes and yes to the entire description. I feel that fear and I doubt my abilities. Blogging is one way for me to overcome it. It’s a small reminder that I am able to string words together to form a sentence. The bigger project is sometimes shuffled to the side, but at least I still put fingers to the keyboard and when all else fails I run. Literally. It clears my head.

    • Excellent point, Kat, about smaller projects being less daunting. That’s something I’ll talk more about in the 2nd post in this series. Happy blogging & head clearing! 😉

  3. Well said Jamie! I was nodding and smiling as a read though this post. It reminded me of my mind-dump of December 5: http://richardleonard.wordpress.com/2011/12/05/metablog-my-love-and-fear-of-writing/
    In addition to what I say in the above, you hit on another problem I relate to very well. If I may quote your good self: “We read the brilliant work of someone else and start to wonder why we even bother” Happens to me disappointingly often.

    Thanks for the affirmations! Looking forward to #2. 🙂


    • Richard, Your post hits on a great follow-up point – it’s hard enough to write (get the words down on paper/screen), but then we have to worry about publishing … releasing our words into the world. The two are closely connected, but sometimes if you can separate them (at least temporarily), you can build up the courage to get the writing done (by taking away the fear of publishing) and then – AFTER you’ve got the words down – deal with letting other people read what you’ve written. That’s something I’ll explore more and for which I thank @SeanMMadden on Twitter. 🙂

      • Thanks for taking the time to read my post, Jamie. Judging by the number of unpublished drafts I have, I’m tempted to say the fear of publishing overrides the fear of writing, at this stage at least! I wonder if that’s related to a fear of public speaking? Hmm.
        Anyway also looking forward to your exploration of this topic.

        And re Tressalee’s comment below: *like*!… Or maybe I’m one of them? 😉

    • Well – that is just about the nicest thing anyone could say. (I won’t tell anyone, don’t worry!) 😉

  4. Well done. I have had all those thoughts. Presently I worry that I won’t be able to find the ‘magic’ I did in my first story, and that readers will be disappointed. I remind myself that I am only half way through the first draft, but the self-doubt is lurking, ready to paralyze me again. In the first story, one of my characters, who inserted himself into the story without my permission, actually said, as he held up a copy of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad”, “I’ve thought about writing a book, but there’s already so much good stuff out there. I don’t know if I have anything to add.” He has showed up in the second story, having undertaken a writing project as a co-author. Now, I wonder where that came from?

    • Robert,
      I think the “I don’t have another (good) story in me” issue is a big one for many authors … even successful ones. I’m not sure what the solution is for that particular trouble, but the fact that you’re continuing to charge ahead is probably a great start!

      TKS for dropping by.

  5. My current fear in writing, Jamie, is that I will reveal things that will allow some folks (only 1 or 2) to stalk my family members. This fear is based in a realistic assessment of some past situations. As long as I keep that fear in front of me, I know it will serve as an excellent means of protection. I will NOT reveal something I don’t want to because I WILL carefully edit all my writing. So there!

    • Happily, you are in charge of what you reveal and what you don’t. As long as you do not let fear (rather than good judgment) hold you back. As long as you write.

  6. I don’t believe in writers’ block because I write almost everyday. I do believe in “monkey mind,” the part of our minds that dredges up every criticism we have ever heard and spits them into our consciousness. The thing is, monkey mind doesn’t have a lot to say beyond “You’re an idiot” and “You’ll never be a writer.” Sometimes it’s fun to let the monkey rant on the page — it may make you laugh. This is not to say that I don’t sometimes have doubts about an occasional piece of work: it helps to identify doubt as doubt and not “the truth.”

  7. Hey there Jamie,
    another great post, and it really hit home for me.
    As you know I received my first professional rejection a few weeks back although it was as I expected, it still took the wind out of my sails for a bit and I have not felt like writing not even my blog. You are correct about putting your work out there for the world to read it is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, as with everything I expect it to get easier the more times I do it.
    Thanks for this post.

    • Hey, Jim!
      Just remember – your first professional rejection is proof that you are out there doing everything you can to Make It Happen. That’s the most important thing. Keep up the great work!

  8. Wonderful post Jamie,
    Very inspiring words along with truth in the fear. Well, I definitely have found myself to be a bit of a procrastinator with it comes to writing. There is so much to learn and my brain can’t seem to get enough. I’m very new at writing and by throwing myself out there does feel a little intimidating. To be watched and judged is not easy. But when you have the passion to share with others, fear will not stick around for long. Just have to have faith that all will be fine.

    Thank you Jamie, your words help so many.

    • I am so pleased if my words helped you. Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts so openly. We ALL feel intimidated. The trick is in pushing past that and doing it anyway. 🙂

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  10. My biggest fear is shallow – I’m afraid of not making enough money to pay the bills. Yup. There, I said it. Not being good enough never enters my mind. Writer’s block – what’s that? I’m not saying those types of fears are non-existent, but I can handle it. Small humps in the road (okay, maybe a small hill sometimes). But…if I write something horrible and it’s rejected, or it offends, or it’s not my creative best, there is room to reassess, suck it up and keep going.
    My fear is that I won’t make enough money to justify being a writer. I don’t make enough now. Poor as sh– really! Every penny I make gets reinvested into keeping this writer’s dream going, hoping someday it’ll pay off enough so I can do it one hundred percent of the time without scraping by and worrying.
    I don’t expect to get rich. But the fear of not being able to keep going for financial reasons scares me more than anything else about writing.

    • Laura,
      Thanks for sharing your fear so honestly and openly. You’ve tapped into something that SO many writers battle. It’s not just the real world issue of making rent, but (in my experience) the never ending need to justify (to ourselves, our friends and family, etc) our continued pursuit of a vocation that is not easy or always profitable. Great addition to the conversation.

  11. Thanks so much for the post Jamie – I stumbled upon this one literally as I was sitting here thinking “I’ve read so many amazing posts today, whatever I write is going to pale in comparison!” As a new writer, it’s always nice to know I’m not alone in feeling the way I do and to know even the seasoned and experienced wrestle with similar issues! Anytime I’ve felt vulnerable putting my writing out there, I remind myself that like life’s experiences, you can’t control what other people say, think or do but what you can do is use almost any critique to your advantage for improvement. That being said, you’ll never please everyone so sometimes it’s best to just move on! Again, thank you and thank you!

    • I love your outlook and philosophy!
      It’s true – you can’t please everyone. It’s not worth it to try.
      And – YES! – each writer (no matter how successful) battles these same demons. I don’t think that the monkey of comparison every goes away … it’s always there, a constant companion.

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  19. I find that my biggest cause of writer’s block is perfectionism. Asking myself, can I write a crumby, memo, letter, story…?, whatever, helps me to break the inertia. I know I can write a bad letter, so that instantly gets my pen or keyboard in motion. Once I have that draft down on paper, I can simply edit it until it’s satisfactory. Ironically, It’s amazing how good that first draft turns out to be often times.

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