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?
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