To deal with and reduce or eliminate writing blocks, an important first step is to identify the causes of the block. Until that has been accomplished, it’s difficult to make any plans for change.
I’m going to focus on writing blocks related to fears, doubts, and anxieties. In my experience, writing blocks spring from two main sources: those that spring from fears and anxieties and those that spring from dislike (or even hatred) of the project (See note on writing blocks, below). Of course fears and anxieties can lead to hatred, and hatred can lead to fears and anxieties, so these two sorts of writing blocks are not entirely independent of each other. But to the extent that a writing block springs from dislike or disinterest in the project (and that dislike or disinterest does not have root causes in any fear, doubt, or anxiety), I don’t have much to say about it, beyond “choose to do it, or choose to walk away.” I can’t think of any exercises or practice that would make someone interested in work that they hate.
But for writing blocks that have roots in fears, doubts, and anxieties, the writing blocks can be lessened or entirely removed through the development of a good practice and the use of writing exercises.
Exercise and Healthy Practice
In the long run, success as a writer comes from a regular practice of writing. By and large, people who publish regularly are people who work at writing on a regular basis. Therefore, if you want to write, you should be thinking about how to build a regular practice of writing. There are regular practices that are built on negative emotions, and this kind of practice—a merciless “try harder or you’ll never be good enough” mindset—can lead to growing emotional barriers. If you push yourself to suffer through a task, it would hardly be surprising if you developed anxieties around that task.
My basic approach to reducing or eliminating writing blocks sits in the context of building a healthy practice motivated by positive ideals. As you develop a healthy practice, many anxieties and fears can fall away, reducing emotional barriers, even if some anxieties may remain.
Central in developing a healthy writing practice that reduces anxiety is to engage in writing exercises. The crucial factor of a writing exercise is that it is viewed as a trial aimed at building skill, not a final product for presentation. In such exercises, early errors are expected as part of the process of improvement. The concern is for going through the process. A writing exercise can be viewed as a parallel to a musician playing scales: the scales are not practiced for their own sake, but to help build skill that can be applied to later performances.
To some extent, the key here is shifting focus from product to practice: rather than creating a good written work, create a good writer. In the long run, a good writer will be able to create many good written works. In this context any time you write anything—lists, emails, texts, journal entries, as well as more formal pieces of writing—you’re practicing the general skill of writing, which is to find words to express some idea or information.
Writing exercises, like the musician’s scales, are a private practice, and being private, it’s not necessary to be concerned with what other people would think of what you write.
Exercise 1: Identify Your Fears, Doubts, and Anxieties
If you are struggling with any sort of anxiety barrier to writing, one very useful writing exercise is to try to identify all the different fears, doubts, and anxieties. Make a list of all the anxieties, doubts, and fears that you have related to your writing. Be as detailed as possible. A good list of anxieties provides a starting place for a process of identifying specific concerns that can be addressed in some way. Some writing-related fears are real and can’t simply be dismissed—“It’ll get rejected,” is a very real possibility to acknowledge. Other fears are less accurate—“writing sucks; it’s torture,” isn’t accurate for all writers and is, in a way, a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you tell yourself writing will be painful, you may never develop a non-painful practice. For many writers, fears of criticism by people from their past trigger anxiety, but making these fears explicit reveals that they can be dismissed as past concerns, not present ones.
In the exercise of writing about your writing-related concerns, not only do you practice your ability to turn ideas into words on the page, but you also gain insight into your process of writing, and that insight can be used to refine and improve your practice.
A word of caution and care: An exercise of writing about anxieties can trigger anxiety, so be gentle with yourself. Spend a few minutes writing down different anxieties, doubts, or fears as a starting point. Repeat the exercise often, but not so often that it triggers anxieties. Practice identifying your concerns.
In future work, you can focus on specific individual concerns to seek ways to eliminate or otherwise manage/reduce that concern. (I anticipate writing some future posts on dealing with specific concerns/anxieties that many writers experience.)
Diagnosis is the first step to treatment
If you are struggling with writer’s block—if you’ve written in the past, but are getting stuck now due to anxiety that arises in the writing practice—a first step is to identify the causes of difficulty. Many anxieties about writing can be eliminated in the process of developing a healthful, productive, and sometimes enjoyable writing practice, but only if those anxieties can be identified and addressed. Writing is always going to demand effort, and will always offer some chance of failure, so it’s never completely free of emotional challenges, but you can develop a healthy practice in part by identifying and then eliminating or reducing the unnecessary concerns.
Note on writing blocks: failure to write does not always count as a writing block. One can only have “writer’s block” if one (a) is generally responsible and self-disciplined, (b) dedicates time to trying to write, and (c) has had some success as a writer in the past. The second condition speaks to the notion that you must already have learned to write—as demonstrated by having written successfully in the past (as a student in school, at least)–before it’s reasonable to worry about writer’s blocks. There are many things that impede writing that I would not count as writing blocks. Severe illness or injury that prevent writing are not writer’s block. Inability to schedule time to write, whether due to competing responsibilities or to laziness, is not a writer’s block.