Writer’s Block — All the Reasons You Can’t

As a writer, you are frustrated. You have writer’s block. You have a name for it, but you don’t know why and you don’t know how to fix it.

Sometimes it seems we cannot do something we think we should. Maybe we get all our papers and pencils together, then stare at the sheet in front of us that obstinately remains blank. Or we turn on our computer and call up the word processing program. But wait! What e-mail has come in? While we’re waiting for the messages to download, a quick game of Freecell will make the time pass more quickly. As it does for the next three hours…and we still have written nothing.

More than once I have invited people to a party at my home, knowing it was a mess, but also knowing that the party date was a deadline, by which time I had to get that dreaded task, cleaning my house, finished. It worked. Why?


Between sheer paralysis and the power of distractions, writing, or NOT WRITING, can be very difficult work. Actually, writer’s block is not unique to the act of writing. Any number of activities, from cleaning our homes, to replacing a button on a shirt, to starting on our taxes are things we postpone and try to avoid. Maybe the shirt can find a new home in the rag bag; it is doubtful that the IRS will ignore our negligence for long.

How often have you had a ‘to do’ on your list, and six months later, it is still on your list? We do that. Other things get in the way. We just never get around to fixing that loose faucet. Or putting the button back on the shirt in the corner of the closet. Or maybe we want to replace that torn screen, but we have no idea how to even start. Maybe someone else nags us so we either do it to shut off the noise, or don’t do it just because we don’t want to be told.

It is easy to get distracted and end up frittering away our time on things that do not move us toward living genuinely. What are your goals? What do you need to do to get there?

<Important vs. Urgent

Lay out a quadrant with ‘important/not important,’ across the top and ‘urgent/not urgent’ shown vertically. Analyze each task to determine whether it important or not important, urgent or not urgent. Shirt button, usually minimal importance. Taxes, important.

What tasks are important and urgent because they used to be important and not urgent, but you just didn’t get to them? Like your taxes. And that button? It will probably not get important until you are required to wear that particular shirt for an event, or you have nothing left to wear. So things can move, will move, over time.

Why would you even do something that is not important? Easy. Because it’s urgent. Taxes get more urgent as a task the closer you get to April 15. Those were important to start with, but we moved from not urgent to urgent just because we didn’t do them. What did we gain? The adrenaline rush of urgency. Are you addicted?

What is important?

We have things in our life that are urgent, and because something is urgent, we quite often make the mistake of assuming the task is important. We also assume a task is not important because it lacks the ‘edge’ of being urgent. Urgency can become a habit, and we can get addicted to this high level of stress. And writing? If you are not doing it for a living, it will lack the adrenaline satisfaction that you crave. Procrastination is a hard habit to break.

Ask yourself: Is my writing important? This question has multiple answers. Maybe you are not earning your livelihood through your writing. Without a dollar value, are you still willing to say, ‘yes, my writing is important?’ Psychologically, it may be the difference between life and death even if it never earns you a dime.

How much time are you spending in each quadrant? Are you doing things that are not important, just because they are urgent? Are you doing things that are not important and not urgent, just because they are easiest, and you get a sense of accomplishment at their achievement even if it doesn’t really matter? Every day those easy things will line up, begging to be done. They will eat your life.

We can spend all our time getting rid of the little lizards and never get around to slaying the dragon.

The inner critic/judge

We start with a few words and quickly cross them out. They are wrong. We know they’re wrong. We try again. The words still not say what we want to. We despair that we ever started this craziness in the first place. Why did we ever get the idea we could write anyway? Obviously, we can’t. We push the pen or type the keys again. The words stare back at us from the page, about as dead as they can get. Writer’s block? Or maybe we have completely lost the muse. Maybe it was never there in the first place…

What have you just told yourself? That you can’t do it? The mind has a marvelous way of delivering to reality whatever it is told. Repeat that. As more than one author has stated, ‘If you believe it, you will see it.’ This applies to writing as well as a variety of other things in your life. If you aim to fail, you will succeed…at failing. One short quip I read said, ‘Quitters never win and winners never quit.’ What are you doing?

Hey, you argue. I’m just telling the truth about the situation. The truth? You’ve just tied some cement blocks around your ankles and jumped in the pool after telling everyone that you just know you’ll sink. Then you frantically thrash you arms to show how hard you are trying to swim. You’ll have a better chance if you take the cement blocks off first.

The anti-critic exercise

Whose message are we listening to? What voices are we hearing and believing that paralyze us? And why do we ascribe validity to that discouragement?

Turn off the judge/critic who is so quick to analyze your writing. Write about something that does not have the emotional investment you may have in what you were working on. Pick up a book of writing exercises and pick a page.

Stuck on the random? Open the book and drop it on the floor. The page it falls open to is your page of the day. Or flip open another book and use the page number from that book for your exercise number. Or flip open a phone book and drop your finger onto a page. The first set of digits that can translate into a page number is where you are today.

Write a word. Then another one. When you have finished a sentence, put down the next one. Don’t judge what you have written. What you write can be awful. That is fine. In fact, the more horrible the writing is, the better.

Give yourself permission to write badly. That’s right…it doesn’t matter how bad it is. Maybe put together something that breaks every rule you ever heard about writing. If the punctuation is bad, that doesn’t matter. If the writing is full of misspellings, leave it. If the grammar stinks, that’s great.

This permission will open clogged creative channels and let your thoughts flow, the inspiration blocked when your judge decided what was acceptable and what was not.

When you have done one page, date it, print it, and put it aside. That is all the writing you are going to do that day. Period. No editing. No re-reading. You are not going to allow yourself to do any more writing that day, no matter what.

If you don’t feel like writing the next day, remember, you are only going to write a page. Write that page, date it, and put it aside. Again, deny yourself the opportunity to continue. Don’t allow yourself to make any corrections. You are not going to edit either one of your manuscripts today. You are not going to dawdle around your writing table. You are going to force yourself away from it.

On the third day, if you haven’t gone back to your original work filled with new ideas you just have to write down, pick up the first piece. Now you can edit. Maybe it’s so bad, it’s the beginning of a wonderful satire. Maybe it has sparked some new ideas, a story you want to develop. Maybe it’s something you want to bring into your current piece. Maybe it is just plain bad and you don’t feel like writing anymore.

If that is the case, pick up the exercise book, arbitrarily pick a page (close your eyes and open the book…that page has your assignment for the day). Remember, you only have a page to write. Write the page, date it and put it aside.

The primary purpose of these exercises is to turn off the editor that blocks you from action. That critic is the worst enemy of your creativity. That’s why, in group brainstorming sessions, the instructions are to come up with the most outlandish ideas possible, and not criticize any of them. The minute criticism is allowed, the flow of ideas stops. The focus becomes proving why an idea won’t work.

In writing, it is why your words are wrong. The ‘editor’ operates, criticizing your words as they hit the paper. Why would you want to expose yourself to ‘not measuring up?’ You stop writing, the only way your brain can solve this issue, even if the solution is unconscious. You have ‘writer’s block.’

Belief in your target

We carry a false modesty. False modesty? What is that? We believe we don’t dare to be extraordinary, that we don’t have the capability within ourselves to be more than we have been in the past, or that we cannot repeat a success that, heaven knows, was only a one-time fluke. Somewhere in our history we were told it was wrong to brag. We took that to mean it was wrong to do something to brag about. Separate the two.

Beyond that, what have you set up as a belief system? That you can’t succeed? Back to the concrete blocks in the swimming pool. Why are you doing this to yourself? What you are doing is not life or death. Believe it. Be aware of the power of fear. If you fear something, it increases in importance. Fear owns you, paralyzes you. Sometimes the best way to deal with it is to plan out baby-steps toward your fear, then take that first small step and congratulate yourself. Maybe that small step is one word. Or one sentence. Or one paragraph.

I wrote my first novel paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. I didn’t know I could do it. I sent the first chapter to a friend. He encouraged me, said he wanted the next. I wrote it and sent it to him. He wanted the next. Forty-three chapters and lots of inquiries later, I sent it to an agent. My friend had read the whole thing.

In the meantime, I joined the Tampa Writer’s Alliance and put the critique group to work. They got through about 15 chapters before the agent took it, and I now have the critique group working on my second novel.

People told me it couldn’t happen. I didn’t listen. I just did it anyway, acting as if I would succeed. That ‘acting as if’ is important. Act ‘as if’ you belong some place. It is amazing the places it will get you into. Act ‘as if’ you are a writer, and you will pattern your mind in that way.


What reasons do you have for not doing something? If you have ‘writer’s block,’ what reasons do you have for not writing? Sometimes it helps to do a seven questions exercise. The number seven is arbitrary, but helps show the depth you need to go into. The exercise works like this:

Statement 1: I can’t write.
Question: Why can’t you write?
Statement 2: Because I don’t have time.
Question: Why don’t you have time?
Statement 3: Because there are too many other things I have to do.
Question: What do you have to do?
Statement 4: I have to get the kids ready for school.
Question: And after they have gone to school?
Statement 5: I have to go to work.
Question: Do you want to write?
Statement 6: Of course I do. (Stupid question, you idiot.)
Question: What are you willing to give up so you can write?
Statement 7: Why should I have to give up anything?
Question: Why can’t you write?

Remember that 20 percent of your effort will produce 80 percent of the results. How does that relate to writing?

What are your goals? Have you written them down? If someone hands you a bow and arrow and tells you to shoot a bulls-eye, what chance do you have of scoring if you are never told where the target is?

Do yourself a favor. Tell yourself what the target is. Write it down. Envision how it will feel to achieve your goal. Immerse yourself in the feeling of your success. If success is your target, you have far greater chance of achieving it because that is what you are aiming for.

Sometimes the inability to do something means that it just isn’t time. Accept this.

Plan to achieve your goal! This has a double meaning. Plan to achieve your goal by laying out the steps and subgoals to its achievement. And plan to achieve your goal in that you expect success.

What is your target? If it is to fail, if that is the message you are telling yourself, don’t be surprised when you succeed at failing. That is what you have programmed yourself to do.

Get your mind in the “success space.” Develop the Expectation you will succeed, get the Education you need, and gain Experience through the act of writing. You can argue for success, you can argue for failure. Most of the time, what you argue for is what you get.

All the reasons you can’t? Ask yourself: Are you arguing for failure?

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