08 November 2012

Why You Should Embrace Writer's Block

by Jody Aberdeen

Peevish Nation, I'm not gonna sugar coat it for you: we're living in the Age of Paradoxical Solutions.

Y'all know what I'm talking about: those bumper sticker nuggets, the pretty pictures of flowers, landscapes, and sunsets that have nothing to do with the words written on them, often in Comic Sans Serif or, if the author is completely shameless, Times New Roman in Bold face. 

And what do the quotes say? Things like "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything" (props to Mr. Palahniuk for that one) and "Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly" (word to Bobby Kennedy....hmmm, I actually love that one).   You get the idea.  They don't seem to make sense, but they also do, if that makes any sense? Which it does, even if it doesn't. Right?

Before I get too scrambled, I'll get to the point: the best way to ignore Writer's Block?  Embrace it.  With open arms. That's the first step to restoring the flow of words.

I know, I'm advocating carnal sin here for many of you, but the way I see it, the angels have already stacked the deck in favor of productivity and hard work, and at heart, I'm lazy and like to nap in the afternoon rather than do anything productive.

Talent, Skill, and Paradigms

Writers are born with the talent to see stories and images, to think in pictures and then translate those images into words. Writers are developed through proper schooling in the technical skills of language.  Talent and skill are distinct from each other: you can teach anyone proper spelling and grammar, but you can't help someone who isn't born with the talent to see stories in pictures. It's like trying to change a baby's skin or eye color after he or she is already born.

Midway between God-given talent and malleable skill sets lies a third dimension: the paradigm.  I'm borrowing the term from the performance coaching work I'm doing with Bob Proctor's Life Success Corporate school of thought that I've been blogging about chez moi for the past few weeks.  The paradigm is a set of ideas and habits that each person has, and this set is at once influenced by genetics and upbringing and by conscious thinking.  And one major paradigm that nearly all writers inherit is this idea of Writer's Block

That writers sometimes run out of words is a reality, plain and simple.  That sometimes writers can and do go without a flow of inspiration for days, months, even years is historical and present-day fact.  Hell, if you're reading this right now, you're probably quote-unquote "blocked" and spending your time on Peevish Penman when you should be getting back to that novel you've been workin' on.....actually, no, wait, stick around a while, we love you.  

I also don't want Carrie sending hired goons after me for dropping the site traffic (call it caffeine rage, the Wrath of Juan Valdez, or what have you).

So if it's a real thing and not a figment of our imagination, how does embracing Writer's Block clear it? Simple: because it's still a concept, a name, that someone somewhere in the past invented to describe their experience of losing the flow of words.  That person coined the term, and the rest of us started minting that denomination in our minds, our scribbles, and our drunk/caffeinated/stoned conversations with others in the wordslinging trade.

What we should have done was call "Writer's Block" by a different name.  Anything else, as long as it wasn't an image of something stopping us.

Back to paradigms.  We're trained in two things: we experience "blockage", and that we're supposed to hate it.  Because of that, whenever we get "blockage," we stop loving what we do and start hating it. The idea that this is how it's supposed to be is so widespread, we get virtually 100% social reinforcement from our friends and family who think the same way about the loss of flow, even if they themselves aren't writers.

It's in our nature to avoid unpleasantness, so even when we have tight deadlines, we find ways to avoid sitting down at the desk. We go for walks, we spend time with family, we go drinking, we exercise, we watch TV or read: anything to avoid doing that thing that we're blocked on, and of course, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Trouble is, even throughout this deliberate hedonism, we feel guilty because we're not writing, which further adds to the "blockage!".  It's easy to see why so many writers enter this kind of Zeno's Paradox of never getting to the end of a project: if it's not this, it's something else.

Shake Hands With The Devil

"So, O Eminent One," you may be asking, "how does one restore the flow of words?"  My preferred solution is in three parts.

First, embrace the Writer's Block. Seriously, try it. Open up your arms, nuzzle the blockage against your bosom. 

Guess what? You can't. Why? Because there's nothing there. Writer's Block doesn't physically exist. It's an idea, and ideas can be changed.

(Ten points to Gryffyndor if you actually opened your arms)

The loss of flow, however, is indeed a reality.  How do you get it back?  Well, obviously something threw off your groove.  Review your work and see if you lost a thread somewhere.  If the answer isn't in your work, and nothing's flowing again by the time you finish your review, that's when you get up and go do something else.  And when you do go to do something else, I want you to feel okay with it. 

You might say, "What if I'm on a tight deadline?  What if they need it in an hour?"  I think if that's the case, you'll find a way.  Look back on all those last minute "blockages" and I guarantee you'll find, more often than not, that you succeeded under pressure.  Really, that's what it takes: either high pressure to just crank out anything and restore the flow by force, or just occupying your body and mind for a while elsewhere so that fallow fields in your mind can grow again. 

Feeling guilty for not writing is absolutely unnecessary: it's what you love, but as Peter Cetera says, even the truest lovers need a break from each other every now and then.  (Yes, I just mined 1982's American Top 40 List for material. What of it?)

Re-think your conception of the loss of flow as being "Writer's Block" using a metaphor that empowers you to be able to change it: you need to refuel your inspiration, it's a break in the rain, leaving a field fallow, needing a change your batteries, whatever works.  Then all you have to do is chill.  Go to the gym. Spend time with your family. Go drinking with your friends. Enjoy life!

So yes, Peevish Nation, that's how you show Writer's Block what's what in the most godlike fashion that we godlike creatures can muster: by denying its ability to exist as a concept. 

You're welcome!


  1. Jody, it's so nice to see someone else advocating to just let the block be if that's what it takes. I've been pushing back against one for about a month, and it's only led to more frustration. Lucky for me, NaNo started up, so I suddenly had a deadline and less expectations to go against (since your NaNo isn't meant to be seen by anyone), and now I'm back to writing every day, and it's helped the overall block tremendously.

  2. Yes, writer's block can bring us to our knees sometimes, and when you add limited writing time, it can feel like a cruel joke. Thanks for taking some of its power away, Jody!