I don’t believe in writer’s block, but I do believe in being stuck. For me, that really helps, because if one is stuck, then it logically follows that one can become un-stuck, too.
Maybe it’s because I’m a helper. I like to take care of others. It is my gift, it is my curse. I’ll get to that, but first: basically, if there’s a problem, then I naturally want to solve it. So I’ve been making an effort to pay attention to the times when I am stuck, and ask why. I hope you can find this helpful, too.
Diagnosing the Problem (aka, The Importance of Asking Why)
Have you ever sat down with the intention of writing or revising, and just plain not been able to concentrate? And then, by the end of the evening / morning / writing time block, feel foolish for having wasted time? Cue the negative self-talk, because clearly this is all your fault and you didn’t actually want to write, and you’ll never make any progress anyway, and you’re kinda scared to submit anything, so why should you bother? Besides, it’s more fun talking about writing, or the idea of writing, or—oh hey, did you catch the latest episode of Wizard Avenue?. (I had a writing group that excelled at this. Funny, we don’t hang out anymore.)
If you’re hanging around other writers, there is nothing wrong with wanting to socialize if writing in a group setting, but sometimes it can be very hard to get into a writing rhythm around others. Recognize if this is something you can do. Or, if you’re like me and sometimes you can focus in a crowd and sometimes you need to be alone, pay attention to how your body and mind are feeling. And if something isn’t working with your environment, teach yourself to be able to recognize that, so that you can do something to fix it and turn the unproductive evening into something more. It may just be that you need to mentally defrag, and a little bit of social time before getting to work will help. But if you’re alone at home (maybe) and trying to concentrate but find yourself distracted, or unable to settle down, there could be other reasons.
Let’s be realistic: it’s rare that any of us can find the perfect writing environment, so being able to adapt is important. But it’s a rare skill to automatically go all zen and turn on our creativity to churn out reams of text. So, here’s a mental health checklist:
- Is there any emotion that you’re holding on to that’s preventing you from writing? If so, what is it and how is that emotion affecting you to make you unproductive? How are you letting it affect you? Why?
- Before you sat down to write, did anything happen in the immediate past that’s on your mind? Can you set it aside and promise your brain you’ll deal with it later?
- Are you feeling antsy, too full of energy? Try going for a walk, or hitting the gym, or alternately, taking a break so your brain can rest. Wearing it out by engaging it in something physical, or letting it relax, can be just what you need. (Occasionally I’ll watch an hour of TV. Just one hour, mind. And then I’ve been far more productive after that.)
- Do you ever find yourself just wanting to escape? Do you distract yourself with other people’s problems? Facebook’s a delightful rabbit hole cesspool for that. Face it, worrying about other people’s crises can be a lovely distraction because it gives your brain an excuse to not focus on your own stuff. In my case, if I’m not careful, I can while away hours while getting absorbed in everyone else’s drama. And I get nothing out of it, except somehow three hours have flown by and I’m dragged down by negativity.
- Related: could you be suffering from compassion fatigue? Sometimes, if like me you’re a bleeding heart caring, empathetic person, do you somehow end up getting caught up with other people’s crises, whether on Facebook or in real life, because you want to help make things better for them? Do you find people relying too heavily on you sometimes, but you have a hard time saying no? That’s kind of you, dear, but if you always put yourself last, you won’t get anything done. The solution: put yourself first, unless there’s an actual emergency. It’ll be hard at the start, but like building a muscle, it becomes easier with every time you do it. And when it comes to friends and loved ones, be able to say, “I can’t do that right now, but I can soon. Let me finish this other thing first.”
- Finally, be honest with yourself: are you going through a major emotional challenge, one that tests your limits? No wonder you can’t concentrate. Frankly, it’s a surprise you managed anything. Yeah, that was my whole last year. So ask: What can I do to release this pain? Time helps, but so can art.
Final note: the story synopsis you see at the top of this post was thrown together as a joke, because sometimes it’s easier to embrace dark humour to deal with the pain. I didn’t actually write that novel, but it did help inspire some of the lyrics to the epic filk mashup I wrote and performed at an Open Mic event last month. The song wasn’t about any one person, and I was asked to write it because there were a number of folks in my group going through similar pain. But the act of belting it out on stage before a crowd of friends and allies was an emotional release, and my soul has never felt lighter.
Even better, last night I finished my revisions and sent the pages to the agent who’s requested them, and now I can get on with other writing stuff. It feels really good.
Take care of yourselves, folks. Your stories matter.