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15 of the most common causes of writer’s block – and how to cure them

Feeling stuck in your manuscript, craft, or career? Here are 15 of the most common problems that can stall a writer’s progress – plus key strategies for overcoming each one.

Recently, my local writers guild asked to feature me in their monthly newsletter. A glutton for exposure, I said yes. I then received a list of 10 questions, two of which stood out. One was “When did you first consider yourself to be a writer?” The other was “What is your biggest time waster?

In thinking about these two questions, I realized I could answer one with the other: I knew I was a writer when I found myself sitting at my desk day after day with my forehead in my hands, staring at my lap and thinking about how I couldn’t write. My biggest time waster? My own brain, which distracts me from my writing with all sorts of negative messages, impulsive meanderings, and good old-fashioned fear.

In his speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005, the late David Foster Wallace said, “‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

In other words, we are the architects of our own thoughts, and the sooner we come to realize this, the sooner and more effectively we can exercise control over how we use them. Are we going to be a slave to their capricious wanderings and pessimistic prattle, letting them lead us willy-nilly all over the landscape of our not-writing? Or will we take the helm and, by exercising the right balance of freedom and control, allow our writing the space to flourish?

As a writer, a life coach, and a therapist, I’ve given a lot of thought to the things that keep me – and many of my writer friends – stuck in our work, unable to move forward or think creatively about what needs to come next in our projects. What follows are some straightforward, creative, and compassionate ways to think about what’s keeping you stuck – and to get you going again.

 

1. Problem: You have ‘too few’ ideas.

You don’t know what your next project is, or your next chapter, or your character’s next move. You are stewing in a pot of “I don’t know,” going in circles trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. You feel like you’ll never have another good idea as long as you live.

 

What to do: Indecision is fear in disguise. This is true not just in writing. Sometimes what feels like poverty of thought is actually FOMO (fear of missing out). You don’t want to work on just anything, after all – you want to work on something deeply meaningful and profoundly resonant. If you can’t figure out what that is, you think: Why begin at all? And so, you remain shut down, seemingly at a loss for ideas.

Accept that you can’t force profundity. In its (temporary) absence, reclaim your sense of play. At the top of a piece of paper, write “10 Terrible Ideas” (for my story, for my character, for my essay, etc.), and see what comes up. Then write “10 Even Worse Ideas” and see where that goes. Write fast without editing. Marvel at how you just came up with 20 ideas. Do any of them hold a kernel of promise? Do this several times and see where it takes you.

Promise to give yourself time to worry at the end of your writing day. When it’s time, list everything you can think of that is worrying you. Often when we name our fears, it helps to tame them.

Many people find that by writing in genres they wouldn’t ordinarily write in, it frees them up to think about and see their work differently. Do a short experiment and see where it takes you.

Begin anywhere. Success builds on itself. Even if you don’t ultimately stay with what you’ve started, starting creates momentum.

 

 

2. Problem: You have too many ideas.

You have so many ideas for your writing, you don’t know where to begin…so you begin nowhere. You don’t know how to bring forward the best ideas and leave the others on a back burner for later. Again, FOMO is your enemy here, the fear that you’ll choose the wrong project instead of the very idea that will take your writing to the next level.

 

What to do: Master your own focus. When patients come into an emergency room, they are triaged: the most seriously ill get attention first, the least serious last. As the midwife of your work, you must learn to do this as well, allowing your most urgent work to get the attention it needs.

Write out all of your ideas that are truly in contention. Then tune into your heart and your gut – your reservoirs of truth – and ask: Which ideas can wait without causing me pain or losing their intensity? Which feel most urgent? Which projects tap most deeply into my core values – those ideas and missions that most define who I am and what I stand for?

If you had to choose just two of your ideas or projects, which two would you choose? Can you work on them simultaneously? How?

 

 

3. Problem: You have too many competing desires or responsibilities.

There is so much you want to do with your writing, but you have family responsibilities, finite time, or limited resources. You also want to travel, paint, or go to grad school for your MBA. Can you have it all?

 

What to do: We are all guilty of black-and-white thinking, which is restrictive and narrow and leads us to believe our options are finite. There may be things you simply cannot put on a back burner while you pursue your writing or other goals. That said, nobody made a rule that you can’t carve out time to pursue your own interests. Are your responsibilities truly getting in the way, or are they a convenient distraction? Is the problem that you have too much to take care of or that you take on roles that keep you from writing? It’s easy to feel everything else is more important than putting words on a page. But it’s not true.

If family or work duties are interfering, can you swap time with a co-worker or spouse, or get creative with your hours? When my husband was transitioning from full-time mental health work to opening a bookstore, he arranged to work longer hours but fewer days, then used the extra day to pursue his business goals. When I was transitioning from full-time mental health work to becoming a potter, I found a flexible job doing contract psychological testing and used my off hours to take pottery classes. How can you get creative with your time and responsibilities? What can you give up in order to clear space for yourself? Who do you need to get permission from?

Often, we decide the important things we want to do cancel out the other important things we want to do, but sometimes that isn’t true – and by thinking creatively about our options, we see paths we didn’t see before. “What’s possible?” is one of my favorite life-coaching questions. It’s meant to spur people to dig deep, reach high. Notice we don’t ask, “Is anything possible?” The phrasing of the first question assumes that possibilities are out there and that our job is to expand our thinking to find them. For example, if you want to write and travel, can you look for travel writing opportunities? Or find ways to write from the road? Can you divide your time between activities – writing on weeknights, road-tripping on weekends?

You don’t have to solve for everything at once. Keep pulling back the blinds, looking forward, trying new tactics to get you where you want to go. Evolution is a process, not a leap.

We do not have to be monogamous to our art form. Most people pursuing their art have competing duties and passions. It’s up to us to figure out how to make things work.

Another great life coaching question is, “What if it were easy?” We often assume what we want to do is going to be hard, or too hard, or even harder than we thought it would be. But guess what: it might be easier than you think. Stay open to the possibility of something being easy, rather than going immediately to “gloom and doom.” Also, when we are working toward our goals, the hard edge of difficulty is softened by enthusiasm and the knowledge that we have gotten into the ring at last.