What To Do About Serious Writer’s Block?

When writer’s block becomes writer’s BLANK

Writer’s block can seem very serious when you’re experiencing it, but it’s nothing compared to writing apprehension, which is a fear of writing so profound it often leads to resistance to the act of writing itself.

With that fear comes a great deal of crippling self-doubt.

How can you tell when your block is serious, and could possibly be a sign that you’re actually afraid to write? What can you do about the truly serious block? These are questions that virtually all writers contend with at some point.

A block becomes truly serious when the writer senses, but doesn’t understand, that he’s actually experiencing apprehension—he’s afraid to write. He is actively resisting writing—but why?

There are a few basic reasons why people actively resist writing, but they primarily come down to safety—losing it or having it. Counterintuitively, being successful at writing might not lead one to a feeling or sense of safety; instead, ‘successful’ writers often feel very vulnerable.

The common thinking about writer’s block (which, from my perspective, is a relatively simple problem that can be solved) is that you’re putting off writing; you’re procrastinating. For many people stuck at this point of the writing experience, writer’s block feels like writer’s blank.

Water images and metaphors make sense for writers

Ideas don’t come, and your response is a feeling of frustration. It’s as though you were once a full cup that has now run dry. Water, container, and fullness/emptiness metaphors make a lot of sense for writers. Many of the descriptions you might use at this point are of a “well gone dry,” being “tapped out,” or having a feeling of emptiness, as though you were once full of thoughts, ideas, creativity.

Nonetheless, this experience of writer’s blank is not particularly painful. It’s annoying, it’s frustrating; you might have negative thoughts about writing, and yourself—your ability to write—but you’re not actively preventing yourself from writing. You’re not afraid to write, you’re just not writing, yet. You will.

Deeper problems begin when writer’s blank is transformed into something much more serious. It begins with self-doubt and loss of confidence, but the real problem with self-doubt is that its roots go much deeper than a “mere” lack of ideas. This affective difference is what makes writing apprehension so much more complicated and profound than ‘mere’ writer’s block.

To be a writer searching for ideas is a normal state of affairs. To be a writer who can’t or won’t let herself write, however, is indicative of something much more profound.

Procrastination is usually linked to laziness, and if you’re experiencing a “lazy” writer’s block, it might be because you aren’t terribly motivated, but it can also be because you’re overwhelmed by earlier efforts that have exhausted you.

The one way in particular in which this type of block becomes a real problem is when we inject blame and judgementalism into our response to the writing situation. Societies with a strong work ethic often veer into overwork, believing that if you’re not working, you must be wasting your life. Those of us raised with this message tend to be very hard on ourselves. If we’re not working, we feel very guilty.

Since I work with seriously blocked clients who want to write, but can’t let themselves, I learned to differentiate between a block, which feels bad, often for long periods of time, but is surmountable; and writing resistance or apprehension, which has deeper root causes and requires more assistance to overcome.

True resistance or apprehension has certain characteristics that indicate the writer is emotionally troubled about more issues than just his or her ability or inability to write.

For a writer to experience a writer’s block, she has to be writing, and something has to stop that flow. Loss of confidence due to rejection, or fear of external judgement are two common reasons for many blocks.

The thing about experiencing a block, though, is that it is usually temporary, even if ‘temporary’ lasts some years. A block can be overcome with time. Your core self is not affected. You might feel insecure during the period you experience the block, but you do not doubt yourself and immerse yourself in self-criticism. You don’t have anything to say, or you can’t finish a piece you started; or you’ve gotten a rejection letter and can’t see the point of writing again, until that ‘magic’ day when you pick up your thought, or your pen, or you begin jotting down notes for a new article.

In other words, the block was temporary because your core self was not wounded; your ego might have been damaged or shocked, but you recovered, and now you’re writing again.

In contrast, a relatively short-term block can turn into writing apprehension and then resistance if writing becomes associated with negative emotions. Apprehension might prevent you from becoming a writer in the first place, however. This is why apprehension and resistance are much more serious than a block, even one that lasts for years, because apprehension stems from something crucial to your core being: your self-expression.

Loss of control: Those who are afraid to write fear the various stages of loss of control. The first stage of loss of control comes when you are forced, against your will, to produce a piece of writing you’re not interested in or do not feel ready to write.

This happens most often for the writer when she’s in school, and when a writer is under a deadline. Facing someone else’s expectations under these circumstances brings up a host of emotional responses, not limited to the obvious (anything from fear of judgement, to fear of losing control over one’s writing).

Another stage of fear of losing control occurs when one’s writing is taken out of your hands. This happens to students, but it also happens to any writer who puts his writing in the hands of someone else: a reader, an editor, the public.

The final stage of loss of control comes for many writers who hand their writing over to others, and have no say over what is done with the writing. This on its own can be enough of a deterrent to many writers that it prevents them from wanting to be put in a situation where we’ll have to make this compromise with our vision or our creativity.

Fear of outcome: It requires a fair amount of courage to write, largely because unless you write exclusively for yourself, every time you send off a piece of writing, particularly writing you have not distanced yourself from emotionally, you have no idea what will happen, or how the writing will be received.

Fear of outcome means that you now have to wait in the ambivalent silence of doubt. This silence can lead to an intense amount of self-doubt, in which every decision you’ve ever made is up for analysis. It takes a strong soul to withstand silence. In fact, being emotionally beaten up by harsh criticism is easier for most people to withstand than having to listen to the sounds of silence.

Fear of finishing: Writers frequently speak of ‘grieving’ the loss of their writing process when they come to the end of a project. Now what? The fear of the blank page becomes a fear of the blank life. Many professional writers have more than one project going at once to avoid ever having to deal with the nothingness of the blank life they dread facing.

Fear of failure: Not everyone bounces back from rejection letters and critique sessions. Some people are devastated by responses that lead them to question their writing—and themselves.

Writing becomes, for most people, a measure not of their intellectual ability (an arguably cognitive skill we can distance ourselves from emotionally) but instead a measure of ourselves—the deepest parts of ourselves we can’t articulate very well, not without some help of the compassionate kind (this doesn’t have to be from a therapist, although sometimes, that’s what the resistant writer really needs).

When we’re afraid of expressing these deeper parts of ourselves for fear of ridicule and humiliation, apprehension can overwhelm any desire we have to express our feelings. Feelings are difficult enough; expressing them to the outside world requires tremendous courage. Why would you want to do that when you’re scared and feel vulnerable?

The answer is, you won’t. You’ll do everything you can to avoid sitting down to your writing. In the process, you negate yourself and your deep need to express yourself.

Fear of success: Let’s say you very much want to get the writing done. You want to be published. You know your writing will be out in front of the judging, commenting world. Suddenly, this becomes the world you can’t control, with responses that feel overwhelming.

Fear of success means you won’t want to deal with the world if and when you do get published. Success, at least as it is defined by the rest of the world, is very scary for many people, much scarier than failure. The ‘logic’ of fearing success is that we tell ourselves, at least I won’t have to deal with the demands of success. I’m safe. I can stay as I am.

The key to serious writer’s block, then, lies in the feeling of a lack of safety. Because our society imbues so much emotional and psychological weight to writing, and further imbues the writer with so much social capital, we are right to be cautious before we set out on this path. Conquering these fears is a process, one that might have to be dealt with at every step along the way.

If you are coping with any of these fears, and still want to write, I hope you will feel comfortable enough to contact me. We can discuss options. The last thing I want is for you to feel alone with these fears. I started this website because too many writers deal with these fears on their own. 

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14 thoughts on “What To Do About Serious Writer’s Block?

    • And now I have added a link to your site, via my “links” sidebar! You have lots of useful information, well-organized, which is best for beginning writers. Thank you for reading, and I’ll be reading your site too! Keep up the good work, and remember: children stop climbing on you eventually. 😉

      • I figure they must, since I no longer crawl all over my folks….

        Thanks for the compliments on my organization. I’m actually planning on improving it soon (putting my reviews on a page with them listed by book and/or genre).

      • I think being organized is the key to being read, at least in blog-land, where you get two seconds and then bam, the reader has given up. Or maybe this is just me and my incipient ADHD. 😉

      • Oh. You mean this is normal? I guess humanity is screwed.

        Now, where did I put my escape shuttle… it’s gotta be here somewhere. Maybe under last week’s laundry that was folded until it wasn’t???

      • Join me in the Society For Research Into The Lifestyles of the Quietly Deranged, and What Can Be Done For Them. 🙂 (There’s a long subtitle, but it’s too long to include here and people have been known to keel over from boredom and early death just reading it.)

      • So that’s SFRITLQDWCBDFT, or SFRITLQD for short? Hmmm. I’m wondering on the pronunciation.

        SuFeR-it-LiQu-iD? Suffer-it-Liquid?

        Email me the subtitle. I’ve been having insomnia lately… 🙂

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  2. Great article. I have never heard anyone else mentioning anything about having a fear of success and so I always thought it was completely ridiculous. It was amazing to see that someone else had realized that this was a possible fear for writers to have. The only way to get over our fears is to realize we have them and knowing that we aren’t alone in our fears is a big help.

    • I’m sorry it took so long to respond; I have been dealing with a physical ailment for at least a month now.

      I agree completely; it’s very hard for people to understand what it feels like to be a writer who isn’t writing. The typical response is “then you’re not a writer,” which is too didactic and black/white for me. Sometimes we are nascent; sometimes we are not producing. It doesn’t mean we won’t produce, just like a field that lies fallow has not stopped being a field, it’s just resting, or incubating. I deplore the problem of people not understanding that not writing doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. Fear, apprehension, anxiety: these are all perfectly understandable responses to the intensity of writing, especially writing that asks something profound of you. I rarely hear from non-fiction writers, for example, that they are blocked, or that they are upset that they aren’t writing; it’s usually creative writers, those who rely on their inner world, who talk about being afraid, or blocked. Not to undermine the work that non-fiction writers do; I write non-fiction a lot of the time, and when I do, my biggest concern is usually finding a subject that others are interested in and then writing it coherently enough not to lose my audience.

      Yet when I write fiction, I’m writing from a very different place in my psyche, one that is much more fragile and vulnerable. Hence the anxieties, fears, road-blocks, etc.

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