Past Tense: A Tale of Overcoming Writer’s Block, And Becoming The Hero Of My Own Journey

I haven’t been able to write a word of fiction for many months, and I have felt pretty tense during my extended writer’s “blank.”

I have focused on every other form of writing instead; mostly blog-writing, note-taking, emails, IM-ing, forums.

I’ve coached writers, written long emails to writers, sat in groups with writers, listened to writers tell me about their writer’s block. I’ve read a stack of how-to books, including books for people with a classic case of writer’s block.


How you characterize your inability to write, what you call it, affects how you cope with it.

I immersed myself in historical research, thinking that if only I knew what really happened in that era, I might be able to see the next step for my protagonist.

I did everything you’re supposed to do for writer’s block, short of standing on my head upside down to increase blood-flow to my brain.

The most dispiriting thing I’ve read in this past year was written by the otherwise uplifting Brenda Ueland, who fervently believed that everyone has something to say, and everyone can become a writer.

In her book about writing, originally published in 1938, titled If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, And Spirit, Ueland worries that if the writer is “stuttering,” and isn’t writing over long gaps of time, perhaps she isn’t a writer. Perhaps she should give it up. Perhaps it just isn’t meant to be.

“Except, Brenda,” I whispered back, “I really want to do this.” I whispered, “You know I have always wanted to write a murder mystery.” It’s fun, for one thing, and I like putting the puzzle pieces together in my mind. I like my ‘villain.’ I like my protagonist, crusty and grim though he is. I like my minor characters. I especially like Ancient Greece, where the mystery is set.

So, to sum up, I have been very tense, because the underlying dread of being blocked is “I cannot do this; I do not have what it takes.” Logic has been at war with fear; I know I can do this. I can write fiction, but I have had the devil of a time coming up with the details of my plot.

Here’s the real problem with being blocked, from my experience: The writer flails, and while flailing, begins to drown in his or her own fears that this time, the unholy blankness is permanent. So most writers learn to stay busy, keep their minds and pens occupied, while waiting out this particular “blank.”

I’ve found while working with writers, some of whom are blanked, that there are simple problems that cause what we think of as writer’s block, and there are harder problems. I had to ask myself at one point, what’s the real problem here? It isn’t sufficient to know you’re blanked and use all the traditional methods of trying to fix it.

Your problem might be psychological. Many writers I’ve talked to absolutely hate admitting this. While that’s understandable, due to ego issues, being unwilling to admit you’ve got a problem won’t help fix it, and many writers with psychological blocks give up writing entirely, rather than get help. Your problem might be intellectual. How many writers willingly admit to ourselves we’re not clever enough to pull this off? How hard can this be? we rationalize, and then we cobble something together, hoping it’s good enough to pass muster with our editor, publisher, agent, reading group.

Over time, I’ve learned to characterize the block according to what causes it. In my experience, all blocks can be overcome if you know what’s causing them and get the right kind of help. In my case, this block has been caused by my lack of imagination and no experience writing a mystery. As long as I can see my story in my mind, I can write. When I can no longer see it happening, like watching a movie, I have no idea what comes next.

I began to see my block differently; I began to characterize it as an intellectual challenge, rather than an impenetrable wall I couldn’t find a way around or over.

I wasn’t writing because I didn’t know what should happen next. I wasn’t writing because I haven’t had a good grasp on my overall story, even though I’ve written an outline, even though I know my characters, even though I know the overall picture. I have not adequately understood the story’s overall purpose, and so my writing, to quote Ueland, “stutters.”

This is a great model, up to a point.

This is a great model, up to a point.

One way of fixing a plot-related blank (when you don’t know the next thing that should happen) is to read a lot in your genre, if only to steal ideas. I have done that; in fact, I have spent years focusing on my genre, reading only what pertains directly to my plot, so as to get ideas from other, more experienced, fiction writers.

I have found you can research your period extensively and still not be  inspired. Inspiration is the key; something has to fill your mind with story.  “Story,” as in, the basic building block pieces of “once upon a time,” and “then what happened?” that prompt curiosity in the reader’s mind, is what fuels fiction. By reframing my approach to my story, I have regained inspiration, but I had to wait for just the right book to come to me.

I had forgotten how important not only plot, but also, deep structure, is to the overall design of your story’s architecture. I’d gotten lost in the question “what happens next,” instead of seeing the larger picture of what this story is supposed to accomplish each step of the way. Staying true to that inner sense of purpose is part of what I have discovered is called the Hero’s Journey, and it comes with rules more comprehensive than knowing how your protagonist responds to his antagonist, or his deuteragonist, for that matter.

This story continues in the next post…



6 thoughts on “Past Tense: A Tale of Overcoming Writer’s Block, And Becoming The Hero Of My Own Journey

  1. This is so true Alison. Sometimes it just needs inspiration. Now I have to digest my own words and crawl back to my novel with my white flag flying so that my characters know that I’m not going to start beating them up again for not playing ball 😀
    Excellent post and brave too. Not everyone is so willing to admit fear and sometimes that’s all it takes.

  2. Ha, writers’ blank! Been there, done that, am wearing the T-Shirt at the moment! And the cause – after months of searching – is everything you mention in the last paragraph above – but mainly not knowing your story well enough and being afraid to get it wrong!

    • Lynda, I’ve been meaning to connect with you! I understand what you’ve been dealing with, trust me. We can always connect via Skype if you feel like you need to talk about your writing! Plus, I wanted to ask you, if you’d be interested in a forum I’m considering starting on Facebook specifically for blocked or otherwise ‘hesitant’ writers? Do you think that would be of value to you? Or if not, is there an approach to a new kind of writing forum you could suggest? I want this to help people, not block them further.

  3. Pingback: How To Write And Publish Your Autobiography - Robert JR Graham

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