What is Writer’s Block? A Guide to the Writer’s Worst Nightmare
Writer's block is a common challenge in the creative process that causes writers to stagnate while writing their works. It occurs when authors struggle to think of ideas or generate new material.
It can affect writers at any stage in their career — from absolute beginners to best-selling novelists. This condition can last anywhere from a few hours to multiple years.
Many writers will try to push through it and hope it goes away on its own. While this often works, the specific cause of chronic writer’s block needs to be diagnosed before it can be dealt with.
In this post, we explore some of the common causes behind writer's block and show you how other authors have struggled with the same thing.
You lack of motivation, which saps your creative drive
You find yourself overflowing with ideas, but every time you sit down to write, your mind goes blank and you can’t get the words to come, so you take a break, or you find yourself procrastinating: endlessly researching or turning to neglected chores. When a short break isn't enough or turns into a much, much longer break, it's clear that motivation is the problem, specifically a lack of incentive.
Not having a reason to write can often make it feel impossible to get anything done. Writing just to write isn’t particularly motivating. When you are told to write an essay in school “just because” it immediately kills any joy you’d get from doing it. But when you’re interested in the topic — or your grade depends on it — you suddenly have the incentive to do it well.
Without consequence, there is no motivation
For some writers, like Notes from the Fog author Ben Marcus, finding that reason is just part of the larger writing process, as he explained in an interview with Literary Hub.
“Part of the beginning of any project is the discovery of what matters to me, followed by an attempt to conceive of it in terms of fiction. That’s what it is to start a project: engineering a set of delusions that the act of writing has consequence and simply must be done.”
If you’re not reaching for something, if you don’t care to write it, if there’s no consequence, it makes sense that you’d have a hard time putting anything on the page.
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Alternatively, it’s possible that your motivation is perfectly intact, but your creativity is suffering instead.
You feel like you don’t have ideas
Sometimes the urge to write comes at the most inopportune times — namely, when your ideas aren’t ready yet. You might have a concept that’s based on a web of thoughts and hunches that you can’t get to come together in any meaningful way. You may find yourself staring blankly at your notebook or computer screen waiting for the muse, only to throw your hands up in frustration and give up.
If you go to the well too many times and come back empty-handed, you’ll soon question whether your past ideas were any good and start doubting your general worth as a writer.
Every idea needs time to brew
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri doesn’t think this kind of writer’s block is necessarily a bad thing. For her, it’s all just a time during which you gather material.
“I think a lot of what people refer to as ‘writer’s block’ is the period during which ideas gestate in the mind, when a story grows but isn’t necessarily being written in sentences on the page.”
According to Lahiri, the time you spend thinking, simply letting your story develop in your mind, counts as writing too. A flower doesn’t grow overnight. It has to be watered and nurtured before it can sprout even the smallest shoot. The same can be said of ideas.
But then, sometimes it’s the ideas you do have that could be the problem.
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Your ideas aren't resonating with you
You have your story set up and ready to go. Everything is outlined and you’re writing. Things are going great! Until they aren’t. Suddenly, no matter what you do, you just can’t move forward. The words won’t come and you delete every paragraph before you finish typing them out. It feels like you’ve stalled out in the middle of your story and don’t know how to get it started again.
If this sounds like you, then you’re in the same boat as acclaimed science fiction author Ray Bradbury, whose mind would often go blank in the middle of writing. In a speech (which appropriately took place back in 2001), he diagnosed his personal strain of writer’s block: “You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying ‘I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.’”
It's hard to work on things that don't matter to you
When a story isn’t working, the writer’s subconscious will often know it long before their conscious mind catches on. A structurally flawed plot can be fixed. Characters can be given greater depth. But ultimately, if an author tries to embark on a full-length manuscript about stories and protagonists that they aren’t enamored with, the entire process will quickly turn into an almighty slog. For this reason, writers find that their best works are often the ones that are most personal to them — whether it’s drawn from their own experiences or examining a theme or facet of human behavior that fascinates them.
Listen to that little voice and discover what’s going wrong in your story. Sometimes it’s better to kill your darlings than let them fester, especially if they’re blocking you from continuing. If you can’t find anything wrong with your story, the problem might be more related to your own fears than any inherent issues with your plot or characters.
📚 Head over to our post on the 10 best Ray Bradbury books for reading recommendations written by this sci-fi giant.
But what if you’re a highly motivated writer with great, fully-fleshed ideas, writing about topics you love and know intimately? If you’re still struggling to get words on the page, maybe you’re just a no-good talentless hack. Right?
You're anxious over the quality of your work
What right do you even have to be creating stories? Everything you turn your cack-hand to reads like a child wrote it! To think: you’ve subjected all your readers and friends to your terrible stories — and any praise they’ve given you has likely been out of politeness. This is so embarrassing.
If your inner monologue sounds anything like this, you’re probably struggling with imposter syndrome.
At the root, this kind of anxiety is about your own perceived worth. Your admiration of other writers and lack of belief in your own abilities blocks you from even attempting to write.
Nobody knows what they're doing
He relates his experience meeting Neil Armstrong at a conference where the great astronaut felt out of his depth. He muses that “maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
Self-doubt is a fundamental part of the modern human experience. Social media has no shortage of creative folks putting only their best foot forward, giving the impression that their prolific output comes to them as easily as taking breath. But the truth is, nobody knows what they’re doing 100% of the time.
Even if you’ve come to realize that you are not a fraud, you still might be dealing with anxiety. It’s possible that it stems from an urge towards perfectionism, and you would certainly not be the first writer to face that.
You can’t overcome your perfectionism
Perfectionism can be a great motivator — wanting to work at something until it’s just right is a tremendous trait for an artist. But, more often than not, the desire to create exclusively great art can lead to greater anxiety about the quality of your work.
If you’re a beginner, you’ll naturally want your work to be as good as the books you’re reading. But when you are frustrated that you can’t match up to your favorite authors, it can have a paralyzing effect instead.
The gap between where you are and where you want to be might seem vast and uncrossable. It’s important to remember that it just takes time to get there. A golfer doesn’t give up the moment they first pick up a club and discover they’re not shooting holes-in-one. You need practice and experience, and you’ll only get that if you continue writing.
Perfect is the enemy of good
Reflecting on her writing career in the WMFA podcast, Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere, acknowledged that even after publishing two novels, she struggled with perfectionism.
“It’s very hard to turn off that critical voice in your head. There’s a saying, ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.’ I love that idea because I am myself a perfectionist. I feel like you have to find your own comfort point on the continuum of being a perfectionist versus charging full steam ahead.”
For other writers, however, the idea of being stymied by one’s own streak of perfectionism may seem like a luxury. In too many cases, the cause of a writer’s block is entirely out of their control.
Your real-life problems are getting in the way
Everyone has a life outside of their craft work. We need to raise kids, do laundry, clean the house, go to work, catch up with friends and family, and generally keep our lives organized and functioning. The demands of real life often get in the way of our literary aspirations, especially when things get hard. It’s difficult to sit down and write if you’re burned out from your day job or suddenly faced with a series of important family commitments, let alone if you’ve been recently bereaved, are caring for someone in your family, or struggling with your health.
Perhaps writing shouldn't be an artist's #1 priority
When the real world becomes too hard to ignore, writer’s block can be inevitable. In a three-way tug-of-war between caring for others, maintaining your mental health, and working on a writing project, your weekly writing goals should probably be the first to give in.
But if you’re not currently writing, does that mean you are no longer a writer? In one of his must-read Story Club newsletters, Booker-winning novelist George Saunders encourages writers not to make their identity as an artist conditional on exceptional output.
“Even if you're not actively writing because you are too busy, you are still a writer, because of the way you regard the world — with curiosity and interest and some sort of love.”
When life gets in the way, there’s very little a writer can do except work with the tide until it recedes, and refrain from punishing themselves for things they cannot control.
Writer’s block is the bane of creators everywhere. In identifying why it’s happening, you can make a plan to beat it or at least give yourself the grace to let it be.
In the next post, we look at methods that can help you overcome writer’s block.