The Way We Create Writer’s Block for Ourselves

Mermaid and LionThe biggest source of my writer’s block has never had anything to do with the actual writing.

What really blocks me is how I feel about myself as a writer.

I have good days and bad days. On a good day I get some pages down, read them over and find they’re not half bad. I’m excited about my story and entertain hopes that I could get readers excited about it too. On a bad day though…I start the comparison game.

That little nagging voice in my head tells me I’m too old to publish a debut novel (F. Scott Fitzgerald was only 21). Or that my life needs to be more interesting (Elie Wiesel lived through the Holocaust). I definitely need a more meaningful message behind my writing (every single book by Toni Morrison). And if I don’t have that, I could at least come up with a thrilling plot (Stephen King-Stephen King-Stephen King).

Within two minutes my brain compares me to at least a hundred other writers, all of whose work I desperately adore.

None of who…are me.

It’s the same voice you hear in your head when you start criticizing yourself. It’s more than self-doubt and it’s more than fear. It’s the voice of the ego, which will always tell you that you’re losing the game.

Playing the game is not a bad thing. Life is made up of an infinite number of games and we’re here to play them. There are power games and sex games, and getting-enough-security games. Enemy games and friend games and a game for every relationship in between. One of the most popular games is “achieving success” and it can be a lot of fun. The achieving success game pushes you to move outside comfort zones and explore creative potential.

There’s nothing wrong with the achieving success game.

It’s when you start taking it too seriously that you run into problems.

The secret to playing these life games is that there are no winners and losers. Just when you think you’ve won a certain game, another wave of life washes over us all and it’s time to play a different round. But the ego doesn’t understand this. The ego looks at someone winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and sees that person as having won THE game for ALL time.

That’s why the ego never has any fun playing the game of life, because it’s so focused on winning that it can never enjoy the experience just for what it is.

When you find yourself comparing your work to other writers, slow down and listen to the thoughts running through your head. You will almost always find that some part of you believes these other writers have “won” while you’re still “losing”.

That’s your ego talking. Also known as the inner critic or the voice of low self esteem.

That’s not you.

The real you—your true essence as a human being—knows that the game is just a game. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s the beautiful, constantly evolving dance we do on earth to express our deepest selves to each other.

And the only way to do this dance is to make up your own steps.


For more on life games and how we play them, check out one of my favorite books:

Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

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  • Reply Brian C. E. Buhl 27 April, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    This is spot on with what’s been going on with my writing, too.

    Welcome back!

  • Reply Sylvia Toy 27 April, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Thank you. So glad you’re back.

  • Reply Al Hudgins 28 April, 2015 at 6:40 am

    Lauren, I enjoyed reading this piece.

    There certainly were times when I unfavorably compared myself to writers I admired and let it affect my output. But I got out from under that dilemma when I spent seven years on the administrative staff of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Being sequestered with admired writers for a week and a half…seeing what they ate for lunch…watching them interact with peers and students…how they ran a workshop…even how they danced…I was able to see a more complete picture, and a more human one. Not all those whose writing I admired turned out to be people I admired…others turned out to be much more charming in person than on the page. So it goes.

    Rather than let accomplished authors intimidate me, I use them to jumpstart my creativity. If I need a more compelling opening sentence, I pull down my Collected Stories of John Cheever, who was a master at that. If I want to incorporate something intellectually complex in a story, I read Andrea Barrett, who seems to do that so easily. If I need to bring out more humanity in my characters, I brush off something from Alice Munro or Anne Tyler. With everything I read, I try to look behind the curtain and note ideas and approaches I might be able to appropriate. We all know writers should read read read…but the key point to that old adage is not only to expose ourselves to other voices…but to find things there that we can use in our own work.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 28 April, 2015 at 9:33 am

      Well said Al! It’s easy to forget that the writers we admire are just people too. I’ve had a similar experience to yours when I started going to a lot of book signings. I saw Sherman Alexie a couple of years ago in Berkeley and he spent much of the time telling the audience embarrassing stories of horrible things that had happened to him (the story I REALLY remember is the one he told about getting diarrhea in a traffic jam!). After that I can only see him as another regular human being, for sure. 🙂

  • Reply Paul Sutton Reeves 29 April, 2015 at 1:15 pm

    Great post, Lauren, and pleased to see you back in the virtual world!

    To be a writer, you have to be a little bit indestructible, I think, with an unshakeable self-belief. In the face of the indifference of readers and publishers and the incomparable genius of great writers, you still have to keep on believing in your own writing and the validity of the process in itself as a creative endeavour, irrespective of society’s judgement with regard to your ‘success’ or lack of it.

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