Why Do Some Writers Have So Much Trouble Actually Writing?

White DoveEight years ago I joined a writing program in San Francisco even though I was scared to death to do it. I hadn’t written in the eight years before that and I was terrified to start writing again. I had made small attempts over the years—the beginning of a story here, or a journal entry there—but my writing was so clumsy and forced that I couldn’t read what I’d written without cringing.

I was torn between two extremes. On one hand, I was convinced I was a horrible writer and I had no idea how to go about becoming a great writer, or even a good one. On the other hand, I had never stopped devouring books or dreaming about the book I would one day finish. It got to the point where I actually felt sick inside every time I thought about writing.

That was why I joined the writing program, even though I was so scared. I had hit rock bottom and felt I had no other choice. If I didn’t start writing again I felt like I would look back at myself in 30 years and see nothing but a wasted life.

What I didn’t know at that time was how many other writers out there feel like this. Most of us start out differently to begin with—we’re sensitive, or we’re introverts, or we grew up as part of the nerd-and-geek-crowd—and so we’ve always known that we’re not like other people when it comes to our goals and desires. Most of us don’t care about making a million dollars or wielding power over other people. Instead, we want to write down our stories and we want other people to read them. We want other people to LOVE them.

We want to be great writers.

As we get older, we read and read, and read some more. We discover writers that we love and we make them our heroes and we wish we could be just like them. For me, it was Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King. Every time I read something by them I was totally enthralled with the world they painted, and consumed with envy at the same time. I didn’t see how I could possibly ever write anything that awesome.

So I started reading around about “how to write.” This is another thing writers do. Because we’re huge readers, whenever we want to learn about something we swallow mass doses of books and articles on the subject. But most of the writing guides and classes and websites out there only made me feel worse about my inability to get any serious writing done. It seemed like there were all these rules about writing. Dialogue had to be written in a certain way, and characters had to have a clear motivation from the start. There were five ways to build tension in a plot, and three checkpoints to meet for the perfect ending.

Not only did I not know how to do any of that, but the thought of outlining a whole novel and then writing it to meet these checklists and standards made me feel so deflated and depressed. It took all the fun out of it. All I really wanted to do was write and get lost in my own imagination-land and see what happened. But it seemed like if I tried to go about things in that way, I would be acting like a rookie writer who knew nothing. I would be setting myself up to fail.

If you feel like this about your own writing right now, you are not alone. You are among countless other writers who struggle with this very problem. In fact, it’s a problem I see so frequently with my clients when they first come to me that I actually just think of it as normal. It’s part of the normal growing pains of becoming a great writer.

You may be feeling these growing pains if:

You think about writing frequently, but you never actually sit down to do any writing.

When you do write, you read it over and feel ashamed, embarrassed, or depressed.

You want to be a writer—you know in your heart that this is what you want—but you don’t feel like you can tell anyone about it. If you do try to talk about it you feel judged, not good enough, and maybe a wee bit panicky.

You recently hit a certain age and you’re sad that you haven’t yet written your book. You also feel scared that you might never write your book.

You know you were born to be a writer, but you don’t feel like a “real writer” and you don’t feel like you can claim that identity.

This is what I work on when coaching people. And yes, sometimes the work does involve a bit of editing and revision, or keeping writers to certain word counts and deadlines. Sometimes a writer comes to me and that’s what they need. But for the most part, I’m not a drill sergeant sort of coach. What I really do is listen to what’s going on with a stuck writer and help them gently unravel the knots of whatever is making them freeze up.

I also help writers gain the confidence to submit their work, enter contests, get more active on social media, tell their friends and families that they’re writers, and block off time devoted to writing each week.

Whatever the writer needs, I work with them in the spirit of gentleness, kindness, and emotional support.

So if you’re having problems writing and you have no idea how to get started or move ahead, coaching could be a very good fit for you. You can check out my coaching page here for more details:

Coaching for All Writers

Or you can email me at writecitysf@gmail.com to see if coaching might be something that could work for you.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to check out:

What Is Coaching and Why I Do It

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17 Comments

  • Reply Rebecca Vance 8 October, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    Wow! You have described me to a tee! I’ve been researching my novel for going on three years now. I would write a few pages and then think it wasn’t good enough or I would come up with a different idea and scrap it. I tried to outline but it is so hard for me to do. I have had a problem with outlines since junior high school. I had problems with diagramming sentences too, yet I always seemed to get them right..I was just not methodical enough to label them. I tried to write like a “pantser” and not outline at all, then I also ran into a problem with not knowing where I was going. With all the planning I’ve been doing, I realized it was all about plot and I hadn’t developed my characters enough. So, like you mentioned, I’ve been reading how-to manuals, making notes like they were all college classes. There is another problem I have. I feel inadequate because most good authors have a biography that indicates that they have at least a BA if not an MFA. I didn’t even complete my associate degree. So, I always feel like I need to learn what I’ve missed. I have often started things only to not follow through. I didn’t want that to be the case with writing. Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a author. Not only a writer of all areas, but a novelist in particular. So, when I decided this is what I was really going to do, I did just the opposite on many aspiring authors. On my Facebook page and all other media, I give myself the title of author, even though I describe myself as aspiring. Why? Because if I say it, I will believe it and follow through. At least, that is my way of thinking. I know I will, and I know that I could be good. But why do I let this doubt paralyze me? This post is so wonderful, I was beginning to feel like I was unique in this. Many of my author friends have gone on to write 2-3 or more novel while I still linger in preparation. Everyone says to just write. It really isn’t as easy as that. Or maybe it is, and I’m missing something! 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 9 October, 2014 at 10:19 am

      Rebecca, you are totally on the right track. It isn’t easy to “just write” and that’s why it took me eight years to even get up the confidence to try. So many writers out there struggle with feelings of inadequacy and downright shame when it comes to their writing, and it’s because writing has become an area where many people have decided there is a “right” way to do things. But there is never a right way, there is only your own unique way.

      I don’t have an MFA and I’m not planning on getting one. I have a degree in English, but honestly, my years studying literature as a young 20-something only further dissuaded me from trying to write anything on my own. If I couldn’t be as good as Ernest Hemingway, why even try?

      It wasn’t until eight years later that I realized if I didn’t start writing I was probably going to become seriously ill and/or hate my life forever. And wow, am I so glad I used that motivation to start writing again!

  • Reply Charlie 9 October, 2014 at 3:01 am

    Whenever I get stuck and think I’m never going to write again (not anything good, anyway), I remember something Ira Glass said on writing and storytelling:

    “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

    It always makes me feel better. The first draft has permission to suck, it really does, it’s normal. We just have to keep on writing and learning, and never give up.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 9 October, 2014 at 10:27 am

      I’ve seen this by Ira Glass and I just love it! Thank you so much for including it here, it’s perfect. 🙂

  • Reply Marie Ann Bailey 9 October, 2014 at 5:00 am

    Lauren, you must be an amazing coach! You are spot-on with so many barriers that writers have, especially those that have taken writing classes. This line in particular resonated with me: “But most of the writing guides and classes and websites out there only made me feel worse about my inability to get any serious writing done.” I used to have a bunch of how-to writing books around, but I’ve slowly been giving them away to the library. I think it’s possible to write a technically perfect novel, but if it doesn’t have your heart in it, it won’t amount to much.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 9 October, 2014 at 10:26 am

      Thank you so much! I do love coaching but I think the “spot-on” part of this article came from my own personal experience. I had so much difficulty writing for years, and when I found out I wasn’t alone it was a total life-changing moment. That’s actually why I got into coaching, because I was so drawn to the writers who were going through the same things I did.

      • Reply Marie Ann Bailey 10 October, 2014 at 4:49 am

        And that is why writers are drawn to you. You’re just as interested in helping others as you are in helping yourself.

        I don’t think it’s common for writers to be helping other writers much these days. I read an interview with Richard Bausch a while back in which he noted a time when writers seemed more supportive of each other. Now it seems like a lot of backbiting and competition (I think he was thinking specifically of Twitter wars between Jonathan Frazen and Jennifer Weiner). Granted, these are writers making big $$ and that no doubt has something to do with the antagonistic nature of their communication. But I’ve seen such antagonism on the “smaller” level as well.

        • Reply Lauren Sapala 10 October, 2014 at 8:21 am

          Thank you so much for these kind words 🙂 And yes, I agree. I’ve seen a spirit of healthy competition between writers turn into hostility and distrust. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Each of us can choose if and how we connect with other writers (and other people, in general). Of course, sometimes social media can bring out the worst in everyone!

  • Reply Catherine North 9 October, 2014 at 5:08 am

    “Whatever the writer needs, I work with them in the spirit of gentleness, kindness, and emotional support.”

    I really love your approach, Lauren.

    So often I’ve read that the only way to learn to write is to grow a thick skin and seek out blunt criticism, and I really don’t believe that’s the right approach for everyone, particularly as you say, if we haven’t written in a while, and our confidence is fragile, or non-existent. At that stage a lot of us need to be built up, not torn apart.

    It’s true we all have to deal with negative feedback at some point, but I can say from experience that it’s a lot easier when someone kind and supportive like you is on my side. 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 9 October, 2014 at 10:24 am

      Thank you Catherine! And I totally agree that blunt criticism is not the way to go for many, many writers. I think our culture focuses on that approach as being “right” because our society puts so much value on aggression, competition, and status. For those of us who don’t share these values as a priority, we’re left having to find our own path.

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 9 October, 2014 at 5:25 am

    It was just earlier this year, February to be exact, that I finally moved from wanting to write to actually writing. I’ve had a blog of some type for years but I really don’t consider that serious writing seeing that it’s always been a personal blog. But last February I decided it was time to put those ideas that rumble around in my head to print. (I say print because I prefer keyboard to longhand.) I don’t consider myself a writer yet, not until I’ve finished a rough draft of a novel-length story.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 9 October, 2014 at 10:22 am

      Glynis, if you are writing and you care about what you’re writing, then you are a writer. You’re a writer right now at this moment. You might be waiting to have that rough draft of a novel-length story done, but the universe already knows you’re a writer and it’s just waiting for you to claim your true identity. 🙂

  • Reply James Stone 10 October, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Wow! Have you been talking to my wife? How could you have known all that about me otherwise? What an amazing article. It literally inspired me to actually put down another few paragraphs on my very first novel which I began nearly a year ago but have only gotten through four chapters. I’m stuck. I’ve done everything you described in your article. I’ve researched, I’ve read for inspiration, and then read some more. I’ve looked for writing groups to join (which, by the way, are non-existent in my city of nearly 300k), and have considered starting one of my own just to be around other writers. I’ve tried outlining but I just can’t seem to see that far into the future of my story, save the ending. I’m not giving up, but I get so bummed out when I can’t seem to move forward. I’ve tried to start other stories but I always stop because I feel like I”m abandoning a toddler child.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 10 October, 2014 at 10:44 am

      Well James, you know I’m very open to doing free consultations with people. The consultation is via phone and lasts about an hour, and some writers find it incredibly helpful even if they don’t end up signing up for coaching. I’d love to chat with you and see what’s going on with your novel and there is seriously no pressure to sign up for anything. Shoot me an email at writecitysf@gmail.com if you’re interested!

  • Reply Michelle Mueller 12 October, 2014 at 6:16 am

    Really great article, Lauren. It got me thinking. Entering the online world of writers has been both a blessing and a curse. Now, I have support from the outside and I’m not longer writing alone; I’m also bit better about finishing my projects. But recently I’ve gotten much more reluctant about writing. When I’m constantly bombarded with “how to write” articles and “your story needs this, this, and this” type of posts and tweets, I get very stubborn. At the moment, I have a sampler story due in a few days, and I refuse to write anything at all. It’s a bad cycle I’ve gotten into. I know that if I just sit down and start writing something, then I can probably manage — but it’s getting those first words down onto paper. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

    But thanks for reminding me I’m not alone in this. I appreciate the food for thought.

  • Reply Trevor Almy 20 October, 2014 at 5:10 am

    Lauren,

    This is an amazing post, and it is evident that you were meant to be both a writer and a writing coach. You have definitely helped me overcome some of my social anxieties and lack of confidence. As I read through your description of writers who are stuck, I found myself nodding and seeing myself wrestle with a lot of those same thoughts. It was reassuring to read about your own journey of not writing for eight years and to know that I am not alone.

    Great read to start a Monday! I’m so glad I stopped in.

    -Trevor

  • Reply Carnival of Creativity 11/9/14 | The Writing Reader 19 December, 2014 at 6:01 am

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