About 75% of my clients first contact me because they feel “stuck.” I’ve only heard a very few actually use the term writer’s block but it all amounts to same thing. During that initial phone call they tell me that they’ve lost enthusiasm for their project, they can’t seem to make themselves write, they haven’t written in weeks/months/years and they’re miserable because of it. Added to their feelings of hopelessness is a hefty dose of self-judgment and guilt. They know they just have to “sit their butt in the chair and get it done” they tell me. They just need to “grit their teeth and get through it.” And they usually finish by saying, “Real writers show up every day whether they want to or not, just like any other job.”
If I believed all of these statements I would probably give up on writing too. It sounds really painful.
I found similar lines of thinking when I searched around on the internet for writer’s block. Many of the articles that came up informed me that it’s not real and it’s all in the writer’s head. I felt like a few others yelled at me that it was pretty much my fault if I was suffering because of it and I needed to stop making excuses. And a few more strongly hinted that if writer’s block was slowing me down then maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a writer.
It occurred to me that if I really was struggling with writer’s block, reading a couple of articles like these would hammer home that last nail in the coffin. And if I’d already had a traumatic experience with receiving harsh or hostile criticism from a past creative writing professor, or an online writing community, or someone I trusted to be gentle with my fledgling attempts, then I’d definitely retreat as far back in my shell as I could go and think seriously about living the rest of my life as a hermit crab.
Thankfully, there’s no need to give up on writing, or on searching the internet for the sometimes dubious information we find there. Because as a writing coach who’s worked with clients all across the spectrum I can tell you that yes, writer’s block is a real thing. It’s a real thing just like depression is a real thing. Just like loss of sex drive is a real thing. Just like being addicted to food or anger is a real thing.
And yes, it is in your head. That doesn’t mean it’s any less real. Especially for writers—where else would our real world be if not in our head?
Writer’s block happens when the writer carries an emotional charge that’s activated around the act of writing. An emotional charge is like an electrical charge. Sometimes we might say that someone was “triggered” by a situation, which is the same thing as saying their emotional charge was activated. For instance, if you grew up with a mother who snooped through your things and used your private information to control you, then you probably have an emotional charge around trusting other people. For writers who are struggling with writer’s block the emotional charge usually stems from either a traumatic experience they went through when they showed their writing to someone else in the past; or an old belief system about themselves that they still have in place for some reason.
When we hold an emotional charge around something it’s like activating a magnet. Sometimes this can be a good thing. If you feel very positively about something, very passionate and joyful, that emotional charge will attract other positive opportunities into your life. People see how inspired you are about the project and they want to get involved or help you in some way. However, if the emotional charge you’re holding is negative the magnet pulls in all sorts of garbage. Resistance, envy, frustration, and feelings of powerlessness to name just a few. Have you ever seen a magnet covered with hundreds of tiny nails that seem like they’re glued onto its surface? That’s what a writer’s creative channel looks like when they’re blocked. The emotional charge they’re holding has pulled in even more resistance and fear, and all that gunk is blocking the flow.
This is why all the articles out there yelling at you that it’s not real and that you need to get your ass back to work like a “real writer” only compound the problem. Feeling like a procrastinating, excuse-making piece of shit is one of the tickets that got you into writer’s block hell in the first place. Why would more of the same free you from it?
The only way to free yourself from an emotional charge is to neutralize it. Notice I didn’t say “conquer it” or “overcome it.” This is the language of fighting and resistance, and the more you resist your feelings of writer’s block, the more electricity you add to the charge. Fighting back, conquering, overcoming, vanquishing—all of that is of the same energy as the energy of writer’s block. In order to neutralize the charge and dissolve the block, we’ll need to access a totally different energy.
The concept of forgiveness is probably one of the most widely misunderstood concepts in our current day society. We assume that forgiving means turning a blind eye to bad behavior or rationalizing a justifiable reason for why our values were violated. But ignoring and rationalizing are primitive ego-centered coping tools of the brain. Forgiveness comes from a deeper place and has much more power than that. Forgiveness is recognizing that whatever hurt you, whatever disappointed you, happened in the past and is now done and over. Forgiveness is looking at the old situation through a new perspective and showing compassion to all involved. Forgiveness is letting go.
Working with forgiveness to dissolve writer’s block asks that you let go of your guilt and your self-judgment. It asks that you forgive your old professor, the person who made a nasty comment on your blog, or your mother for snooping through your stuff and not understanding how much your writing means to you. They don’t have to get why their behavior sucks in order for you to forgive them. They don’t have to do anything at all. Forgiveness is a choice you make within yourself, regardless of whether or not anything outside of you is living up to your expectations.
This is the real hard work for blocked writers. And it takes time. Forgiving yourself and others for past mistakes, hurtful words, and skewed belief systems does not happen overnight. There is no set formula on how to do it. It’s different for every writer. But what is the same for everyone is that you’ll know when you’ve had a breakthrough with it. You’ll feel the emotional charge fizzling out until it finally slips away almost entirely.
And one day you’ll sit down in front of the blank page and it won’t feel like the most awful thing in the entire world.
Writer’s block may be a real thing, but it’s not a writing death sentence. It’s only a trial and you will come out on the other side. And you’ll be a stronger writer because of it.