Over the last few months, I’ve been suffering with a pretty ferocious case of writer’s block. Suddenly my words seem awkward and clunky, my scenes seem stale, and worst of all, my characters have been giving me the cold shoulder. What once felt real now feels flat on the page. The first draft of my contemporary novel has now been languishing untouched in my Dropbox for two months.
Writer’s block is usually explained as a lack of inspiration, but I’m wondering if that’s just a lie we feed ourselves (and each other!). If we can blame the mythical, unknowable and ultimately uncontrollable ‘inspiration’ for our poor productivity, it allows us to avoid looking deeper at to what really might be causing our block. By blaming ‘inspiration’, we escape having to take control of our creative lives.
I don’t believe that my life has been totally devoid of inspiration over the last two months. How many times have I thought to myself, that would make a great opening sentence? How many evenings have I considered sitting down to write and then chosen to watch TV instead? All those opportunities was inspiration presenting itself to me and yet I ran away, hiding behind a book or a baking project or an Outlander marathon. Writing suddenly felt too overwhelming – even to think on the topic for too long felt uncomfortable.
If your experience of writer’s block is anything like mine, I think we need to accept that a lack of inspiration is not the problem. When I look carefully and thoughtfully at what has been going through my mind in the last few months in connection to writing, here is what I find:
Frustration – what is wrong with me? Why can’t I do better?
Shame – real writers sit down and write even when they don’t want to. I must not be a real writer.
Anger and guilt – I can’t believe I’ve wasted all this time when I could have been writing.
Fear – what if I never write again? What if I simply cannot do it anymore?
Disappointment – I really thought this manuscript was different. I really thought I could do this, but I can’t.
Looking at my deepest feelings about writing on paper, I am struck by how negative they are. Where is fun, pleasure and flow? My novel began as a fun project, but somewhere along the way it morphed into something negative. I ask myself, is writer’s block really just Writer’s Disillusionment?
I used to lie awake at night, thinking about my novel and mentally scripting out each scene, each character arc, each piece of dialogue. The story felt fresh and exciting. I would pop out of bed several times a night to scribble my ideas down before I lost them (is it just me, or does every idea conceived at 2am feel like a stroke of genius? I once found a note I had written to myself in the middle of the night: ‘5yo girl walking, food crisis, dismembered hand’. Huh?). I felt so sure that this project, more than any other story or novel I had previously written, was going to be The One that Will Change My Life. It was going to be epic.
I remember the moment this changed for me, when fun suddenly became dread. Reading over my own work in bed one night, I felt crestfallen. It wasn’t epic. It wasn’t great. While the story might be fresh and exciting, it seemed dry and listless when interpreted through my plodding prose. I was flooded with disappointment. The story and characters that I loved had become bigger than me and I couldn’t do them justice.
I haven’t touched the document since.
Perhaps my writer’s block is just a case of writer’s disillusionment – disappointment that I couldn’t reach the level of epic-ness that I had imagined while lying in bed, frustrated with the wide gap between my dreams and reality. No matter how good a writer I may be, I will never be as good as the writer I imagine I should be.
Or will I? I can’t say, because I haven’t been putting the time and effort in lately to get there. I think the seed of all evil that must be rooted out of a writer’s mind in order to achieve success (and avoid writer’s block) is the word ‘should’:
I should be more successful.
I should be published by now.
I should have more blog hits.
I should be more productive.
Nobody can shame you better than you. And we all tend to avoid the things that make us feel ashamed, such as returning to an abandoned novel when we feel like our writing should be better than it is.
I think we all ought to ban the word ‘should’, not only from writing but from every part of our lives. Shoulds bring all kinds of expectations with them, which inevitably leads to disappointment and shame. The question we must constantly ask ourselves when the word ‘should’ rears it’s ugly, soul-destroying head is, why should I? Why should I have to be more successful, have more blog hits, be more productive? The majority of the time, the answer will be some tangled knot of ego, expectations, self-doubt and fear. Nothing that will help you achieve what you truly desire for yourself.
Along with avoiding the ‘shoulds’, I think we need to maintain a sense of fun in our writing. If you find yourself taking a project too seriously, take a break for awhile. If I realize that my ego is beginning to bleed into the story – if I’m beginning to feel that my self-worth is becoming tied to the quality of my manuscript – then I definitely need to take a break.
From now on, I’m going to try to relax and forget about my expectations. I am a writer, but that’s not all that I am and my level of productivity doesn’t say anything about me as a person. I am toying with a new story, something light and fun inspired by my recent holiday to Prague, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to get back to writing. I don’t want to feel like it’s something I should do, but rather something I want to do. Hopefully if I can see writing as something fun again, without the attached baggage, my writer’s block will go away.
Have you ever experienced writer’s disappointment? What are your tricks for keeping writing fun?