Everyone who writes has experienced the dreaded writer’s block, when the words simply won’t come and the story won’t progress no matter how hard you try. It’s a common topic for discussion, and there are hundreds of tips out there for how to overcome writer’s block, but I’d like to posit a perspective that I’ve never seen in any of the articles or blog posts I’ve encountered. I believe that writer’s block is a positive thing.
Now, I don’t mean it’s good that I’m having trouble writing. But I don’t believe writer’s block is “just” trouble getting words on paper. I think it’s my mind’s way of getting my attention and telling me something isn’t right. And until I fix what’s gone wrong, it doesn’t matter how many tips and tricks I try for busting writer’s block: my mind will stubbornly refuse to keep producing words until I listen to what it’s trying to tell me.
In my experience, there are two messages my brain tries to deliver by means of shutting down the flow of words. First, and more obviously, “Take a break!” If I’ve been writing a great deal (or doing a lot of other creative output such as painting or sewing), I’ll hit a point where I still have ideas and still want to write, but my brain is too wrung out to produce anything worthwhile. If I keep trying anyway, my mind gets fed up with my refusal to rest and stops working to force me to take a break.
A lot of articles out there on beating writer’s block touch on this aspect and offer tips such as going for a walk, switching tasks for a while, taking a shower, etc. These are all valuable ways of taking a short rest, but sometimes (and this is a lesson I’m still struggling to accept) a short rest just isn’t enough. Sometimes I need to step away from my writing for a day, or a week, or even longer, before I’m recharged enough to jump back into the story. It’s easy to feel guilty about taking time away from writing, but I’ve found that any time I allow my mental energy instead of my sense of obligation to dictate how long I rest, I inevitably come back to my writing with an incredible amount of new energy and excitement, which leads to me getting far more done than I would have if I’d forced myself to keep slogging through despite exhaustion.
Secondly, my mind sometimes presents me with writer’s block as a way to alert me to a problem with the writing itself. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’m blithely working my way through a story and I suddenly lose momentum. I still have creative energy, I still want to write, but nothing I put on paper feels right, and eventually the words just grind to a stop. What’s happening here is that while my conscious attention is focused on the current chapter, some corner of my mind jumps ahead, considering future plot points and figuring out the repercussions of how I’m building a character arc — and sometimes I become subconsciously aware of a problem that I’m making worse with every sentence I write.
In this case, writer’s block is actually an extremely useful indicator that I need to take a step back, examine the big picture, and figure out where my writing has veered off course. Think of writer’s block like a headache: you can run through the gamut of tips and tricks and force yourself to keep moving forward, just like you can take some Ibuprofen and push through the rest of your day. But pain is the body’s way of communicating: maybe you have a headache because you’re sitting in a bad position and pulling something out of place in your back. And writer’s block is the subconscious mind’s way of communicating: maybe you can’t write because your plot beats aren’t arranged right and your character arc is going in the wrong direction.
So while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying quick tricks to break through a brief case of writer’s block, don’t be discouraged if it’s not that easy to get rid of. Remember that writer’s block isn’t necessarily a problem so much as it’s your mind trying to make you aware of a problem. Try reviewing your writing and looking for something that isn’t working as well as you thought it would. If revising your outline or your plan for the story doesn’t work, try giving yourself more of a break than the time it takes to walk the dog. And instead of focusing on getting rid of writer’s block, learn to translate writer’s block so you can get rid of the cause instead of just the symptom.