The Four Different Kinds of Writer's Block--And What We Can Learn From Them

Last night, Joni and Colleen came to my fiction class and spoke about various aspects of the writing life, including the importance of setting up a schedule and actually writing. As is inevitable with such a discussion, there were those people who talked about having trouble getting started. This got me thinking about Mylene's earlier post about resistance to writing.

The problem with lumping all of our reluctance under the generic terms of "writer's block" or "writing resistance" is that if we don't know why we are resisting writing, we will find it difficult to break through. Writing resistance can happen at any stage of the process, and it usually happens for one of four main reasons:

1) The fear that the words will fail us. This is probably the most common reason, and is also known as the terror of the blank page. Mylene talked about this earlier when she talked about our fear of corrupting that perfect vision inside us, the realization that what we put on paper will never live up to that which is so beautiful inside our minds. I call this an internal fear. We are fighting against ourselves, fighting against an ideal that only we have created.

2) The fear that we won't connect with readers. We worry what we write won't be good enough to get published, won't find the right (or any) audience if it does get published, or will be badly reviewed. We worry that what we're writing won't be understood or be trivial and boring. We have internalized voices from outside ourselves, and we are too adept at listening to them. I was stuck here a long time, after years of hypercritical workshops. I got so good at listening to everyone else's voices I forgot to listen to my own.

3) The fear that our time will be better spent elsewhere. This also got me for a long time, and will be the subject of a later expanded post. For the longest time, I thought that because I was a Christian, that writing was selfish and not a wise use of my time. I was a steward, after all, of my resources, and what was I going to give to the world by sitting behind a desk? Shouldn't I be out there feeding the homeless, or leading worship in my church? Shouldn't I keep singing in the choir? To be honest, I still struggle with this one, and am working on figuring out how to continue to serve God in other ways, along with (rather than in spite of) my writing.

4) The fear that we will break open. In Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg says that in order to write fully and honestly, you must be "willing to break open." You have to be willing to tell the truth, no matter what genre you're writing in. Sometimes that truth is difficult. Sometimes it has the power to dismember. But in order to write what will most resonate with readers, we have to go there, to the heart of that which we are most afraid. Frankly, there are days I can't handle it. There are days when I wake up with my very mentally disturbed antagonist in my head, and just don't want to go with her. This happens less now than it did at first, when I was early in the writing and research process. Now I can listen to her with more compassion, having already broken open so many times. But sometimes what she tells me paralyzes me--because I don't know if I want to put something that dark out into the world.

I can remember my first writing sessions at Panera--I had to write there because I couldn't write alone--I would go into the bathroom stall and lay down on the floor if no one else was there and put my hand on my stomach and just breathe. I had to tell myself that I was okay, that this was my novel and not actually happening to me, but all the research I'd done put me there. It put me there so viscerally that I felt like I was actually experiencing it, and I had to do something to mediate the horror.

While most of us aren't writing books like that (and Lord help you if you are!), I still think #4 is the reason for the vast majority of writer's blocks. We may say it's #1 or even #2, but deep down, I think we know the truth. For most of us, it's that there's another level of depth beyond where we are already writing, but in order to access that depth, we have to be able to face the darkest parts of our characters and the inevitable darkness within ourselves.


blossoming said…
Kathryn, thanks for writing about this. I just read a short piece at a conference yesterday and a funny thing happened. Writing the piece had been a great relief to me when I was alone in my room - I said what needed to be said, and wrote the piece in the second person, very direct and upfront. But when I had to read my own words aloud to an audience "on the other side" of what I was writing about, I had to resist a strong impulse to edit as I read aloud, to soften the words so that my listeners would not break open with the harshness of what I was saying to people very much like them.

I think it's only because I never imagined I would be reading this piece aloud to my imagined audience that I was able to write so honestly. Maybe I should try this trick more often!

Pamala Knight said…
Kathryn, thanks so much for this insightful post. I found myself nodding throughout MANY of the descriptions which resonated with me.

At my chapter writing conference last week, I heard some inspirational words from both Julia Quinn and Cherry Adair that echo much of what you've written here. I'm setting up a schedule to edit what I've already written but also to get the new stuff out of my head an onto the page.

There's always a risk, right? But I'm going to take the plunge, learn what I can and do my best to crack my head open and let it spill out.

Thank you.
Mylène said…
I do battle with most of these on a weekly basis... and somehow manage to write anyway. Great post!
Sophia, I hear you about reading aloud to an audience. Much as I love reading aloud, I really think there are some pieces of writing that don't work well that way, because they ARE too challenging.

I found that out when I read the first chapter of my book downtown. The women were all on the edge of their seats, but the men visibly curled into themselves--I'd never had such a physical reaction from anyone, and it made me a little nauseous, like I'd done something wrong. Later I realized that the tension in that chapter is just so fraught that it really will depend on my audience whether I can read that particular chapter or not. If I ever read aloud from the book again, I may choose a much less taut passage.
I also think there are other kinds of writer's block; it's not just limited to these four. I sometimes still struggle with the "other things look like more fun" problem, which for me occurs when I haven't done sufficient prewriting, and thus need to think more about what I'm getting ready to write.
Suzan Harden said…
I'm sorry, Kathryn, but if you can lay down on the floor of a public restroom, you can do anything!

(Who's sitting in a coffee shop trying to focus on a piece about Texas concealed weapons law when she'd rather work on her new ghost short story.)
Well, the floors at that Panera are (usually) very clean. They do a great job! And I hear you on having to do the thing you don't want to do in order to get to the thing you do. For me today that's grading.
Dad said…
A Father speaks about writers block.
Since all six of our kids write in one way or the other I have asked them all to move to Helena, Montana.
We could buy houses on the same street and have our own Writers Block! What Think You Joni?
Joy said…
Excellent post!
TJ Bennett said…
Great post.

Writing, I've always said, isn't for wimps. It is the ultimate risk of exposure that scares most away; that inability to be first, honest with ourselves, and second, honest with others. But it's that honesty that attracts and holds readers. They recognize themselves and relate.

But it's scary. Scary good fun. :-)


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