frustrationStuck: How to Deal with Writer’s Block

I hated to even utter the word. I would not say it aloud. I couldn’t even write it down. I thought it, briefly, but in my one successful meditation moment, I let the word go. It would not overtake me. If I didn’t acknowledge it, it would leave me alone.

I don’t even want to write it now for fear that it will come grab me back into its tight grip. But here we go: STUCK. I was stuck. It’s something every writer goes through, and I had in the past but not to this paralyzing, I-want-to-quit magnitude.

In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says this about writer’s block: “Sometimes the process seems to require working yourself into a muddle and past the muddle to despair; until you have done this, it may be impossible suddenly to see what the shape of a thing ought to be. When you’re writing, this feels terrible. You sit spinning your wheels, digging deeper and deeper into the mental muck.” Mental muck. Yep. That’s what it was. She goes on to say that the despair can get so great you decide to trash whatever project you are working on and just walk away. I had that thought at one point. I remember walking up the stairs in my house and thinking how lovely it would be to give up writing. I could read a whole lot more. I could work with my dogs a whole lot more. I could do a whole lot more of anything. The thought didn’t last long, because let’s face it, I would be grumpy a whole lot more.

So I despaired for weeks. I listened calmly when I heard about a friend getting a haibun published in a prestigious journal. (No, I didn’t know what it was either until my poet friend explained it to me.) I congratulated another when she got the agent of her dreams. My friends’ successes were a huge reminder of how far away I was from agents and publications. The despair grew, and the road to completion became a valley in a canyon that I couldn’t access because my mule ran away.

I turned inward as I was taught to do. I was raised in the American tradition of rugged individualism. No need to share my problem because who wants to listen? I could figure this out on my own. Only, I couldn’t. Sometimes it really does take a village. So I started telling one person, then two. I reached out to a former instructor. I admitted I had a problem, and I spoke about it.

And you know what, just merely mentioning that I had a problem helped. My muse woke up. I wrote a scene about a moment between two characters that I wanted to explore. I met with my instructor. I talked. She listened. I now have solved my POV problem and am excited about the structure I see taking shape. I decided to stop obsessing over the paralyzing (to me) idea of outlining.

Because this will happen again, I’m going to get prepared. I’ve made a list of things I can do to not stay mired in the mental muck. It’s kind of like when you wake up in the middle of the night and you can’t get back to sleep and you have to get up early so you really need to sleep. But you can’t so you look at the clock again and again each time panicking when you realize how little of the night is left. It’s better not to look at the clock to avoid the panic. I’ve prepared a list to prevent me from looking at that clock.

  • Walk away from your project. Read a favorite book. Write in a diary or for a blog. Try not to obsess over not getting any writing done and enjoy the “free” time.
  • Write a scene that is interesting to you. Don’t worry if it belongs in the novel. I wrote a scene that takes place fifteen years before my novel starts. It got me back into the story and may never end up in the final draft.
  • Find one paragraph or one sentence you like from your current version (there has to be at least one thing you like) and put it on top of a blank page and see where it takes you.
  • Do research.
  • Talk to other writers. We’re full of ideas and have all been through this despair. It’s like a support group. When you realize you are not alone, the problem seems more solvable.
  • Take your dogs for walk — this is my solution to everything.
  • Finally, soldier on. The mental muck will clear eventually just like this snow (maybe) in the Northeast.
Showing 6 comments
  • Sara L.

    Yay! Glad to hear you’ve broken through the block, Kelly. And what’s even better is that you have a game plan – or, rather, a few possible game plans – for when it hits you again. In some ways, you’ve already beaten writer’s block before it’s struck again. 😉

    One thing I try to do to “prevent” writer’s block is to write non-sequentially or non-chronologically. Like with my WIP, which I had already outlined before actually writing it, I’ve been skipping around and working on whatever scenes were clearest in my mind at that time. That way, if a particular section was giving me trouble, I’d let it sit and go to a different part of the story. It’s worked out well for the most part – but it’s forced me to be very organized! I’ve kept a tracking sheet during the drafting process just so I don’t lose track of what I’ve already written and what still needs to be written. *lol*

  • Belle Brett

    I love all that self-revelation and honesty that comes out in these Dead Darlings pieces. Great suggestions for overcoming writers’ block, Kelly, and congratulations for moving beyond it. I don’t have any dogs, but I am sure I have my “walking the dogs” equivalent.

  • Rachel Brown

    Thanks Kelly — I have been experiencing this the last couple of weeks and it is really disheartening. You have some great ideas. (And yet another reason to get a dog …:))

  • Gerald B Whelan

    Thanks, Kelly. I’ve the same problem you describe so well as I’ve approached each new chapter of my revision. I’ve now (somehow) made it to chapter 35 (5 to go after this) and the one thing I’ve learned is: just accept it, because it’s panic, that’s all it is, that’s blocking the ideas. It’s part of my process. It makes me drag my feet, yes, take depressive, evasive naps, find flimsy excuses not to write but, yes, once I get that first paragraph down, somehow, SOMETHING continues to come out, which takes on a life of its own. Until finally, voila, that chapter is behind me & it’s time to panic again. Life is good, huh?

  • Lisa Birk

    Kelly and Commenters, I loved your piece and all the comments for the honesty and grit and resolve. And sharing of strategies. For me loosening my grip is the key. That’s when ideas arrive. Feels counter-intuitive and so hard to do when in the grip.

  • Kelly Robertson

    Thanks, all. I seem to be back on track these days. I have skipped around a bit and worked on those scenes that are compelling to me at the time like you suggest, Sara.

    I do highly recommend getting a dog! 🙂

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