Some writers might look at that title and respond incredulously: “When isn’t writing hard?” But as I’m sure all writers everywhere can attest, there are times when writing is hard in the normal sense and times when it’s hard hard.
Often, the difficulty lies simply in the unwieldy story—and the need for an ever-evolving understanding and ability in order to manage it. According to my estimate, as much as 75% of what is referenced as “writer’s block” is really just “plot block.” Something in the storyform is out of balance and/or the story’s problem is temporarily outpacing the author’s skill level. With enough persistence, these plot blocks give way sooner than later—and usually with the reward of either a better story or, at least, a greater awareness in the writer.
But then there are the difficulties that fall under the heading of that other 25%. This is when the writing is hard in ways that aren’t so easy to bull our way through.
These are often deeper issues, arising from our life beyond the page. They might include illness (our own or someone else’s), exhaustion, stress, fear or other unresolved emotions, burnout, or any other number of things. Sometimes the cause seems to be something as simple (and vague) as a mood.
And it’s infuriating. Unlike with plot blocks, solving the problem isn’t always as simple as finding the right mental thread to pull. Sometimes, it’s a matter of putting things other than writing first for a while (and coming to peace with that). Other times, it’s a matter of using the writing difficulties to help us work through what’s really causing the block.
Writing Is Hard Right Now: My Story
Until recently, I’d never experienced that second type of writer’s block. Plot block, sure. But I’ve spent my creative life building a skill set that helps me efficiently and effectively deal with that. (Indeed, it’s not really an exaggeration to say “avoiding plot block” is the entire reason I write this blog!)
But real live life-induced writer’s block? Not so much.
However, as I mentioned in the podcast intro a couple weeks ago, I now find myself somewhat bemused to be experiencing a definite (if not quite definitive) case of writer’s block. I am objectively aware it’s not the end of the world. There’s a part of me that is genuinely rolling my eyes at and passing the coffee to the other part of me that is getting really grumpy. And as I say, it’s not definitive; I’m still writing; there are still words.
It’s just that the writing is hard right now. Harder than I ever remember it being. It’s hard in a different way.
Part of this surprises me, since I’ve been incredibly eager to start the outline for the third book in my Dreamlander trilogy. But on the other hand, it makes sense. I moved last year, so I’m in a new place, figuring out a new routine. There’s also some heavy family stuff that knocked me for a loop when it first arose a few weeks ago. Also thrown in there were several layers of personal growth that decided to peak all at the same time.
And… then there’s the story itself. This is my first attempt at a series, so even though this book will be my eleventh rodeo, it’s still brand new ground. This is the first time I’ve ever had to tie off a multi-book story arc in a single volume. I started Book 3’s outline with the realization that I’d generously bequeathed myself dozens of little plot blocks—ideas I’d set up in Book 2 with vague ideas of their payoff in Book 3, but not enough info (yet) about how to get there.
Anyway, altogether it’s made for a potent mix that is allowing me the opportunity to learn new things about myself as a writer and a person. Some of those lessons are the tactics that have inspired this post—tactics that have already helped me move forward positively both in working on my story and working past the difficulties.
7 Things You Can Try When Writing Is Hard
For me, realizing I am most definitely not the first author to experience the whole “writing is hard” thing has helped me draw on the compassionate (and incredibly tough) wisdom of the many authors whose legacies permeate my life.
Today, I want to, in turn, reach out to those of you who may currently be finding that your writing is hard (whether normal hard or hard hard). Here are a few practicable steps I hope will give you comfort and/or help you start moving toward a solution for your own unique writing challenges.
1. Just Admit the Writing Is Hard
In my experience as a writing mentor, I find writers tend to have two different kinds of relationships with writer’s block. The first kind uses writing difficulties as a comfy excuse to embrace the drama:
“Woe is me! I simply can’t write! I have WRITER’S BLOCK!!!”
The second approach, however, denies there’s any problem at all:
“I can’t have writer’s block! I never get writer’s block!! I don’t believe in writer’s block!!!”
That was me for a while there. And then it was like:
“Wow, I have writer’s block…”
My first step was accepting that the difficulties I was facing on the page weren’t just plot blocks, but something bigger. That knowledge then provided me what is always the foundational key to problem-solving: correctly identifying the problem.
How did I know I was facing down something bigger than just your normal, ordinary, everyday, garden-variety plot block? Because the normal solutions to plot block (asking plot questions and looking for the right “thread” to pull) weren’t getting me anywhere. I was scribbling furiously; I just wasn’t advancing.
2. Identify the Cause
I suppose it’s possible serious writer’s block could be caused by a single issue (e.g., the death of a loved one). But for most of us, it’s a condition arising out of a unique cocktail of convergences. For me, the catalyst was a shaken-not-stirred mix of diverse ingredients that included everything from January ennui to unprecedented storytelling challenges to exhaustion/recovery from a big move last year to stressful current events—and more.
Most of these things, I had no control over and little to no recourse for “fixing.” Winter’s gonna end when winter’s gonna end. My emotional processing of life events is gonna take as long as it’s gonna take. Other people are gonna do what other people are gonna do.
After accepting that, I dialed in on the causes I could do something about. First, I figured out what I believed were my main problems:
a) Having a hard time sticking with a daily writing routine.
b) Struggling with ideas that just weren’t flowing.
From there, I started implementing strategies to see if I could unblock the dam.
3. Take Care of Yourself Before You Take Care of Your Writing
A truth that has become increasingly clear to me is that art and life are synergistic. If I’m not taking care of myself on basic personal levels—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually—then my creative pursuits will necessarily suffer. In the artistic life, discipline extends far beyond the desk.
Since I knew many of the reasons for my writer’s block had nothing to do with the actual writing, my initial strategies also had little to do with writing. For starters, I completely restructured my daily schedule in recognition of the fact that I’m slowest in the mornings, with my motivation consistently climbing throughout the day.
Another thing I did was set my phone to “Do Not Disturb.” This allowed me to check it in between projects, rather than taking the risk that my focus and energy would be disrupted in the middle of flow.
4. Trust the Process
So there I was, sitting with pen in hand, scribbling along, face scrunched in determination—and it’s just not working. No matter what question I asked myself, I couldn’t find the right answer. No matter what idea I tried to chase, it never seemed to be the one that set my imagination on fire.
While this was happening, the one thought that kept me grounded was: Trust the process.
I would take a deep breath and return to the basics that, by now, are second nature. On my iPad, I would open up Helping Writers Become Authors and review my own posts—every one of them inspired by some challenge I had faced on a previous story. I would remember the specific steps I needed to take:
- Ask “what if” questions.
- Identify your characters’ thematic Truths.
- Find the antagonist’s motive and goal.
- Look for the structural plot points.
None of these things “cured” my writer’s block. But like familiar road signs popping into view on a snowy night, they kept me grounded, reminding me I knew where I was going because I’d been here before.
The process never fails me. If I stick with it, it will see me through.
5. Go Back to Basics: Daydreaming and Dreamzoning
Even though my writing process is built around intensive causal outlining, I don’t “make up stories.” I will sit down and brainstorm things that need to happen to move a story from Point A to Point B, but I never “create” the A and the B. They come me—spontaneous gifts from my subconscious imagination.
And that, I realized, was one of the reasons I just couldn’t move forward with this outline. I didn’t have enough “As” and “Bs” yet. I knew the bare bones of what needed to happen. But I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t feel it.
So I went back to basics. For me, the hotline to my imagination is what I call “dreamzoning” (a term I got from Robert Olen Butler’s excellent From Where You Dream). Basically, this is just intensified daydreaming. I’ll put on an appropriate playlist in the background, use something mindless but moving as a visual focal point (firelight is perfect, though a lava lamp isn’t bad either), and then just sit back and watch the show. I realized the other night that, really, it’s an almost meditative exercise. I’m trying to zone out of my surroundings and go deep into my head, dreaming vivid visual dreams fraught with emotional consequence.
All I get are snippets, flashes, photographs, and sometimes slow-mo movies. But these are the seedlings of my stories. If I gather enough, the story will write itself. Buh-bye, writer’s block. And in the meantime, spending my writing sessions chilling with a candle and some tunes is both productive and seriously low-stress.
6. Find the Right (Guilt-Free) Routine
Ironically, writer’s block often seems to come with a fair-sized dose of guilt. We can’t write, and yet we self-flagellate because we should be writing.
Depending on the root cause making our writing so hard for the moment, the best choice might be giving ourselves permission to not write for a while (as I am—more or less—by allowing myself to focus solely on “dreamzoning” for a while). Other times, just tweaking a writing routine or schedule can do wonders.
Once I realized that outside drama and other factors were wreaking havoc with my ability to stay focused during a morning or afternoon writing session, I switched things around. I moved my writing session to the evening, when my energy is always most reliable. This gave me the ability to once again consistently show up for writing time—which removed the useless poison of guilt from my already complicated cocktail of problematic catalysts.
7. Inhale Information and Inspiration
Often, writer’s block is simply the result of an empty well. As I discovered in #5, above, if I have no inspiration, how can I honestly expect myself to have anything to write about?
This goes for more than just imaginative bursts. It also goes for information—of all sorts. Any story is ultimately a reconstruction of things the writer has either experienced or learned. If you find yourself with nothing to write about, it could be as simple as that: you have nothing to write about.
Start filling your well. If you haven’t been reading faithfully, start a daily routine. If you’ve been reading the same type of thing for years, try something new. Get out. Do new things. Watch new movies. Listen to new songs. Go to a museum. Fill your inner eye with wonders.
And read about writing. My success last year with a host of amazing writing-related books has prompted me to make sure I read something powerful and inspiring about writing, or art in general, every single day.
Writing is hard for everyone. Some days are harder for some of us than for others. But the wheel keeps on rolling, and we all get our turn sooner than later. I feel certain that when it is time for me to return to the page, after a couple weeks of dreamzoning, I will find most of my challenges fulfilled. If not, I know further solutions will await me as long as I seek them with patience and discipline. In the meantime, I offer my encouragement to those of you who might be experiencing a similar trial, and I am thankful we get to walk together on this road—in all its many terrains and weathers!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s the first thing you do when your writing is hard? Tell me in the comments!
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