The curse of the fearful writer.

Collection of letterpress blocks.

Writer’s block

Writer’s block is every writer’s worst nightmare and if you have a deadline fast approaching it can be a paralyzing experience. I didn’t even know that the term existed until I had a terrible encounter with it. I was attending a scriptwriting workshop. The workshop was a good experience, and it taught me the fundamentals of script writing for film, television and radio.

Each week I wrote scripts, and I had no difficulties with the story ideas we were given. But then came a day when I was not able to write even one sentence of the topic assigned to me. All I could do was stare at the blank sheet of paper on my desk. I felt like my thought process had stopped working or my thoughts had been drained of inspiration.

I have read about a somewhat similar experience in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a novel by George Orwell, in which the protagonist, Gordon Comstock, struggles to write a poem. I discussed my issue with one of my friends, who also happened to be a script writer. I asked her whether she had faced a similar experience in her life.

“Of course,” my friend replied, “I too get hit by writer’s block.”

After the conversation with my friend, I decided to do some research on the term “writer’s block”. While I was doing my research, I came across a book called The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice W Flaherty. In this book, Flaherty describes writer’s block as a “vicious cycle that has given many writers a literary equivalent of a heart attack.”

Gustave Flaubert, an influential French novelist and the author of Madame Bovary, described writer’s block to one of his friends as “to stay a whole day with your head in your hands, trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word.” Flaubert’s description captures the essence of writer’s block to me. It is like not having the words flow by as they used to from the lexicon of your memory.

The term writer’s block was coined in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler. Some like to call this condition creative inhibition, creative slowdown, and mental block. There are writers who do not believe in “writer’s block” and instead see it as simple procrastination. Comedy writer and novelist Kathy Lette calls writer’s block a “prison wing for authors who make too many puns – a punitentiary”. And then there are writers like Jeffery Archer, who have never experienced writer’s block at all. Interestingly, Jeffery Archer named his Majorca home “writer’s block”.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that writer’s block is indeed a valid condition. Famous writers have suffered from writer’s block at some point in their career: Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield.

Causes of Writer’s Block

In my case, it was the fear of failure, rejection, and fear of mediocrity that kept me away from writing. In short, fear was the main villain. Writing is a scary stuff, especially writing online.  When I am writing online, I am putting myself out there for the whole world to see and critics waiting to pounce, and this makes me feel more scared and vulnerable.

I had to publish my script online. I was worried about what people would say when I published it. I was worried about whether I would able to communicate my ideas clearly through my writing. Bottom line – I was scared. When I look back, I‘ve wasted a lot of time in my life because I was controlled by fear. I let fear hold me back from writing. But not anymore. I overcame the fear with a simple solution – just keep writing. As Hemingway once said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts. Don’t avoid it. It has all the energy. Don’t worry, no one ever died of it. You might cry or laugh but not die.”

Thanks to Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. I came across a TED Talk by Brene Brown, where she talks about how vulnerability can make us better writers. According to Brown, we are here to make connections, and it is those connections that give meaning and purpose to our lives. After listening to her inspirational talk, I realized that to connect with my audience, I have to be willing to be vulnerable. To experience connections, I have to put my ideas, thoughts, opinions and fears out there.

Tips to Overcome Writer’s Block

As professional writers, who write for a living, for whom writing is very much part of their existence, writer’s block can seem like a nightmare. But don’t get discouraged when it hits you. Here are some tips to get past writer’s block.

  1. Inversion Therapy: Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, takes a break every hour from writing to do push-ups and sit- ups and stretching exercises. To deal with writer’s block, he hangs or suspends himself upside down in his house each day either in gravity shoes or on an inversion table. This relaxation technique is better known as inversion therapy. According to experts, regular sessions of inversion therapy helps to improve concentration and memory by increasing the amount of blood that flows to the brain.
  1. Keep Writing: The only fail- proof way to overcome writer’s block is by writing. Write down anything that comes to your mind.  Maya Angelou, author of the acclaimed memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tries to write when she experience periods of writer’s block. “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,” said Angelou.
  1. Go for a Walk: In 2014, a study by Stanford researchers found that walking boosts or improves creative inspiration. The study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology shows that a person’s creativity increases by an average of 60 per cent when walking.
  1. Set up a Writing Routine: Have a defined time and place for writing and ideas will keep coming. Make sure you write something every single day. Many famous writers have writing routines to summon the creative muse.
  1. Freewrite: Write whatever comes to your mind. As James Thurber says “Don’t get it right, just get it written.”
Header image by Amador Loureiro.

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